Outside my office door stands a gadget-of-all-trades. At the proverbial touch of a finger, it copies, produces pristine color prints, faxes, scans and converts documents into graphic files, and sends e-mails. The production of newspapers, magazines and books has never been easier. The same can be said of research. The perpetually morphing and growing internet is the answer universe as it opens portals into libraries and archives, and fuses newspapers, magazines, catalogs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, maps and indexes. Although the Internet is very much a print medium in its use of text, images, both still and in motion, abound there—as do sound and music. It is a multimedia extravaganza under glass.
The Internet hosts a multiplicity of publishing venues, much needed outlets given the disproportionate ratio of manuscripts to space available in print journals. Online publishing is a catalyst for new forms and genres, allowing for up-to-the-nanosecond transmissions of news, endless commentary and creative ventures. The bounty of voices and information is rich, exciting and useful.
It is also a cacophony. The cyber-world is anonymous, transient, ephemeral, mutable and vulnerable to shapeshifting, fakery, alterations and deletions that provoke concerns about legitimacy, authenticity, verification, protection and responsibility. What we cherish in paper publishing is the fact that text is fixed. We can read books and articles many years after their creation. This is how we learn about what has gone before, which is crucial to understanding where we stand and what we face. If text is in flux and sources unclear, certainty is undermined; scholarly authority, eroded. As the cyber-world matures and plays an even greater role in society’s transactions, legal, ethical and economic issues must be thrashed out.
The Internet has put the future of traditional newspapers and magazines in jeopardy, yet the electronic revolution has instigated a book-publishing boom. More books arrive each week at Booklist, my home away from, home, than ever before, due, in part, to advances in digital technologies. Published in Chicago for more than a century by the American Library Association, Booklist, a review magazine of books and media for all ages, has evolved in sync with publishing technologies and trends without reneging on its basic mission (rec-ommending books to libraries), greatly altering its format (concise reviews) or limiting its eclecticism. We’re hoping for another century of publication. Why not? The mix of the old and the new is intrinsic to human endeavors. For all the inventiveness, abundance and freedom of online media, order is sought, excellence rises, and standards are established. We don’t shed media or abandon the pursuit of quality. We want it all—and more. We still listen to radio, read print newspapers and magazines, watch television and go to the movies. We listen to music CDs and audiobooks, and watch movies at home in addition to all our online time. Formats and access will change, but much will remain the same. Certainly, the book will endure. Surely, the eBook will finally take reader-friendly form, and more titles will be published on demand and downloaded. But the book remains the medium of choice for writers and readers because it is a perfected object, as right as an egg.
There is no speculating about the future of writing and publishing without considering the future of reading. Alas, the increase in the writing and production of books is not paralleled by additional space in the public square for book reviews. Literary journalism is currently accorded little space in newspapers and magazines, and what modest turf reviews and author profiles hold is threatened. Online book sites will continue to appear and improve, but readers have little enough time to read, let alone search for trustworthy reviews. With the vast array of new books produced each month, the selections and evaluations that book reviewers and critics make are invaluable. Writers and readers should call for more book coverage. To write about books, as well as to read and write them, is to take part in the great conversation that is literature, which will remain an essential and profoundly nourishing facet of culture in the foreseeable future. The trick is to earn a living while remaining committed to literature. Will writers have an easier time in 2025? Not likely.
Of course, a far greater obstacle to books finding their readers exists than the paucity of book reviews. Literacy is a grave concern. Dismal reading skills in public schools across the country point to a further decline in reading for pleasure and edification. Reading to feed the love of story and language, the hunger for aesthetic arrest and wisdom, the lifelong curiosity about other people and places and times, and the fascination with nature is a habit of being that must be cultivated. And it is a significant pursuit. The more complicated our technologies, the larger and more diverse the human population, and the greater humankind’s influence on the biosphere, the more urgent the need for us to read in order to be conversant in science, politics, history and ethics, and the more necessary it is to experience works of personal revelation and imagination. Reading fosters empathy and sustains justice. If education isn’t radically reformed and self-directed reading encouraged in the coming years, then informed and independent thought, the lifeblood of a vital and viable democracy, will be in short supply.
Reading requires stillness and concentration. Such communion, such contemplative attention, is not a practice in keeping with the high-tech hustle. Will the screen prove mightier than the page? Will image trump word? Will our machine-love seduce us away from intimacy with lush, complex, demanding language? If reading is practiced only by a few, will our attention spans shrink, our vocabularies atrophy? Will we lose the gifts of nuance, intricate syntax, deep psychological acuity?
