Thursday, January 28, 2010

Railway reconnaisance

by Jessica

I have what sometimes seems an interminable commute to work. The upside, is, of course, the amount of work I can accomplish, and the opportunity to observe the reading habits of those around me. In the course of my investigations, I have made the following unscientific observations: 1) shortly before the holidays, a well-coiffed lady carrying an expensive shoulder bag could usually be counted on to pull from it a hardcover copy of The Help; 2) People react suspiciously when you make too obvious an effort to see what they are reading; and 3) the presence of wi-fi is inimical to books.

I saw this first when I was in Boston; unlike the trains upon which I rely, Boston’s regional rail line is wired, and as a result, I saw precisely no one reading. No books, no newspapers, nothing. All those not thumbing blackberries and tapping iPhones were typing furiously on their laptops. True, these were commuting hours, but if the (still) employed aren’t buying books, we’re all in trouble. I concede, as Lauren pointed out, that it’s possible that some of the iPhoners were in fact reading, but peering at someone’s handheld device represents a level of nosiness that is perhaps pathological and certainly dangerous . In Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, where Wi-fi emanates from a handful of restaurants, people cluster together, cozy and anonymous, jostling to be within range of the signal, attending to the urgent business that the internet both facilitates and creates. And I’m as bad as anyone; while traveling I have been known to hold my computer aloft, Geiger-counter style, hoping to pick up some frisson of connectivity. Still, once I started paying attention, it has become increasingly clear (and forgive me for stating the obvious) that leisure time is finite, and as far as my commute is concerned, the pc trumps the paperback. I fly the friendly skies less frequently these days, but it seems to me that the wholesale installation of wi-fi on airplanes would eviscerate the airport read. A publishing colleague told me that the only folks pleased by the prospective ban on all electronic devices on airplanes were booksellers.

The trend I have noted anecdotally among adults has been better and more thoroughly investigated in young people. On January 20, the Kaiser Foundation released its study about media use among children and teens.

I’m not surprised that media use is up dramatically in the last five years—five years in which Facebook, YouTube, texting, etc. were more or less invented. It’s to the good then, that publishing and tech companies are scrambling to figure out how to carve a space for reading in the crowded virtual world. And it’s great that the Kindle or the iPad and the unnamed devices still to come can summon books from the air. (I find this very, very cool.) But even so, the decision to read a book, and not, say, tweet, or check in on all 462 of your closest friends, or even finish up that spreadsheet for the meeting on Friday, is a choice. One that we cannot lose the habit of making.


  1. I used to take the train to work (into 30th Street Station, incidentally), and I LOVED that I could read during my commute. I drive now (and have thus switched to audio books, which are awesome but slow down my reading speed considerably), but if I were still taking the train and had my cute little netbook and a wireless connection.... I'd feel obligated to USE the time for something more "productive" than reading.

    But I would so mourn the loss of my only relaxation time! Anytime I had to choose between Internet and books for fun, I'd choose books, hands down. Glad I don't have that decision to make.

  2. Books here, too. There are few things better to me than cracking a good book on an airplane.

    I've been watching my own kids closely on the issue of computer vs. books. When given a choice, the girl almost always chooses the books, while the boy almost always chooses the computer. My dh and I have to work hard to make sure books are more important!

  3. I'm no futurist but I can't help but wonder if we aren't seeing the beginnng of the end of fiction reading as we know it today. As you pointed out there are so many other ways a person can go in the web beside reading a fiction book. Perhaps fiction will morph into something perhaps more interactive akin, perhaps, to video games?

  4. How sad it is that reading a fiction book is considered unproductive. It hits me too, I feel guilty if I steal a few minutes to read, when I should be doing something else, something important. And it's true, I don't feel so guilty if I am reading nonfiction related to my life.
    We push our children to read but will they ever really use it to read books? To read for pleasure, or will the very idea be extinct by the time they are adults?
    sniff, sniff

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  6. can't imagine that the novel will vanish--must be some sort of Darwinian adaptation that makes it impossible for me to even contemplate. And storytelling has been a part of human history even before history existed. So we can't abandon it wholesale. That said, I do think that the siren song of other diversions--on-line or off--is strong. However, the fact that reading feels like an illicit pleasure might actually be good thing. I feel wickedly indulgent when I'm reading for fun--and perhaps the fact that diving into a novel is a delicious treat, even a guilt-inducing one--invests it with all the more power.


