The “death of the book” has been talked about for half a century, along with the demise of the newspaper, he obsolescence of the magazine, and, more generally, the end of reading. It started with worries about radio and television, then shifted to concerns about computers and games, and now attaches to social networks and mobile devices. Today this topic resurfaced with the announcement that Newsweek would suspend production of the print version of the magazine in 2013, with unsympathetic observers immediately offering an “it’s-about-time” response. After all, electronic media bring us “stories” in ways that are faster, cheaper, more dynamic, more visual, and in greater more abundance. It’s a no brainer right?
Wrong. The death of the book never took place, nor the newspaper, magazine, and so on. It turns out that media forms just don’t die that easily, despite the logic of technological determinism that would argue differently. This is largely because each technological form is not simply a material isolated from the culture around it. The very cultural forces that push one media form alive are also the ones that hold that form in place. You can read a novel in any format, but only a book lets you hold it in that certain way, feel the weight of each page, physically pace yourself forward (or backward) through the text, wrap it up as a gift, lend it to a friend, put the thing on your shelf, or burn the thing when you are done. This is not to say that the book is THE best way to consume a novel. But it is an argument for the specificity of media forms as discrete kinds of experience––and an argument against quick value judgment about the value of some of these forms over others.
Andrew Sullivan almost offered one of the most insightful pieces on the Newsweek shift, admitting that his own conversion to digital reading have been a gradual shift. In a post entitled “Out of the Ashes of Dead Trees,” Sullivan points out that it isn’t so much the media form that is the issue, as much as they kind of use being applied: “I chose digital over print 12 years ago, when I shifted my writing gradually online, with this blog and now blogazine. Of course a weekly newsmagazine on paper seems nuts to me. … But that doesn’t mean the end of journalism, just of the physical objects that convey journalism.”
But it’s more than just that. With the plethora of media options available, the ways people use each form is highly variable. In other words, what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily apply to another. Sullivan gets this, but then drives the point off a conceptual cliff. “The “media” is simply Latin for the way in which information is transmitted. It’s the way one idea or fact or non-fact goes from someone’s brain into another’s. Today journalism is consumed by people at work, like you, reading to stave off boredom, or following an election, or because they love a particular site, or just find it productive, ahem, to check out the latest meme or cool video or righteous rant online. Then we watch TV, but not the nightly news, apart from the older generations. The generations below mine get their news online all day long and through Stewart/Colbert. The other way of reading is leaning back, enjoying long-form journalism or non-fiction in book or essay form – at the weekend or in the evenings or on a plane. And the tablet is so obviously a more varied, portable, simple vehicle to deliver a group of writers tied together in one actual place, which cannot be disaggregated, than paper, print and staples. And far less expensive. Print magazines today are basically horses and carriages, a decade after the car had gone into mass production. Why the fuck do they exist at all, except as lingering objects of nostalgia?”
Tsk, tsk. Writing is influenced by the form one uses, just like reading. And one of the consequences of electronic publishing…of blogs like this one, admittedly… is the expansiveness of the space, the ability of the author to ramble, to get carried away. Of course all of this is part of the beauty of the blogging medium and of all of our newer online electronic communication forms and social media.