The Future of Reading…and Everything Else

James Scott Bell

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t. – Mark Twain

Twain’s words remind me of one of the formative movies of my youth, The Time Machine. In this version of the H. G. Wells story, the narrator (Wells himself, played by Rod Taylor) goes far into the future where he discovers the Eloi. They are placid people, living without passion or curiosity–and therefore powerless victims of the Morlocks, who reside underground.

What disgusts Wells is the discovery that the Eloi have given up reading. Their books have crumbled into dust. They have no repository of collective knowledge, except in a museum they don’t frequent.

Thousands of years of building up civilization, gone! So that they can become what they are, virtually mindless beings who spend their days seeking pleasure (only to be enslaved, and eventually eaten, by the Morlocks)

In an essay in the L.A. Times entitled “The Lost Art of Reading,” Times book editor David L. Ulin reflects on the increasing difficulty people are having focusing on, and “inhabiting,” the world of a book:

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”

We know this to be true. With a smartphone and/or an iPad or iTouch, or any other similar item to come down the pike, one never has to face a moment of silence or contemplation again.

So what does this portend for the future of reading? And writing long form narrative fiction? What, in fact, does it portend for the future, period?

I’m asking you. What do you think?

17 thoughts on “The Future of Reading…and Everything Else

  1. I don’t tweet or facebook. I’ve never owned an Ipod, an Ipad or even an MP3 Player (or maybe those things are one and the same for all I know). In fact, I still haven’t made the move from 35 mm to digital cameras (but there’s hope, I have long since transitioned from audio cassette to CD and from typewriter to computer) 😎

    As a writer I don’t know what the experts say about the future. I can’t help but sometimes feel we’re dumbing ourselves down.

    But I’m going to trust that there will be enough authors out there writing good meat-on-the-bones fiction to satisfy this old geezer’s need to read. 😎

  2. I really don’t think there’s much to worry about. A few years ago, people were afraid the computer would put everyone out of work. Today, they’re afraid it will put an end to reading. Wait a few years and it will be something else. There are a lot of readers out there and there will continue to be. People have a thirst for stories. Yes, they are getting some of that through blogs and Facebook and other things (remember the fear that people would stop talking to each other?), but there’s just something about a good book that causes it to stand out from all the rest.

  3. I second Timothy’s comment. I think the need to experience an interesting story goes back to the days of our caveman ancestors sitting around the campfire. It’s in our DNA. The need will never go away, but the vehicle by which a story is told–just like it has in the past–is subject to change, improvement or replacement. Frankly, I don’t care whether it’s a book, PC, smartphone, or some future technique of mind-transfer, as long as there’s the need for stories, there will be the need for storytellers.

  4. I really don’t think people are dumbing down. Our local library is busier than it has been in years.
    I deal with children on a regular basis and find they are exceptional–each group appears brighter than the last. More kids are asking me for books. (age 3 to college age inner city).
    It used to be the only people I could discuss a book with were my family and the library book group. Now it’s people on buses and in restaurants at the pool–just about everywhere.
    Just don’t see the dumbing down at all.
    Giggles and Guns

  5. I’m not too worried, either, and am also impressed about how busy the local library is almost every time I’m there.
    I’m actually hoping that the development of e-books will mean more people having access to our work, not less. 24-hour access to our novels no matter where people are. I like that idea!

  6. Due to budget cuts libraries are closing all over Charlotte, and there’s a 17 million dollar shortfall and it will get worse. That is cause for worry. As we’ve said good stories have to be told and people will always read them or listen to them. I’m not too horribly worried about us having to tell stories to the trees. The end of paper books may be in the future, but no matter how media changes, the stories will always be in demand. Films were once heralded as the book killer, but that didn’t happen. Things are cyclic and things change. Some things however never do and storytelling will always have delivery systems.

  7. I waver on whether the future of literacy is sliding downward. The electronic age seems to have shortened everyone’s attention span and modified our language to text-type shorthand. On the other hand, I do see signs of hope.

    In my little corner of the world—a rural community in the Pacific Northwest—I enjoy visiting my daughter’s elementary school on parents night. Especially the night they open the library and invite kids to come in to buy books at a reduced rate. Every year I smile as kids scramble to be the first into the library to select a book. As I wander through the bookshelves, I’m encouraged to see a number of well-used classics as well as contemporary Harry Potter-type books. It is evident these books are very popular according the librarian’s records. YA titles increasing in number each year is another sign that we can have hope for the future.

