Charlotte Wirth offers her views on what is currently happening to the traditional book in the 21st century alongside the rise of social media and other technological forms of ‘distraction’. Wirth speculates on what the future holds for this ‘traditional’ way of reading as well as how classic novels and publishers will stand the test of time in this grossly technological climate. Tell us what you think in the comments section below.


Book Snake by cogdogblog, on Flickr

In the age of digital mass media, the traditional book has a hard time. People are constantly distracted—permanently checking their phones for Facebook and Twitter updates, to keep up with the news or simply to escape boredom. In his critique of society, La civilisazión del espectáculo (2012), author Mario Vargas Llosa laments that we live in a culture of distraction: a global civilization of entertainment characterized by sensationalism, consumerism, and frivolity. The importance of a medium or product is now measured by appearance and by the grade of distraction it provides rather than by its substance and content. In this climate, there is no room for critical thinking, internal confrontation, or intellectual autonomy. In our visual and digital culture, we are confronted with an incredible amount of information that we can only deal with passively and mostly without a second thought.

Literature cannot seal itself to this development. E-books are becoming more and more popular; the dispute between Hachette and Amazon shows that digitization now underlies the whole process of publishing—and that the digital scenario continues to expand. That Amazon intends to take over Simon & Schuster suggests that it is trying to assume the role of an e-book publisher. While this might make it easier for newcomers to be published, whether they enjoy the same support from their editor as they would with a traditional publisher is questionable. What is more, if authors start to write exclusively for online platforms or e-readers, will their style remain the same or will they adapt their writing to the medium? Will the traditional novel survive? The novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, published his new short story on Twitter and consciously used Twitter as a storytelling medium where the tweets direct the rhythm of the story and act are visually sequential:

Reading a series of tweets is more like looking through a narrow window from a train speeding through a landscape full of tunnels and bands of light and dark. Each tweet erases its predecessor.” (Cited in the Guardian on July 14).

Like books by Mark J P, on FlickrPublishing a story via Twitter is indeed a change and I believe it underlines Llosa’s predictions. In an age of mass media and permanent distraction, the classical novel and ‘traditional’ forms of writing will indeed have tough challenges to face. Nevertheless, we cannot condemn these changes as being exclusively negative. Would literature and culture not be ‘dead’ if they were not constantly changing and developing? I am very curious as to how the publishing sector will adapt to these changes and what innovations will come from them.

Nevertheless, the question arises: what happens to the enduring works of literature, to those kinds of writings that immortalize the author and explore the depths of human condition—writings that are thought provoking and question our views of the world? Those books that may take a time to capture the reader’s attention, and yet, once they do, linger on in the reader’s mind long after finishing the last sentence. In my case, such a book is Heart of Darkness, the book on which I wrote my thesis, which I keep re-reading over and over as, for me, it never loses its relevance. As the trend goes on in our ‘era of distraction’, will readers have the patience to engage with such books? In the manual Publishing, Principles and Practice Richard Guthrie writes that people have been trained ‘since childhood, to read books, not chunks of information’ (p.203), but is this still the case in our digitized society? When I see six year old children playing with iPads, I have my doubts. In this climate, what can publishing do to encourage them to explore literature? What tactics or means can be used to advertise and promote books to their readership? And, going a step further, how can the publishing sector act and react in order to keep promoting books and compete with passive mediums, such as television, where the reader does not need to engage actively in the medium?

In the end, books, by contrast to television, demand an active involvement from their consumer. As Megan Rosoff wonderfully phrased: “You don’t need alchemy to transform a film. You sit down, lean back and wait for the lights to go down. With a film, it just happens. But human brains love a challenge. They love drawing their own pictures, casting their own stories, filling in their own gaps. When you read a book, the neurons in your brain fire overtime, deciding what the characters are wearing, how they’re standing, and what it feels like the first time they kiss. No one shows you. The words make suggestions. Your brain paints the pictures.” (The Telegraph, April 23rd 2012)


Charlotte Wirth

Photo credit:

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  cogdogblog 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Mark J P