The last chapter?

Where do books go when they die?

For a change of topic,

I've been reading an article in the New York magazine about the end of the publishing business as we know it. The article has a lot about the travails of individuals I've never heard of. But, leaving them aside, the problems seem to be:

  • Large advances paid to authors and large losses when they don't deliver

  • Plummeting numbers of independent booksellers and

  • The demise of Borders leaving Barnes and Noble with a dominant position in High Street sales (or should that be Main Street?)

  • The pulping of around 40% of published books

  • Print to order

  • Amazon

  • e-readers

The article is in large part a puff for a HarperCollins spin-off HarperStudio. It offers writers no advance and 50:50 split on profits. They are also embracing e-publishing (seeing print to order as transitional technology).

I had a look at the Sony e-reader in the shop. At £200 I wasn't going to buy it. But I was taken with it - it takes MS Word and pdf files as well as ebook formats. You can't take notes on it though which I think a significant drawback. The screen is much easier on the eyes than the normal computer screen.

Amazon's Kindle (not available in the UK and the Amazon site says interestingly ' Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock.') is consistently described as 'clunky'. It has a qwerty keyboard, net access and wireless download, but it also has a propriatory operating system which doesn't deal with pdf files very well and its terms of use forbid transferring eBooks to someone else or using them on a different device.

There's also the older, and more expensive iLead reader. You can make notes on this one, but it doesn't seem to support MS Word.

I guess these are transitory products and the next generation will have better connectivity and functionality and I for one will be very tempted (not least because of the ever increasing number of .pdf copies of out-of-copyright publications available through google).

On the other hand, I also read another article bemoaning the impact of internet use on the reading habits of the young.

Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting
people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision
moves and rests. In this study, he found that people took in hundreds of pages
"in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school." It looks
like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they
proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown
around the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the
lower-right corner of the page largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. "F for
fast," Nielsen wrote in a column. "That's how users read your precious

The F-pattern isn't the only odd feature of online reading that
Nielsen has uncovered in studies conducted through the consulting business
Nielsen Norman Group (Donald A. Norman is a cognitive scientist who came from
Apple; Nielsen was at Sun Microsystems). A decade ago, he issued an "alert"
entitled "How Users Read on the Web." It opened bluntly: "They don't."

The author, Mark Bauerlein, argues for 'slow' reading of novels, poems, text books, and for students to be taught how to read extended passages slowly. Fast screen reading becomes part of the way people think in general, and the way they approach other, non-literate, areas of life.

This is all part of the social revolution which follows the technological changes of digitization. Something new will come out of it and the only sure prediction is that it won't be whatever we think it might be.

Which makes speculation cheap, easy and hours of harmless, profitless fun.

I wonder what it will do for spirituality as the disciplines of prayer and slow study are washed away (I suppose the equivalent was the end of the monastries). I'm not arguing that prayer and slow study are normal, only that the spirituality of those (like myself) who struggle with such discipline is to some degree sustained by those who succeed.

How can worship evoke a sense of God if our eyes are continually flitting from one headline to key word to illustration? Again, most worship in my experience is poor at evoking a sense of God (not infrequently actively militating against it) nonetheless the occasional experience of peace or of the closeness of God has been sufficient to carry me, and I suspect others, through the long parched periods.

Perhaps I need not worry. I guess spiritual experience has always been a minority interest and probably always will be. Perhaps Pentecostal enthusiasm is already the answer to my questions - worship for the digital age of quick readers.

I feel old tonight.

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