  7. The novel won't vanish, it just has to find its niche or niches in the entertainment ecosystem.

    The irony is that publishers are doing exactly what they say they fear consumers might do - being mesmerized by the flashy gadgets. Their business model seems to be 'kids will pay to read it on their ereader!', they're not asking why on earth kids would do something so stupid.

    The novel is the perfect delivery system for the traditional novel. A paperback is cheap and has infinite battery life. Crucially, it's still far cheaper to buy a book than pirate it.

    And it's not like everyone's helplessly addicted to literary fiction or even book buying now.

  8. The novel doesn't need to find a "niche in the entertainment ecosystem," because the novel still IS the entertainment ecosystem.

    As Jessica points out, the novel is story-telling, and story-telling dies only with the end of humanity. A previous post suggested a video game form of the novel, which while frightening, is actually benign. Because these types of media evolutions are often merely revolutions of the artistic cycle.

    It amazes me how we, as consumers, carousel. We watch reality TV, reject fiction, then complain that the reality has become unfulfilling. So, producers fabricate to suit our needs. We recognize the "reality" as superficial. We predict that the "characters" and "situations" (do not read as "The Situation," fist-pumping, beat beating 15 minute mega-star and fellow Jerseyian), are fabricated, but we fail to recognize that by consuming it anyway, often happily, we return to fiction. Welcome home American TV Viewer. Now watch Lost.

    Just as boredom will reer its ugly head above the crest of unplayed Wii games and unopened Netflix enevelopes, so too will the American public ultimately return to stories over e-mail and Twitter during down-time. I have 800 Facebook friends, and they all bore me. Never in our history has an ex-boy/girlfriend held such little intrigue. What happens when the magic's gone. We'll turn to stories, and the best ones will be found in literature.

    As sure as my boys, poised on a mountain top of freshly-purchased toys, will return to simply punching one too will story-telling, our most primitive artform, remain as humanity's most instinctive choice. When things get too rough, I just separate the boys, sit them down and read them a story. I use a book

  9. 'the novel still IS the entertainment ecosystem'.

    No. But there's still theater, even though there's cinema; there's still cinema even though there's TV.

    The novel is, as you say, one really good way to tell stories. It's not going anywhere. The secret to survival is that it serves a purpose, offers something that another medium doesn't, represents good value for money - or at least a good return on risk. Novels are astonishingly good at this already.

    The 'dead tree' version of a novel still has far more advantages over an ebook. The economics of this will change once everyone has an ereader. Psychologically, I prefer a thing in my hand to the nominal right to some digital information - but I'm old-fashioned now, and when we're all downloading all our movies and music, it'll feel much more natural to download our books, too.

    The fact is we don't know all the advantages of ebooks, yet. Macmillan and Apple want to ossify the current system, hardware, pricing and all. The trick is going to be to sit back and let readers find their own reasons to use ebooks, just as the mobile phone companies made their money when they sat back and let the users decide for themselves what they'd pay to use.

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  11. I think we are arguing the same point, mr. or ms. anonymous. I agree on almost all accounts, except your adamant "no" to my assertion that the novel IS entertainment.

    Your example proves my point.

    Yes, there is theater despite cinema, and so on and so forth...forever and ever and ever. And THAT was my point. All of those things you mentioned are, at their basis, forms of story-telling. Story-telling that is uniquely packaged and distributed to reflect the abiltiies and sensibilities of its age. Firelight shadows on the wall share much more in common with Blu Ray discs than we care to acknowledge. Story-telling IS still the foundation of entertainment. It is the backbone of squandered moments. Alongside sport, it is the heavyweight champion of leisure time. So, it IS entertainment. Yes.

    And no, the medium used to dessiminate it isn't quite as important as we pretend it is. Somewhere in 2400 BC Egypt, the traveling story-tellers union and the stone masons freaked out at a press conference held for the unveiling of Papyrus 2.0. They soothsaid an end to literature, because surely no one could REALLY read on their own...let alone on wood. They thrashed about. They went home and blogged on their walls about it. But literature itself, in the end, only flourished.