    I don’t trust statistics. A recent Wall Street article warned about the misuse of stats to prove or disprove literary in our country. These figures become meaningless in the hands of political manipulators. I don’t know what it is like in other parts of the U.S., but in our corner of the world I see hope among our young.

    So get out there and read to our youth every chance you get. They love a good story. And authors—continue to producing quality writing for all ages. They will come.

  8. Mark, you may not trust statistics, but let me tell you that it’s a fact that 3 out of 4 people make up 75% of the population. If they read books, let’s keep them happy with more.

  9. RE: Busy libraries: I haven’t read stats or surveys on libraries, & I concur that based on my local library it is indeed busy–but they are not busy reading books. They are busy queing up for their turn in front of one of the computers.

  10. I’m sticking to the glass half-full attitude: all of these various gadgets can potentially make it easier, and cheaper, for books to be distributed and enjoyed. Which hopefully translates to more readers. I do wonder if the potential for interactivity will change the reading experience, but even if that does transpire I suspect we’re at least a generation away from it.

    And from an author’s perspective, backlist titles are easier for people to access than they’ve ever been. My electronic sales of books that are no longer readily available on the shelves have bumped up with every royalty statement.

  11. Interesting post. I’ve thought about this some and I’m inclined to believe a little bit of what everyone has said here already! Yeah a cop out I know, but I do. I think there will be those of us, like myself, that will enjoy picking up a printed book and reading that way, others that use some electronic format and people that just don’t ready (my brother reads very little and is educated). What I wonder about e-readers and the likes is if reading is being associated a gimic/toy/etc. I think the next few years will be very interesting for reading/readers and the publishing industry (formats and such).


  12. It seems like things are going both ways right now. My little nieces all have their phones and they text message, tweet, and facebook. I have to keep explaining to them that Aunt Penny understands better if they actually use words (I think that text messaging may be the fall of civilization if it continues en masse). The best hope I have is that they are all strong readers and a couple are budding story tellers.

    I just got an e-reader last weekend. I never thought I would want to give up “real” books, but I am loving it so far. The prices for books has put them out of the average persons’ pricing. I was hoping that e-books would make things more accessible for reasonable costs, but considering the cost to the publishers is next to nothing, they still seem to be charging the same or more for e-books. Now, books do have value. I write, I want them to have value, but are they going to become rare air for the elite, like plays, and symphony? They may if we’re not careful and again with text messaging and the English language…ugggh.

  13. I read online somewhere – probably by Marc Prensky – who said that history will record the 20th century as the aberration, not the rule, when it came to human communication. Before the advent of electriciy, television, radio, computers, internet, etc. humans naturally spent time with one another and talked deeply. Only now are we seeing the promise of technology to change our way of life and improve it come to a basic fruition. People are beginning to recognize many activities as time-wasters and to focus on the things that matter like keeping in contact with loved ones. I think it required waiting for a generation to grow up with the technology in order to figure out how best to use it – and to have the numbers in place to do so since communication is a social activity. I can honestly say I see the future in this regard as heading in the right direction once again.

    Re: Mark Young

    To bring the discussion full circle, Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I think this falls into the latter.

    Re: Chaco Kid

    Don’t worry about the text messages so much either. Students who are properly schooled know how to spell and write in formal settings. It’s just that they know the world of text messaging is informal. When they know that their best friend will understand what they text, why should they “waste time” typing it more formally? Speed still matters, but ultimately it has become a function of clarity and not the other way around. We actually have to teach it this way in one of my classes and the students have no real trouble grasping the concept of appropriateness.

  14. Just keep writing. Don’t give into the fear of the unknown, or the doom of the end of the world. No one knows when that will be or what it will look like. The need to create and to share our creations will never die.

  15. I’m with Michelle and the other half fullers.

    It’s all cycles. Language changes. Look at any example of Elizabethan spelling, spacing, and punctuation. Or Revolutionary period cross hatching. Things in the language have codified since. Perhaps electronic forms are breaking down how we spell or transmit, but Shakespeare was still Shakespeare despite the spelling variations in his work.

    Literacy too, is higher than ever. The audience for our stories is greater than it’s ever been, as are the number of books sold. The numbers in a bestselling print run in Faulkner’s day would cause a bestselling author today to retire.

    While I don’t think we’ll see the networked issue retreat, I do think we’ll have always have a place as storytellers, and the current trend of putting every little thing online at every moment will die down. Remember when you got your first cell phone? You used it constantly, to call anyone, anytime, because you were so excited that you could. And now? You’ve probably backed off that a bit.

    I don’t think good stories and books will ever go away. We might all find ourselves writing serially and distributing our work in smaller chunks of content, but storytellers will always have a place in the world.

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