People want me to join the Grand Army of Literary Pessimists. A recruiting sergeant for the Army comes to visit me regularly in the darkest corner of the night when I'm unable to sleep. He begins with an accusation. "Are you blind? The book is on life support. You and your friends read books because you've read them since you were young. Do you really think that in 2061 people will be reading physical books? Do you think there will be bookstores? Or libraries? Or corners of IKEA stores where you can buy bookcases? Ha. They'll all be gone. Just this week, a researcher at North Carolina State University announced the development of a computer chip that can store a library's worth of information on that single chip. In ten years e-books will make up more than 80% of book sales. Look at the sales figures or estimates for the SONY Reader, the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, or Google's new platform that makes e-books available on almost all web-enabled devices."
"Ha, yourself," I yell back. I'm not that articulate in the middle of the night. "Just call yourselves Luddites and be done with it. I admit I like the feel of the book, the slow unfolding of the pages and the plot or argument, the shocks of recognition that spring from the page to my mind. But you sound like those people who moaned and groaned that the world would end when this guy Gutenberg invented the printing press. How, they wondered, could the world survive without parchment? So what if people read on the screen instead of from a book? What's the difference how you're reading Flaubert. Le mot juste can be in print or pixels."
"If only it were that simple, Larry." It's an old sales trick. He repeats my name to make me like him. "But it's not. People won't be reading Flaubert or Dickinson. Have you never seen how people read online? They don't sit there and focus the way you do with a book. They grow restless. They read the first few lines. Their concentration has been reduced to tweets. They jump around. And the people who produce the materials for these e-readers aren't stupid. They want to attract consumers. The iPad is a sign of the future. It's not a dedicated reader. So you read a sentence, and then you text a friend. Then you read a few more words and listen to a Lady Gaga song. You listen to the radio on the new Nook. The writing will be filled with hyperlinks because there will be pictures to see and just a perfect YouTube video to watch instead of struggling with those long, hard words.
"And I'm not done, Larry. Forget the music and the videos. Just look at the writing of the future. The words will be simple. Who is going to take the time to craft words and ideas carefully when there won't be an audience, or the current audiences won't read them or won't understand them?
I shake my head. "Great books are still being published. There are extraordinary writers out there."
"That's the last desperate flicker of light. We're entering a new Dark Ages. It will take some time, but we're getting there. Oh, we had a good run. A few centuries with the novel and a bit longer with other kinds of writing in the modern world. But soon enough our literate civilization will decay. And you're just reading through the apocalypse. You should join our Grand Army."
The night ends. I want to be a draft dodger, to resist signing up with the Grand Army. I want to keep on writing and reading books. I want to believe in the future of books and readers and publishers and bookstores and libraries and bookcases. That is, I want to believe in the future of humanity, at least as I understand it.
But I keep having the draft dodger blues.