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Will Novels Die?

March 24th, 2008 by Andrew Cochrane


In paper form, yes. Before I expand, read this article by novelist David Louis Edelman. For the short attention spanned, here are the most important parts:

We haven’t always had novels. No, in fact, while recorded human history has been going on for five thousand years now (depending on how you define it), the novel has been around for less than five hundred (depending on how you define it)… The fact of the matter is that the novel itself is an art form that evolved to take advantage of a certain new technology, namely the printing press. Why do books tend to be no larger than around 8″ x 12″? Because that’s about as large as you can make a book and still be able to hold it comfortably in your hands and transport it from place to place. Why does the print tend to be around a point size of 12? Because that’s about as small as you can make text and still have it be readable at arm’s length. Take those limitations and you’ll find that you can’t easily pack more than 200,000 words into a single novel. So the novel is, in fact, a device that’s both created by and limited by certain factors of human physiology.

Ok, so our attachment to the novel is an attachment to a relatively new art form, one that evolved due to technological and physiological concerns- not artistic ones. But moving pictures are only just over 100 years old as well, and a lot of us are pretty damn attached to that art form, and it is not dying anytime soon! So what makes me so sure the novel is a dying art form? Because there are newer, more convenient ways to enjoy written stories:

Very soon we’re going to have a medium for distributing the written word that’s not only easier but better suited to the task than books. So let’s dispense with the silly, sentimental arguments you often hear about why storytelling is never going to go electronic. “You can’t replace the feeling of a holding a book,” “I don’t like reading on a screen,” and “I can’t read an e-book in the bathtub” are some of the sillier excuses you hear all the time for why printed books are going to survive until the end of time. I’m sorry, but “I can hold my entire library in my hand,” “I can download new books at will,” “I can search my entire library in a nanosecond,” “I can instantly send books to my friends,” “I can translate and define words on the fly,” and “I don’t have to devote an entire room of my house to holding my books” are going to trump reading in the bathtub any day of the week.

Those of you who have heard my ongoing rant about the future of media distribution will recognize a similarity to my argument against trying to preserve physical media (that is another rant for another time). Basically I am not attached to any specific physical media, I am attached to the stories and music that they hold. If you look at how humans consume, they often go for the easiest, most convenient way to get what they want. And this is the crux of David’s point here- that new electronic forms of reading trump paper. The benefits of electronic distribution and consumption outweigh the sentimental attachment we have to the medium. The novel is not dead now, now will it be for years to come. But when it does die, story telling will live on.

I have been pretty down on myself the past few years for not reading enough books and newspapers in general. My mother reads constantly; I currently read 1-3 books a year, and mostly while on vacation, which doesn’t happen often enough for me. I have realized recently that I actually do read more words/day than a lot of people do, using RSS feeds to browse my favorite writers (you call them bloggers, I think you’re not seeing them for what they are) and news stories. I am as up to date and filled with ideas now as I ever have been, leading me to realize that reading is not dying, printing is.

So far this post has been a lot of doomsaying and negativity (depending on your perspective). Here is why the death of words printed on paper and bound into books is a completely acceptable state of affairs.  This story would never be possible in book form, not in an interactive and entertaining way.  It is a semi-interactive narrative using Google Maps to illustrate and animate through the story line. Notice that it is from Penguin, a book publisher. They are not simply getting on the electronic book bandwagon, they are recognizing and capturing the possibilities that electronic story telling offers. Or how about this site. David Wong’s brilliantly written novel, “John Dies at the End”, available online for free. It in fact started out online and was moved to a paper novel form after it gained success on the web.  Every page has large nagging links telling you to buy it in paper form, which is brilliant marketing. I have only read a few pages, but I’m hooked, and would honestly pay to continue reading online. This is some very smart usage of online distribution, and it is effective. I never would have read this story if it were not online, but now that I have found it, I am in love with Wong’s writing.

To round this all up and put an end to it so you can go enjoy the writing of far superior writers to myself:

The printed word will die because the electronic word is more convenient and more powerful.

Disagree? Share your thoughts below, let’s have a good old fashioned debate about this if you think I am wrong here.


9 Responses to “Will Novels Die?”

  1. alphamonkey

    Sweet creamy gravy, I hope not. Until there is a significant change in the way electronic text is displayed, I can’t see the printed novel dieing. I’ve yet to read an e-book (either at my PC or on a handheld) that either a) didn’t drive my eyes absolutely batshit or b) was able to hold my attention.

    I think the availability and ease of online publishing is a wondrous thing, but if a reader like me (at minimum 2 books a month) can’t enjoy e-books, I can’t help but think physical media will stay with us. If nothing else, physical media plays so directly into our collective monomania over STUFF. We’re collectors and hoarders. Digital media negates that.

