Sunday, September 26, 2010

When does print matter?

Picking up where I left off… though not with Nicholas Carr (at least, not immediately).

At the Wheeler Centre’s weekly lunch-time soapbox event Anna Krien addressed the question of whether newspapers still matter in the digital era. Krien’s central argument was that print newspapers needed to recognise and mobilise the features that make them unique and play to their strengths, rather than playing catch up with their online competition. Print newspapers can make a virtue of their relative slowness; can devote resources to research; can provide in-depth analysis and long-form reportage; can deliver a product that is worth the paper it is printed on (i.e. is worth its cover price and is worth whatever effort it takes to carry it from breakfast table to briefcase to beachside). In so doing, newspapers can leave the speedy work of ‘news coverage’ to the web. Printed papers, with their research, analysis and critique, can be the roughage in our media diet, giving us something to chew on: slow-to-digest information that complements the news snacks we get online.

It’s just possible that the same idea could be used in considering how to respond to talk of the demise of the novel in the digital era. That is to say, what if we proposed that it was the slowness of print books that provides a pleasure that online forms don’t deliver? In an essay in The Millions, Garth Hallberg notes that “the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.” Just like Krien’s proposal that the newspaper should seize its potential for (time-consuming) considered investigation, many novels make a virtue of their ‘bigness’ and ‘slowness’; make a virtue of being substantial food-for-thought.

Without proposing that there’s anything new about the popularity of big books Hallberg offers a couple of interesting ideas about the relationship between print and digital media when it comes to big books:

 “The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles””

A big novel can be valued because it is time consuming, it demands attention, it might hurt a little. Along with all that focus and time the reader must devote, Hallberg notes that the big novel requires a certain kind of solitude, a little bit of pleasurable alienation:

“The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically.”

These comments are an interesting rebuttle to the thesis of Nicholas Carr who sees readers as having been near-irrevocably ruined by the internet. But the internet isn’t to blame. Literary novels and reading habits were already on a downward trend before the internet became ubiquitous. Carr proposes that we once enjoyed a more focused and more cerebral phase in our history when we did all our learning from books. Now, with the internet, with its solicitation to click, click, click our way through the ceaseless flow of  information presented to us, we’re developing the worst kind of shallow thinking. But it all depends what it is you’re clicking, and what you’re reading. A critic of Carr’s rightly asked,

“What if [it’s] Mein Kampf? What if it’s Jefferey Archer? Or Barbara Cartland? Am I not better off playing a well-constructed online game, or reading Aristotle’s poetics online? I really don’t see why books should particularly promote worthwhile though, unless they’re worthwhile books. And the same applies to what’s on the internet.” [Professor Andrew Burn qtd in John Harris, ‘Online and Altered,’ Guardian Weekly 17.9.10, 25-27]

For Carr the biggest worry is that we’re very poor at regulating our impulse to stop clicking and start focussing. We need an information diet. Yet, the talk of Big Novels and Kindle-proof books that resist digitisation suggest that there are readers out there very well aware of what their media do, and their own habits with relation to them; readers who are comfortable with the unique qualities that print and online publishing each offer. Readers who know how to enjoy a balanced diet of focused, fibrous material that takes some time to digest alongside byte-sized morsels of digital content.

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