The Common Good
January-February 1997

The Digital Clock Will Not Turn Back

by Danny Duncan Collum | January-February 1997

''Of the making of books, there is no end" goes a moth-eaten quotation.
But maybe there is after all. At least that's the war cry of the latter-day
Luddites.

''Of the making of books, there is no end" goes a moth-eaten quotation. But maybe there is after all. At least that's the war cry of the latter-day Luddites. Books will disappear, they warn, as we are dumbed down by the electronic culture of video and computers.

In this column, by the way, Luddite is not a term of dismissal. When they tore up the factories, Ned Ludd's legions were making a perfectly human and reasonable response to an utterly inhuman situation—reasonable, but doomed. The Luddites of today would rage through the windowless post-industrial workplace smashing computer screens. They would except that, nearly two centuries after the first industrial revolution, they know they are doomed. The digital clock will not turn back.

Lately I spend a portion of my life in the company of people aged 18 to 20. They don't read very much. Many of them, even in college, don't read at all. Every once in a while, one of them (always a guy) will rear up his head and proclaim, "Print is Dead." Ironically, this always is offered by one of the clever young people who actually does read, and who derived the notion that print is dead from reading it in a book.

Our culture is changing fundamentally. The Western world is moving from a cultural universe dominated by the printed page to one dominated by screens. This is a fact. The implications of that fact are explored at great and fascinating length in (what else?) a book titled The Gutenberg Elegies by (what else?) a literary critic named Sven Birkerts. Birkerts' thesis is that the book per se will be around for decades to come, if only because scrolling up and down a computer screen is a very inefficient and uncomfortable way to consume lengthy texts.

But even as the physical commodity called "book" survives, the mental faculties associated with a reading culture will atrophy. As the cultural center of gravity shifts from the page to the screen, Birkerts suggests, certain modes of human consciousness will wither from disuse, while others arise and flourish.

Electronic culture is already awakening in the young minds of the West new capacities for quick-cut, non-linear, associative thinking and a new sensitivity to visual information. This is not a bad thing, just a different one. Lost in the evolutionary process, Birkerts says, is the capacity for depth of focus. And that is what book reading requires.

To take in an ambitious literary novel or a closely reasoned work of social criticism, one must commit to the world of the book with total interior concentration. With our world bouncing back at us from the surface of a screen, we will become broader and more superficial creatures.

BIRKERTS IS MOSTLY right. But human history, like most lives, is laced with inexplicable surprises. If one looks around the cultural landscape today, one would have to say that the book, as a means to the interior life, is certainly ailing. But, like the prematurely discarded plague victim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, books are not dead yet. Anecdotal evidence even suggests they're getting better.

Check out Oprah's Book Club, for example. In October, talk show host Oprah Winfrey announced that she would devote one hour-long program each month to the discussion of a book. Her viewers were instructed to buy the book, read it, and send in questions for the author. Four viewers would join Oprah and the author for dinner and conversation. It worked. At this writing three of the televised book sessions have occurred. The talk is serious and substantial, and people are buying and reading the books.

Each of the three books Oprah has taken on has experienced a sales bump in excess of a half-million copies. Oprah is pegging and plugging serious books. The biggest book sales and public interest did come from the November book club edition featuring Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. Morrison is a challenging, artistically ambitious, sometimes difficult writer; the rewards for those who enter her worlds are enormous. Morrison's book sales went up more from her hour on Oprah than from her winning the Nobel Prize in literature a few years back.

Thirty years ago serious novelists—of Morrison's caliber—regularly appeared on TV talk shows. I remember as a boy seeing Norman Mailer on the Carson show and Gore Vidal on Merv Griffin. As a result, I went out and read their books. Slowly the place of literature has declined in media land. Now it is relegated to brief spots on public broadcasting and Sunday nights on C-Span II for the cable cognoscenti.

Oprah has changed that. And the success of her project proves that literature didn't go away because the public got stupid. It went away because the profits-per-minute are higher from more trivial pursuits. Oprah started her book club because she loves to read and she thinks other people should too. She picks the books herself from among her own bedside book pile. Oprah is the richest woman in show business and can do what she pleases, and in this case she used that power to enrich the popular culture and the popular soul.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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