    And man, oh man.. what a price we would pay if physical media were to die completely. Already music is overcompressed and distorted because of the ubiquitousness of mp3 (and as a long-time vinyl fanatic, I’ll spare everyone a massive rant on the shitty, shitty, shitty, shitty quality of even the best mp3. I still hate CDs for what they’ve done to mastering), and I defy anyone to exclaim their love regarding their mp3 collection with the same muster as someone who loves their cd or record collection.

  2. the commentator

    bloggers writers.

    Interesting comments by both author and alphamonkey. What happened to the vinyl album? I collect both cd’s and albums. CD’s for the quality and albums for the rustic nostalgia. I don’t get the downloading thing. It’s amazing how albums are being produced at all given the niched out way people approach buying music. No one cares (or at least appreciates) about operatic albums like ‘Born to Run’ or flawless ones like ‘Revolver’ it seems.

    Count me in as one of those who struggles to read online texts. I love the feel of a book or newspaper. That said, the internet is incredibly powerful. It may very well be as influential as the printing press when it came out in the 15th century which paved the way for novels.

    Which ties into one last thing, without the internet I would never have had a forum to express myself. Bloggers are indeed writers.

  3. Andy

    ok, lots to touch on here, so i’ll respond bit by bit. i think both of you bring up some great points! alphamonkey first:

    1) electronic text may drive your eyes batshit insane, but i know you spend a good portion of your day reading emails, blog posts, instant messages, etc. add to that that e paper solutions are apparently quite easy on the eyes compared to computer screens, and you arrive at a world in which reading from a screen is not all that bad.

    2) we love stuff, but we love ease of use more. that is why mp3s are killing the cd right now- it’s just too damn easy to download a song on itunes, rather than driving to a store or waiting for it to arrive in the mail from amazon etc. we may be attached to our records and liner notes and dvds, but when it comes to what we will buy, sorry, but convenience is king. youtube may suck in terms of quality, but it is eating a hole in tv viewership, not because it is free, because it is easy. whatever you want to see, it’s on right now.

    3) i do not like the lower quality of mp3s, video on the web, etc. but there is hope- as compression gets better and bandwidth increases, the quality is improving. 300kbps mp3s are much better than the 128kbps ones we had just a few years ago. the hidef video coming in on my cable box on demand is higher quality than anything else i have here at home (watching “disturbia” right now, man does it blow), and there are a lot of hd videos available on the web right now to download, soon i am sure to stream. we aren’t there yet, but i have faith that we are not doomed to a future of youtube quality entertainment.

    now, commentator:

    4)the reason nobody cares about ‘the album’ anymore is because almost nobody makes them anymore. there are certainly some artists who do, and i deeply salute them, but most ‘albums’ are a few good songs wrapped in filler they hope we will swallow so they can charge us full price.

    5) there are many exciting things that electronic media offers, such as being able to respond and participate! glad you found us and feel free join in anytime.

  4. the commentator

    #4: so true.

  5. alphamonkey

    I’m fully aware that my hatred of reading electronic text makes me more than slightly masochistic, but I feel compelled to point out in my defense: I always swipe/select the text I’m reading to inverse the background, otherwise I’m unable to keep my eyes on what I’m reading. Drives my wife (and anyone unlucky enough to be reading over my shoulder) insane.

    I’m willing to say that some advance in e-paper (along with a general gamma/contrast reduction) could go a long way in keeping my attention, but for now I’m too in love with turning physical pages.

    I deeply lament this culture’s almost impulsive need of convenience, as nearly always it requires quality to fall by the wayside (to whit: Albums are sonically superior to CDs which are superior to Mp3s).

  6. Andy

    you are a freak of nature. kidding, but that is really interesting to hear, i guess i can completely respect your stance then. i hope, for your sake, that e-paper develops into something as eye-friendly as real paper.

    i want a paperless world for environmental and economic reasons, and convenience- as well as the added benefits offered as listed in the linked article and in my own post. i hate that i need a scanner and a printer just to deal with the legal documents i need to review and sign every so often- i wish everything were just email. soon… soon…

  7. Andy

    Hey Alpha, this is just to piss you off, not because I think it’s good news.

  8. Andy

    Kevin Kelley just wrote a very detailed post about a lot of the same issues that Alpha and I have debated here and on other posts. Basically, he’s on my side.

  9. Emerson Yeargin

    I’m really enjoying your blog, seriously, it’s amazing. So happy I discovered it, I genuinely can’t stop reading! Thank you, and keep up the hard work! :)