21st Century Storytelling

Does anyone in Richmond own a Kindle? Does anyone in Richmond know anyone — anywhere — who has an Amazon Kindle?

Offhand, I can only think of Stephen King, who has written about the new version of Amazon’s e-book reader for Entertainment Weekly, and the author of this article from the Wall Street Journal, who makes some predictions that really don’t sound that far off to me. (On the other hand, writer Stephen Johnson notes “the breakthrough success of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader.” I don’t think the Kindle has had any sort of breakthrough success — yet — and that claim may be a little bit of hyperbole half-remembered from an Amazon press release.)

I ask because I have seen or read absolutely no evidence that the e-book has yet taken off. If successful, the Kindle and other e-readers will eventually offer some true competition to books. And, really, what is a book without paper and binding? What we’ll eventually be downloading will be, more properly termed, novels and nonfiction works. A real book, on the other hand, will still sit alone in your library, having tangible existence, and will not disappear when the batteries run out.

The things Johnson predicts in his WSJ piece may come true, but one way that every e-book cannot help but fail is with that physical presence; for there is nothing that can replace the feel of a good book in your hands while you’re reading it. Yes, it’s a highly romantic concept, to say the least — but I believe the look and feel of a book can also indirectly affect the feelings of a reader. I never would have bought the first Harry Potter book if I hadn’t seen it on the shelf, with adult books, and then picked it up out of curiosity. I instantly felt its weight in my hands — heavier than usual — felt the graininess of the dust jacket underneath my fingertips, and I knew that it was a real book; and when I started reading it that night and could not put it down, I was proved correct. Notice that all the other Harry Potter books used the same grainy stock for their dust jackets, and the interior paper stock was identical to the first book’s. That was a deliberate and genius decision on the part of the publisher: to repeat the same book magic with the sequels.

Issac Asimov, back in 1973, wrote an essay about a four-day series of seminars on communications and society he attended in late 1972. On the first day, he was in the audience when a speaker introduced the concept of video cassettes, the “communications wave of the future” that would “please specialized tastes” and offer stories, instructions, documentaries . . . in short, whatever the viewer wanted.

A few days later, Asimov was approached when another speaker had to cancel, and was asked to speak in his place. Asimov’s essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (first published in the January 1973 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and later reprinted in Asimov on Science, Doubleday, 1989), is perhaps his most remembered nonfiction piece. In the essay — and in the hastily-written speech that preceded it — he predicted the ultimate video cassette: small, light, “completely mobile and self-contained . . . seen and heard only by you . . . controls operated, as far as possible, by the will.”

The next question is: How many years will we have to wait for such a deliriously perfect cassette?

I have that answer too, and quite a definite one. We will have it in minus five thousand years — because what I have been describing (as perhaps you have guessed) is the book!

Today, less than two percent of the American public reads more than one book a year. As Asimov explained in his essay (at that time percentage was less than one percent!):

. . . many more people watch television than read books, but that is not new. Books were always a minority activity. Few people read books before television, and before radio, and before anything you care to name. . . .

The book may be ancient but it is also the ultimate, and readers will never be seduced away from it. They will remain a minority, but they will remain.

Books will not be replaced by e-readers; people love them too much. Perhaps “disposable” information, such as magazines and newspapers, which are dependent on publication dates and schedules, will convert more readily to electronic reading. But novels, and long works of nonfiction, will be published in hardcover and paperback, for a long time to come.

That’s the real secret of books.

They’re magic.

If he’s that smart, why was he a shill for Radio Shack?

The printed word will not be replaced or grow less important (but then the printed word has always been the refuge of a small minority — few Americans read as many as on complete book a year), but it will be supplemented.

For instance, a newspaper is still superior as a transmitter of news, by a nearly infinite margin, to the average television news broadcast (which is usually a reading of those headlines that lend themselves to image-illustration), but who says that a newspaper must be printed on a forest of woodpulp and delivered in pound-lots to individuals?

It can be transmitted by screen in a fashion so controlled that it can be skimmed, or halted for closer reading, with particularly interesting items — the financial page, for instance, the sports page, the comic page, a certain news story — printed off on demand.

Again, there is a democratization. you get exactly what you want, not everything that everybody wants.

Issac Asimov, writer, editor or co-editor of more than 500 books, was not only prolific, but he was a visionary. His description of the newspaper of the future absolutely nails the online concept of the newspaper — and it was written in 1972.*

Newspapers rushed into building online components fifteen or so years ago, when the Internet took off under the World Wide Web aegis, thus capturing the imagination of America. They did so under an enormous burden: they HAD to enter the Internet marketplace immediately, because, if they didn’t, they knew they’d get left behind by entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Here it is the 21st Century, and newspapers still don’t know how to make money on the Internet — or even if they can. Most online advertising does not work for the advertisers, and readers demand too much autonomy over what they read and access. And it exactly those entrepreneurs and visionaries papers had to beat who have now beaten them, with unique news websites that do more than simply import a static print experience to the interactive world of cyberspace.

It’s not just the democratization of news that is killing newspapers; it’s audience fragmentation combined with the unintended consequences of catastrophically inept management. A friend in the publishing business, upon hearing of the most recent mass firings at the Times-Dispatch, emailed me: “Short sighted, short-term optimization is brand destruction.”

And he’s right. Whether it’s a deliberate act of corporate suicide or not, it amounts to the same thing: the death of the metropolitan newspaper.

They should have been reading Asimov.

* Asimov’s essay, “Person to Person,” was published in the December 1972 issue of Lifestyle. It was retitled “The Ultimate in Communication” and reprinted in his 1983 collection of essays, The Roving Mind, published by Prometheus Books.