Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bye-bye, novel

Once again, someone decides to spread stories of gloom and doom about the future of the written word. This time, it's Philip Roth, who despite thinking that 25 years down the line there won't be any more novels, insists on writing them. Roth suggests that screens will replace reading, no matter how hard eReaders try to spice it up.
The author believes that the concentration and focus required to read a novel is becoming less and less prevalent, as potential readers turn instead to computers or to television. "I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it's going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range,"
Okay, Mr Roth. Let's go through these sentiments and shoot them down one by one.

1. Film as a form of entertainment has existed for almost 100 years. In these 100 years, literacy rates have risen. Yes, obviously part of the reason they've risen is because education standards have gone up along with technological advancements, but with this rise has come the concept of the mass-market book. People didn't stop reading because they could go to the movies; why should that happen today? What's changed?

2. The computer as a popular form of entertainment has been around for about fifteen years. Now, this may seem like hardly any time but in today's culture, things change quickly and decisively. Look how long it took eReaders to become normal. If the computer was going to eliminate the novel, wouldn't it be showing significantly by now? If anything, the computer has helped many people learn about literature, access certain books, and has made book-buying a much simpler thing.

3. Behold. This is an online journal that talks about books (and only books). Including novels. This "cult" of readers is massive - there are hundreds (thousands?) of books bloggers currently active, tens of thousands of Facebook users join book/reading related groups, hundreds of thousands of people write reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing, and many more elsewhere. Are these large numbers just part of a "small group"? The number of people that read Latin poetry is... er... I have no idea. Maybe the reason people don't read Latin poetry is because nobody speaks Latin fluently. It's a dead language, remember? And how to define "a small group of people"? But let's assume for a moment that reading really is in decline. How in decline will it get? Do I, child of the internet, substitute reading literature with time spent on the computer? Absolutely not. Do I watch television for the same reasons I read? Even less so.

Mr Roth is basically saying (as others have before him) that the written word is dying and will be something so minute that it'll turn cult-like. I vehemently disagree. Literary phenomena like "Harry Potter", "Twilight", Dan Brown and others may incite his (and others) wrath (quality drop, blah blah) but there they are. Millions of people around the world continue to buy books. Millions of these will still be alive in 25 years. Still be reading novels. Still be teaching their children to love and appreciate the written word. There may be many things to be frightened of with the future of books, but that they won't exist globally in the coming years is not one of them. Is Roth simply concerned about his own name in history? Don't worry, sir, your novel legacy is good so far.


  1. I definitely agree with you on this one. I'm one of the more internet-dependent/obsessed people I know, and I read loads of books because the experience is totally different. I do think there's an inaccurate belief that reading things on the internet is always a waste of time (sure, browsing forums and watching silly videos may be just for unwinding, but I've learned a lot of real, useful knowledge online, and not just via school research.) However, most things on the internet aren't attempting to do the same things books are doing, novels in particular.

    Also, as a new college student, several of my friends here are very enthusiastic English majors, so clearly some young people are still very into books...

  2. I don't know if this is the best analogy, but many studies show that people who download music illegally also spend the most money on CD's. It seems to me like the INTERNET isn't going to take over our "reading time" but rather encourage us to read more and more. Things are still in the process of being figured out right now, in terms of how the internet is becoming a part of(/taking over) our lives, but I completely agree that in no way will the big-bad-internet replace our love of books with a love of screens.

  3. I think Roth's opinion is typical of people of his generation. Look at younger readers, and you'll see they read longer books and a wider variety of media, including manga and online fan fiction.

    Is it possible for illiterates to *use* the Internet? It seems to me that MySpace, Facebook, and even YouTube require at least basic reading and typing skills in order to post comments. Even googling for pictures of "naked fat ladies" requires basic literacy.

    The Internet promotes literacy, partly because it displaces TV for younger people and partly because interacting with it becomes more interesting the more you write, much less the more you read.

  4. I don't find Roth convincing at all either. I think it's impossible for any of us to tell what will happen in the future generally and with the novel in particular -- I think we should all be prepared for some surprises. Obviously the novel is going to change (because it has its whole life), but we have no idea how.

  5. Your point about book bloggers is spot on. The internet concentrates and elevates hobbyists of all kinds -- bibliophiles, jazz lp collectors, gear heads, whatever. These on-line "communities" keep up the level of interest.


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