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An E-Book and the End of the World

A printed book remains the ultimate mark of success within the literary community. Making it through a gatekeeper of a literary agent and landing a publishing contract for a print book is an aspiring writer’s Holy Grail. I think the desire to obtain this ultimate literary goal keeps many writers from embracing or at least considering eBooks and other new media.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, author Jonathan Franzen proclaims his aversion to eBooks: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of ‘Freedom.’ I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now…I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change…”

He’s right: text doesn’t change. The book as a medium at least promises the illusion of immortality. Books are static, sometimes heavy, very tactile objects. Books can age but, unlike human beings, can outlive us. They can remain untouched in a library as records of many people’s existence. They can become tombstones. I think many writers, whether they acknowledge it or not, strive for to leave that legacy.

I don’t blame writers for wanting to leave a legacy, but I also think worshipping the book is a close-minded attempt to maintain order within the literary community and cultivate elitism. New forms open up possibilities for collaboration and evolution. In the same way that YouTube users comment on videos and respond to other users with their own videos, authors could work in a call and response fashion. Writers would have to work harder to push themselves in order to keep up with the ever-changing catalogue available to readers.

Most importantly, writers would be forced to feel comfortable with the idea of impermanence, that what they have worked toward all their lives is not going to give them any life beyond death. A new technology or new medium could make incompatible content obsolete. Libraries and the way we pass on and deconstruct history would have to be reimagined.

Sometimes I meditate on the fact that I have written a manuscript which, in its format and medium, is really no different from any other manuscript written since and possibly even before the invention of movable type in the early 1400s. Sure, mine is unique in its content, but not unique in the way that a reader can consume it.

In addition, even though I’ve chosen to express my story through language, language can never fully capture what I want to express. What I want to express would probably best be expressed through a combination of language, photos, illustrations, and sounds.

I don’t know how new technology will affect the future of reading, and I don’t know how new technology will impact my role as a writer. I do know, however, that technology will make the written word even more disposable and ephemeral. Writers who have spent their lives working toward a masterwork that will secure a legacy will be sorely disappointed by the lack of legacy available in a world where a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger across a touchscreen can shove someone out of relevance.

(Photo by accent on eclectic)

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