Posted: 05 Sep 2017 05:58 AM PDT
I read an excellent book by John Sutherland, A Little History of Literature, which shared a historical perspective on novels that covered an array of topics, from book clubs and best-seller lists to great writers, censorship, books turned into movies, poetry, and mythology. But the most revealing chapter was its last one, about the fate of literature.
The author notes the marketplace is flooded with too many titles, that we suffer from “too-muchness of literature” and it’s expanding all of the time.
“This mind-crushing plentifulness creates whole new sets of problems. There are those still living (and I am one) who were raised in a cultural environment whose central features were scarcity, shortage and inaccessibility. If you wanted a new novel, you had either to save up the money to pay for it, or put your name down on a waiting list at the local public library. It was annoying. But, in a way it made things simpler. You had fewer options. In a single lifetime – mine, for example – shortage has been replaced by an embarrassment of choice. So how is one to navigate the onslaught of books?"
He later notes: “In Shakespeare’s day, there were, it has been estimated, some 2,000 books available to a bookish person like him. You could be, as the phrase was, “well read.” That is a description for which no one in the future will qualify.”
Today the book industry easily produces more than 2,000 new titles every single day, 365 days a year. How can one keep up with what’s new, let alone visit the millions of volumes stored online and in libraries?
People read books based on the time available to them. Will they form a literary diet of the classics or of what a review, friend or store recommends? Will they experiment and diversify, or will they read more of what they believe they like to read, sticking narrowly to one’s specific genres?
And how will people consume their literature – with a paper book or a digital scroll on their smart phone?
“The printed book,” writes Southerland,” a physical thing made up of paper, type, ink and board, has been around now for over 500 years. It has served literature wonderfully: packaging in cheap, sometimes beautiful forms that have helped to sustain mass literacy. Few inventions have lasted longer, or done more good.
“The book may however, have had its day. The tipping point has come very recently in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when e-books – digital things made up of algorithms and pixels – began to outsell the traditional book on Amazon. An e-book, as it’s currently marketed for handheld tablets, looks eerily like a ‘real’ book just as the early printed books such as Gutenberg’s looked just like manuscripts.”
There’s still evidence that paper is favored over digital. E-book sales have dropped much of the past four years while print has risen. But there’s no doubt the digital world is creeping into every aspect of our lives.
“Literature,” concludes Sutherland, “that wonderfully creative product, of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives.”
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