Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Future of the Book

Last week I enjoyed one of the treats of being a published writer. My local bookstore, which I have patronized since it opened in 1967, held a reading and signing for me. Even though it was a small group, I still felt some anxiety about what to read and how to discuss my newest book, Under the Eye of Kali, but deeply pleased that I had a new book and could talk about it to others.

Near the end of the evening, two other writers and I got into a discussion of publishing on Kindle and self-publishing (not the same thing, but easy to conflate). I haven’t tried Kindle yet, and sometimes I think about it for my earlier books that are out of print, but I am very reluctant to resort to self-publishing in any format, especially in Kindle or the like, for any of my several mss sitting rejected on my closet shelf. But I am increasingly in the minority.

This is not a lament about the end of publishing as we know it, or the problem with a marketplace packed with self-published books that no one has vetted and are probably for the most part unreadable. No, all that may be true, but right now I prefer to see the opportunity in this dismal situation—dismal for traditional writers, anyway.

It occurred to me recently that those of us who have over our working years redirected our retirement savings into keeping afloat the local bookstore have a unique future ahead of us. A friend who is moving got me thinking about this when he explained that he and his wife had hired a “stager,” a woman who works with a real estate agent to prepare a home for showing to prospective buyers. The stager walked through and told them how to rearrange the furniture, which pieces of artwork to remove or re-hang, and, unequivocally, to get rid of the books. “No one reads anymore,” she said. And they removed the books.

A private high school library recently threw out all its printed books, in order to become an online resource center—no more books, not even packed into bookshelves against outer walls as “good insulation,” as my father-in-law often said.

With the Kindle and a generation of people like the “stager” and the headmaster of a certain prep school, books will become rare and unusual and hard to find. Children will grow up not knowing what a book is, what it looks like, how it weighs down the hand or a backpack, how it is used page by page. This is the opportunity.

People like me, who have shelves and shelves of books, old ones and new ones, falling apart ones and carefully protected ones, good ones and nastily critiqued ones, will in essence have a treasure for a museum. We will open our doors to the curious, to show them the BOOK, not to read, of course, but to observe and study, like a vase or a statue. Little children will cry, “But what does it do?” “Does it move?” “Can you change the color?” Parents will shrug and pull out their Blackberries and tweet their children’s cute comments to their grandparents, who will be sunning themselves in tropical New Jersey.

The museum will also be the site of psychological testing. For those who want to graduate to a higher level of functionality in the world, they will have to visit a museum and prove that they can read an entire book, from beginning to end, in a reasonable period of time and remain focused on the topic. And one part of the test will be recognizing that there is a single topic being developed. This person will be awarded a Certificate of Consciousness.

There won’t be nearly as many museums as you think in this future. Alas, to my surprise, I often visit friends, people I’ve always thought of as intelligent and interesting and well read, and discovered not a single book in their home. But there will be enough museums scattered across the country to ensure that everyone has at least a reasonable chance to see one book in his or her lifetime, not to read, but to see, like visiting a Da Vinci (a real one, in oils) or Van Gogh.

None of this means that there will be fewer books written. Alas, no. But they will be written entirely on little phones and other such devices, and instantly erased if they don’t live up to the standards of the software evaluating spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought (defined by vocabulary and sentence structure). If nothing else, the number of mss floating through cyberspace from agent to agent will decline, but the number on Kindle and other such formats will explode. But by then the length of an average novel will be reduced from 100,000 words to 10,000 or fewer, to make it easier to read at traffic lights or while waiting in line for coffee.

Drinking coffee will not be allowed in Museums, except by the owners.