Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sometimes an "Apple" Falls Far From the Tree

You hear it everywhere. The death knell of the "reader," meaning the reader of books. None other than the great jillionaire Steve Jobs, in remarking about the future of Amazon's Kindle, the e-book reading device recently launched, declared it would fail because "people have stopped reading."

If one cites the obvious, the evidence is chilling. Newspaper readership is declining, meaning the paper newspaper and on-line "newspapering" has not yet taken up the financial slack. Some magazines are still healthy financially, but there is evidence that the ceiling may have been reached in that medium. Information delivery is migrating to the Internet at an ever increasing pace. It is mind boggling, unprecedented, and epochal.

I have strong doubts that Mr. Jobs was referring to informational reading, instructive reading, academic reading, current events reading, scientific reading and the like, all of which are available on the Kindle. Without the ability to read even the Apple would have remained simply the name of a fruit. Surely he could not have meant that movies and games and music have totally and irrevocably replaced reading and erased the need for such an enterprise. I suspect that he was referring to story reading, meaning fiction or creative reading.

He may have a point, although I doubt it. Reading, both serious fiction reading and entertainment, has always occupied a comparatively small percentage of the public's attention. We tend to think that story readers were ubiquitous perhaps based on the impact these books made on the public mind and in the marketplace of ideas. Not everybody in Russia, where a vast mass of illiterates made their homes, read Tolstoy. This was true in every country where what we have come to know as the classics were published. Even in our country, the fame of such novelists as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and others could not be based on numbers when calculated as a percentage of public readership.

Surely a definition of a reader should be applied to the great best seller of all time, the Bible, whose Old and New Testaments continue to outsell all books everywhere. It is, indeed, one of the great novels ever written whether one believes it is divinely inspired or not. Then there is the Koran, which I suppose has its own novelistic elements as well as books that form the foundation of other religions. Did Jobs mean that the Bible, too, fails to attract readers? I doubt it.

The fact is that one element of our world is unchanging, human nature. Man's search for knowing, for insight into the mysteries of the universe, for unraveling life's dilemmas, for the meaning of love, of good and evil and the myriad "why's" and "how comes" that mystify us in our short moment on the planet. As near as I can tell, that search for meaning has sprung out of the creative imagination of those who have taken the trouble to write down in words the narrative of the human condition.

And, to my mind, no one yet has invented a better way to convey that narrative than through stories, whether these stories were told orally, then on stones and parchment, morphing into paper, and now on screens. It is true that content can be conveyed through visual and musical means often with great emotional impact, but it is words that hands down dominate the mind's power to communicate intellectually.

In a sense reading, even by Mr. Jobs' definition, has always been a niche category. Try counting the number of people reading books on airplanes, trains, buses, and other public conveyances. The numbers are infinitesimal and indicative of a substantial minority. On the other hand visit libraries and bookstores, websites, cafes, and other venues where readers congregate, including those who get their literary fixes on convenient portable digital devises like the Kindle and the SONY reader. Walk the length of the book convention sites from Los Angeles to Peking, from Frankfort to Sidney, and you will marvel at the numbers of purveyors satisfying the demand of readers.

From the beginning of time, there have always been "readers." Some people, not all, will never slake their thirst for reading stories. Even after hell freezes over, which, by the way, makes for an interesting story some of us might want to read some day.

Warren Adler's thirtieth book Funny Boys will be published in March. He is the author of The War of the Roses and Random Hearts.

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