Infernal Machine   /   March 23, 2014

The internet killed books again

Andrew Piper

A few years ago I created a column called “deathwatch” (macabre, I know). Its goal was to track all of the real or imagined ways that we thought media could die. Sometimes it was about the strange ways that we personify technologies, sometimes about asking why media change makes us so uncomfortable.

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I don’t think I realized then that it is just a part of the culture, a necessary meme through which we make sense of things around us. As strange as it may sound, there is clearly something comforting about eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.

Consider the latest incarnations. First there was George Packer’s eloquent and almost wholly factless concern that Amazon is single-handedly ruining books in The New Yorker. Buying this idea—and its clear from the buzz that everyone did—rests on two basic premises. First, it ignores the fact that 200 million more books (meaning items, unique things) were sold this year than the year before and that since roughly the late seventeenth century there has been no appreciable decline in the output of reading material except in times of war, plague, or famine. Second, it depends on you believing that the big 6 publishers are good for books. These are the descendants of the same people about whom an eighteenth-century German satirist once said drank champagne from the skulls of authors. Now they are the last line of defense in the preservation of civilized discourse.

The second case came in a recent piece in The Guardian that lamented the decline of author advances for mid-list fiction. Rather than all books, it seems, the internet is particularly bad for “literature”—or at least the kind that is just OK, and from which people apparently have been making a living since the invention of copyright. It fits the broader narrative of the death of the middle these days. Along with the shrinking middle class we now have shrinking publishers’ mid-lists.

It should be pretty clear that both of these scenarios only make sense from the producers’ side, or I should say, certain producers. I’m sure it is a tough time to be a publisher or a mediocre author. For readers, on the other hand, it’s a great time. There is fantastic stuff coming out from niche publishers, like Tomas Espedal’s Against Art (Seagull Books), Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence (Other Press), or Markus Werner’s Zündel’s Exit (Dalkey Archive Press). There are so many different ways to access books now and so many that used to be hard to get that aren’t. And despite popular opinion, university presses remain committed to producing thoughtful scholarship like Bernd Stiegler’s Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel (Chicago) or the vanguard of ideas, as in this year’s prize-winning book by Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard). Good writing, as well as bad, doesn't depend on machines. Dante didn't need the printing press or copyright (though he did need his friend Boccaccio), and neither of those has protected us from the likes of Clive Cussler.

The real problem, as everybody knows, is not that the internet is ruining writing. It’s writing. There’s just too much of it. How writers and readers can build sustainable communities without being overwhelmed or lost remains an urgent task. Making sense of the traffic of ideas will inevitably require new finding aids and new tools to sift through all the material and create new social connections. Much as Ann Blair explained in her widely read study, Too Much to Know (Yale), about readers in the sixteenth century who invented all sorts of new tools and techniques to keep track of and organize the printing press’s output (indeces, tables, trees, lists), today we need a whole new range of sorting devices to help us access and find writing—so we can enjoy reading. It’s not that Amazon is killing books. It’s that they aren’t going far enough in facilitating our navigation of the digital deluge.

What I have come to realize is that fears of media change usually mean a threat to someone’s real or perceived authority. Mediation is about control—about who gets to say what to whom. Media change is about shifting that power dynamic. That’s why you usually hear it from the well-heeled. It’s a top-down concern, not bottom-up. Publishers have very nice offices, authors like Packer have very nice advances, and critics have over-indulged in their own charismatic pretenses. The internet continues to put all that in flux. And that is surely a good thing.

Andrew Piper is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. His work explores the application of computational approaches to the study of literature and culture. He directs the Literary Topologies project and is the author most recently of Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. Andrew blogs at The Infernal Machine as The Quant & The Connoisseur. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @_akpiper.