For all its dazzling wealth of information and entertainment, the cyber-world is remote and devoid of sensuousness. There are no scents, weight, texture, edge, warmth. No dimension. The deeper, ancient part of our brain—the animal zone attuned to smell, sound in the round, breeze, the rise and fall of the land, the vagaries of weather, the wanderings of animals and stirrings of plants, the dynamism of free-flowing water, the changing light of the day, the deepening of night, the spark of other bodies—will go hungry. Yet, the higher neurological regions are fully stimulated, even addictively so, by computers and their spin-offs. Before the screen, we don’t feel cut off; we imagine that we’re in the thick of things.
As the Screen Age whirls on and screen-agers sit enraptured before glowing squares of light—enthralled by our manifestations of Plato’s cave, what Rebecca Solnit calls the “river of shadows”—our pursuit of the electronic dream wreaks havoc on the living world as Earth turns beneath the ever-thickening membrane of greenhouse gases. Our ability to live in virtual realms will stand us in good stead once our exploitation of nature results in a thoroughly looted and weedy biosphere. As we write, read, surf, scroll, talk, watch, sample and shop, the manufacture of our marvelously smart and companionable machines—seemingly clean objects—involves the use of toxic chemicals that are now found all around the world embedded in soil, ice, water, air and the bodies of living humans and animals. Add to that the burgeoning problem of discarded electronics, known as “e-waste” or “high-tech trash.” Mammoth mounds of junked computers, cell phones and printers occupy landfills, and our used gadgets are shipped by the ton to Third World countries where people without machines or even electricity break apart our rejects, exposing themselves and their land, water and air to a malignant assortment of permanent biological toxins (PBTs). The virtual world has an all too tangible impact on the living earth.
Let us not forget the precariousness of the grid. What happens to our romance with all things digital if the seemingly infinite supply of electricity that illuminates our screens and moves our cursors is interrupted or curtailed? We take electricity for granted, but our consumption of the fossil-fuels that make possible the generation of all that power is altering the biosphere in ways we didn’t think possible just a few years ago. We must face the facts about global warming, and the need to restrict carbon emissions and establish alternative, sustainable and nonpolluting energy sources.
Given the complex and daunting challenges we face, literature will play a key role in inspiring us to make the changes necessary for arresting global warming and preserving civilization. Since its inception, writing has been a catalyst for social change. We are narrating animals, after all. We make sense out of life by telling stories true to both our experiences and our imaginations. We tell ourselves the tales of our lives, day in and day out. We avidly read about other people’s lives and perceptions. So profound is the need to record our thoughts, bear witness and report on the universe that men and women risk their lives to commit words to paper and screen, in many countries, writers are outlaws. Heroes.
As daily existence makes real the prescient visions of speculative writers such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and as ever more fantastic concepts for the next wave of technological permutations are promised by the digerati, the quest to establish an ecological paradigm is the force that will most affect writing and publishing between now and the year 2025. As we are confronted with global warming and the Herculean task of radically changing our way of life, many of us will read about the past, seeking insights into cultures that lived more harmoniously with nature. In “Light at the Edge of the World,” ethnobotanist Wade Davis observes that what indigenous peoples have done “is to forge through time and ritual a traditional mystique of the earth that is based not only on deep attachment to the land but also on far more subtle intuition— the idea that the land itself is breathed into being by human consciousness. Mountains, rivers and forests are not perceived as inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination.”
The stories we tell ourselves do, indeed, shape the world, and the myth of perpetual economic growth has, except for a very few individuals, become a tale of global destruction and suffering. We take too much from the earth and give too little back. As Bill McKibben writes, we must recognize the “deeper economy” of nature and create a human economy that will meet the needs of both humankind and the biosphere. To effect such a deep change in perspective, to articulate a new ethos, we need a new literature. In an essay titled “Ecology, Literature, and the New World Disorder,” poet Gary Snyder writes, “We hope to create a deeply grounded contemporary literature of nature that celebrates the wonder of our natural world, that draws on and makes beauty of the incredibly rich knowledge gained from science and that confronts the terrible damage being done today in the name of progress and the world economy.”
As I spend my time reading and writing in this age of extinction, all-out assault against the natural world and potentially catastrophic climate change as well as in this time of war, worsening poverty and inequality, rampant commercialization, homogenization, and bewitching on-screen enticement, I feel helpless as so many others do. And I have a recurring waking nightmare. I see my future self in a zoo along with many other endangered species. I will sit at a desk in a cage, a book in hand, towers of books all around me. The sign above my head will say, “The Last Reader.”
But books, magazines, newspapers, journals, broadcasts and Web sites assure me that I’m not alone in my literary passion or my fears. We are a creative and adaptive species. We will not accept the delusion that we can trade techno-diversity for biodiversity, the World Wide Web for the web of life. The stories we tell, the knowledge we share and the insights we confide will inspire us to hold clearly in our minds the image of a vast luminous net, a symbol of life’s interconnectivity and interdependence, a vision of intricate beauty. An emblem not of capture, but of safety.