All that holding, lifting and turning … the future of the book

Sense and sensibility book covers

Printed and e-Books for Jane Austen's Sense and sensibility

Back in May while I was travelling in Japan, Jennifer Byrne (host of The First Tuesday Bookclub) convened one of her special Jennifer Byrne Presents panel discussions, this one on “The future of the book”. I finally got around to watching it this week. Her panelists were Richard Watson (writer and strategist on the future!), Kate Eltham (writer and Executive Officer of the Queensland Writers Centre) and Richard Flanagan (award-winning novelist). You can read the transcript or watch the show on the ABC website.

I’m not going to analyse it in-depth, but Byrne kicked off the discussion by asking the panel for their response to “the theory that our connectedness with the net is actually impacting on our capacity to read and think deeply”. In exploring this and related questions, the panel talked about:

  • the pros and cons of distractions: do they, for example, encourage creativity or destroy our ability to concentrate?
  • the nature of writing and book production: will the novel (as we now know it!) survive in the new digital, web-based, more interactive environment?
  • the nature of reading: is it a social activity or a private act?
  • writing: will the (apparent) democratisation of writing and publishing make it impossible for writers to make a living out of writing – and if that happens what will happen to the novel (literature)?

But, the most entertaining point came late in the program from Jennifer Byrne:

I’d like to read from the Institute for the Future Of The Book. This is someone who wrote in last month and I think gives us an idea of the problem that does face print ahead. ‘Cause this is a guy… He says he reads almost exclusively on screen, he’s got a kindle, an iPad, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a laptop… ‘But this weekend I did something radical and old-school. I checked a big, thick book out of the library.’ This is the bit I love. ‘The physicality of the book, having to hold it open then lift and turn each page…’ (Laughs) ‘..was a lot more exhausting than I remembered.’ ‘That holding, lifting and turning distracted me from the book.’ What’s happening to modern people?

I’m not sure that we can generalise from this comment to “modern people” but this did make me laugh. And then I thought, hmmm, I do like to read on my Kindle. It is easy to hold (very much like a book), but it is the same (light) weight whether I am reading Ford Madox Ford‘s novella The good soldier or Leo Tolstoy‘s War and peace. I no longer need to have multiple books on the go: the one to read at home because it’s too heavy to lug around, and the smaller, lighter one that I can carry in my bag. Perhaps the comment is not quite as silly as it first sounds?

The program provides no answers. How could it?  And some of the opinions presented are, really, just that, opinions, based more on personal preferences and anecdote than research. But for those of us interested in the future of the book – of the novel, of the experience of reading – it’s yet another interesting discussion to ruminate on.