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Death Watch

A bit macabre, I know. But here begins a new category looking at the ways we talk about the death of books and other kinds of media. Its part voyeurism, part debunking of the hyperbole surrounding reading.

The first exhibit belongs to Laura Miller’s recent piece in Salon, “Click here or we’ll burn this book.” Book burning is obviously a politically sensitive gesture, so invoking it is sure to get a rise one way or the other. Perhaps more than any other medium books seem to be the most personifiable. They stand in extraordinarily well for well-meaning humans — maybe it’s all those headers, footnotes and spines, or maybe it’s the way books, unlike TV’s, iPads and telephones have been considered to be sacred objects throughout history.

Miller’s piece covers a recent uproar about a library closing where a PR firm staged a stunt about burning the books in the library. It becomes an occasion for Miller to reflect on what it means not to read books. Here’s Miller:

If nobody’s going to read them anyway because they are too busy browsing YouTube or watching “America’s Got Talent” or playing “Call of Duty,” if the books sit in storage until they crumble away because no one checks them out, the end result is the same. If they’re sent out to bookstores and end up returned and pulped because they didn’t sell — the fate of some 40 percent of all the books published — the end result is the same. If someone on Etsy turns them into an artwork or a purse or an iPad case, the end result is the same. The books don’t get read. And books become inert, meaningless objects if they are never read. In which case, you might as well burn them…Oblivion is oblivion.

Miller’s concern isn’t the usual one today about ebooks killing books (or ebooks killing the whole industry, thank you Amazon). It’s the much older one about other media distracting us from reading. It’s about us becoming less literate.

People like Leah Price have been taking aim at this one for a long time — more of us seem to be reading more than ever Price argued a while back in the NY Times (in internet time it was ages ago). The problem is not necessarily not reading, but that what we read, and how we read, is changed by the technology. Do we think differently when we read lots of little snippets versus very long sustained narratives or arguments?

The other problem is Miller’s binary of books as inert objects or spiritually vibrant. Books are meaningful even when we don’t read them. This is not to disagree with Miller, just to say that oblivion is different from not reading. Getting rid of books versus not making them anymore are two very different things. And either way, we are changed, for the worse, by not having this kind of physical relationship to reading still available to us.