In the past month, there has been a recent spate of articles discussing the current state of publishing and reading. There is a changing appreciation for the written word, and a paradigm shift going on in how individuals access information. Not just news-and-numbers information, but emotional data. Information has always been presented in such a way that it makes individuals feel angry, sad, or relieved about the subject matter, but the decline of words (or, long series of complex words) and the rise of visual transmission makes such manipulations even more powerful.
The State of Publishing and Reading
On the publishing front they cry “books out, ebooks in.” Jeff Bercovici at Forbes.com points out that hardcover sales have been declining and that top-selling authors are increasingly gaining the greater portion of their revenue from digital ventures. At the Washington Post, Techcrunch.com describes soaring e-book sales and predicts a resurgence in sales of essays, long-form journalism, serial novels, and other such genres that require low time investment on the part of the reader.
At the same time, a number of commentators have begun lamenting the withdrawal of the long-form reader from America’s cultural and intellectual landscape, such as it is. The New York Times’s recent opinion article on the decline of “Big Ideas” had this to say on the subject of how Americans, and increasingly the world, accesses information and how it affects thinking:
There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.
…[S]ocial networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.
Steve Himmer’s essay laments a number of factors that might discourage reading among people, though he doesn’t actually discuss the increasing popularity of reading in short bursts. (“In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing.”) However, Alan Jacobs at the Chronicle, drawing from a 2005 sociology article, comments that this decline of long-form reading is more a return to normalcy than a regression of the American intellect:
[W]hile there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.”
But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits.
The Impact of Books and Film
I don’t want to tackle whether the death of long-form reading is actually happening or will eventually happen. Though, I am reminded of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, in which poorer portions of global society, thanks to ubiquitous computing, have largely lost the need for reading and writing. They rely solely on video and on “media-glyphs,” short animations and or symbols, for all of their information needs. For now, I only want to consider some of the differences in how we present emotion in words and in visuals.
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