October 2007

Arts & Letters

‘The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book’ by Sherman Young

By Chris Womersley

This is a tidy manifesto which argues that, in the same way news has become separated from newspapers, and radio programs (think podcasting) from the radio, there is no reason why literature cannot be disentangled from the object of the book. Even for those romantic souls for whom books are talismans, Sherman Young contends, the pleasure of reading is in the thoughts and emotions aroused by a work. Reading is not only a process in which the writer and reader meet, but one in which the reader enters into a conversation with everyone who has ever read the same story. Like any modern theorist, Young invents his own unwieldy word for this: internalactivity.

According to Young, the purchase of literary works (as opposed to “anti-books”, like celebrity biographies, self-help manuals and other marketing ventures) has always been a niche activity and one that - in an age of declining profits and of environmental concerns over paper use and polluting methods of book distribution - is unsustainable. The so-called Heavenly Library, with downloadable versions of everything written, would reintroduce to a wider population those writers who are now rarely stocked in bookshops, in the same way that downloadable music has boosted the flagging careers of near-forgotten musicians. Project Gutenberg already has an online catalogue of 20,000 free e-books whose copyright has expired, and a glance at its most downloaded authors would seem to bear this out: Mark Twain and L Frank Baum regularly bookend the top 20 of the nearly 100,000 daily downloads. Literature will live on in a different form, read on a device that is yet to be perfected.

Although his conclusions are hard to refute - it is perhaps a credit to Young, a lecturer in media at Macquarie University, that he makes them seem inevitable - sometimes his technophilia gets the better of him: yes, technically texting on a mobile is writing but, let’s face it, barely; and the assertion that writing is, thanks to the ease of uploading digital content, inseparable from publishing is enough to send a shiver through anyone who has stumbled across one of the internet’s countless semi-literate blogs.

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