It will surprise no one to learn that I am passionate about books. I remember being four years old and sticking my nose in my parents’ gilt-edged Encyclopedia Britannica, inhaling its singular smell. I couldn’t yet read it, but I knew it was special. My parents had bought it from some traveling salesperson and referred to it reverently and often. There wasn’t always money for electricity in our house, but somehow there was always money for books, if only from the 10 cent cart at the public library.
As years went on, I loved not just their heft and scent, but the way they had of luring me in, carrying me on a magic carpet to great adventures beyond my dingy, illegal basement apartment – flights of joy and peril, moments of great depth and importance.
I feel the need to give you my bona fides because I’m about to say something most book lovers will consider sacrilege… I don’t care if people don’t read books anymore. And it’s not just the digital/paper divide (in which, I feel compelled to confess, I come down strictly on the side of paper), but the fact that I know that less people want to engage with stories in novelistic form. And I think that’s perfectly okay. Books as we know them will die one day, or be greatly diminished, and that’s fine by me.
Now, let me clarify: it’s not fine for me personally. Novels on paper will be available throughout my life, and if I thought that might not one day be the case I’d be existentially morose. A life without the grain of a page beneath my fingers feels like no life at all to me. The sheer pleasure of a beautifully written passage, or a profound insight into the human experience, or an amazing ride on the back of a dragon… there are few things that hold such wonder and power for me.
But “book people” (of which I count myself one) have a bad habit of hand-wringing about this topic when faced with another book person. “No one reads anymore,” we say. “Kids just don’t read.” “It’s all Snapchat and they have no attention spans now.” Often this is done within earshot of one of the offending class… the young non-reader. It’s got a vague tinge of the “back in my day” -ism we once hated as kids. It’s just a step shy of the “walking to school uphill” both ways story. Frankly, it’s a bit fuddy-duddy.
I have several problems with this, probably the greatest of which is that no one does anything because someone guilts them into it. Books grabbed me by the hand and yanked me out the door for a wild adventure early in life. If it hadn’t been that way, I never would have followed so eagerly. Secondly, even as an avowed reader, I have had long stretches in my life in which I lacked the time, the patience or the propensity to read. I spent most of college wondering if all that love of books in elementary school and high school had been a younger me’s folly… I just didn’t read for pleasure. It was only when I got out of college that I realized that I had been doing so much assigned reading (I was an English major) that I had no appetite to seek it out on my downtime. I’ve gone through non-fiction phases, true crime phases, historical novel phases and one blissful summer when I read how-to instructional books on everything there is to know about growing roses. Currently, the nagging suspicion that it may finally be time for reading glasses after a lifetime of eagle-like vision is cutting down the amount of time I spend in front of the page and luring me to books on tape.
But, more fundamentally, I think my generation’s (and older generations’) hand-wringing about books and the current social media demographic fails to understand what’s valuable about stories. Sure, for those of us who discovered story through books, books are sacrosanct. They always will be, and I embrace that with a zealous love. But we should not dictate to others how to experience that magic.
We read stories to feel, to learn lessons, to understand the world in a new and deeper way. Once, we heard tales around a fire and made decisions about our then-smaller world – stay away from the cave near the lake, or always be loyal to your hunting partner, perhaps – and we revered those tales. Later, as our world got bigger, those tales evolved into those of great heroes, formidable monsters, capricious gods, and we told them to each other in alleys and markets, adding, evolving them, gleaning profound meaning from them for thousands of years. After that, we etched them into stone. It was only relatively recently in human history that we invented paper, and far more recently that books became accessible to anyone but the ruling elites. The printing press was invented in 1440, which may seem like forever ago, but which was just a blink ago in human history. Industrial printing presses, the true engine of getting books into the hands of the masses, did not come into existence until the 1800s.
Did we only start appreciating stories less than two hundred years ago? Of course not. Stories have been integral to our survival, entwined exquisitely with the deep joy and mystery of consciousness. We have available to us a unique magic that no other species enjoys: the ability to not just learn from our own experiences, but from an endless array of recounted ones, or imaginary ones. Sure, books came along to help us learn valor or the value of friendship from house elves that never were, positivity in the face of abject evil from a young girl we’ll never meet, and adventure from protagonists we’ll never be. But we loved all those things before. We will love those things forever.
I had occasion to think about this the other day when watching Moana for the first time. (I know, I know, what took me so long? Without little ones to drag to me Disney movies now, I find myself falling out of touch with the latest ones). It was exquisite beyond measure, a feast for the eyes, first of all, colorful and imaginative. But, beneath that, it was a profoundly well-told story, rife with myth and heroism (a girl’s, even better). It was engaging and deeply satisfying, a tale about finding one’s own way in the world in the face of fear and the status quo. It would have been the kind of book I would have devoured as a child. It was no less engaging because it was in movie form.
I know the arguments, that books develop imagination but movies stunt it, that we’re losing the ability to concentrate. I don’t buy them. I think it’s just more of one generation saying “these kids” about the next. What’s valuable about stories is not about their delivery mechanism, but what they teach us about the human experience. I’d press someone to tell me why what Moana teaches about the human experience is any less valuable than what books of the same type teach.
One day movies as we know them will die, too, replaced by immersive virtual reality experiences in which we participate and help drive the action. Film purists will bemoan the death of story. They’ll be wrong, too. Story will be alive as long as humans are.
The anxiety about the move away from books is about a lack of faith in humanity’s capacity to be the best in the face of progress. Things change constantly, a condition inextricable from humanity. Just because we like a thing doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for everyone forever. And this from a book writer who credits books with saving her life on more than one occasion.
Working on editing my latest novel, I began reading The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by legendary literary agent Donald Maass. On page 25, he says, “…readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story, but about themselves. They want to play. They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge. They want to finish a story and feel competent. They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience, or believe that they have.” Forget for a moment that Maass means “book” when he says “story,” and replace “story” with “movie/podcast/video game/virtual reality experience,” and no other word of that passage needs to change. We engage with story to feel, and books are just one delivery mechanism.
If you’re like me, keep reading books, love them with your whole heart, but don’t bemoan their demise. We’ll always have them, as long as those of us who love them live. If humanity moves on and stops using them, one thing you can be sure we’ll have until the last human draws breath is: story. And that’s really what we love so passionately and which has served us so well since the dawn of consciousness.