Reading in the Age of Screens

In Guest Contributors by Chad W. Post

Editorial by Chad W. Post

Contemporary life is lived through screens. Initially, it was the TV that invaded our families and took over our free time. Now it’s computers, smartphones, tablets; it’s email, digital files, the cloud. For better or worse, the past quarter-century (or more) has powered a move away from the physical and into cyberspace — especially in terms of our work-life and entertainment options.

Chad Post

Book discovery in the digital world is based on algorithms that identify patterns. What happens to a book that doesn’t fit the pattern?

None of this is new. But the question for publishers is how can they adapt to these new techno-cultural forces, and what this means for readers. As a publisher of translated fiction, I’m interested in what is lost in this shift away from human interaction and what that means for serious literature — specifically, fiction and nonfiction in translation — and what possibilities there are for new modes of audience development.

I want to define what I mean by “serious literature” and why I think this is a subgenre worth considering in special detail. What I’m talking about are those books — the truly literary works that lend themselves to being read, appreciated, and debated decades in the future. Yes, I’m aware that without even really defining this it already smacks of elitism. And yes, I realize that to try and truly describe the parameters of what defines “literature” is an impossible task. Instead of trying to restrict this, or embark on endless, Borgesian categorizing, I just want to distinguish between “literature” and “entertainments.” These terms can apply to any and all genres: there are comic books and literary graphic novels, there’s James Joyce and there’s Twilight, Thomas Bernhard and James Patterson, Dubravka Ugresic and Sarah Palin’s autobiography. You know it when you see it.

Generally speaking, most people read “entertainments.” And more power to them. For the vast majority of people, reading is just another way to kill some free time once they’ve conquered all their videogames, the 359 channels filled with drudgery, and the Internets that aren’t updating themselves as fast as their growing boredom. In terms both of content and intended audience, all the Vooks and enhanced this-and-that are ideal for these sorts of books. And these are the sort of books that reinforce the social impulse behind reading — it’s much easier to find people to talk to about these sorts of titles, because these tend to be those books that seemingly everyone is reading. Much easier to find Facebook friend with whom you can share certain experiences . . .

For a million different capitalist reasons, we tend to equate sales with success. If a book reaps profits, it must be a good book. And from the perspective of a struggling business, this is the sort of success one needs to survive. But there are other metrics . . . There are reasons to value works of “high literature” that may sell only a few thousand copies, but have a great impact on this select group of readers. As alluded to above, these are the books that may not crack the best-seller lists, but spark innovation and new ideas. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but speaking in broad strokes, “entertainments” tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas “literature” can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions. Which may well explain why these books have limited sales success . . .

In Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he describes the neurological basis behind why we find certain music beautiful, other compositions stridently unpleasant, and why these standards change over time. No need to go into the whole explanation here, but it’s basically all about pattern recognition. When we hear a piece of music, we predict what’s coming next — we look for recognizable patterns. And in a wicked positive feedback loop, when we guess correctly, our brain rewards us, provides us with a pleasant feeling that is associated with that pattern, a pattern that we then seek out, anticipate, get rewarded for, on and on. This is one reason why hearing songs we’ve heard a number of times is such a warm experience.

Speaking in broad strokes, “entertainments” tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas “literature” can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions.

Although I’m clearly extending metaphors and jumping frames from neuroscience to societal influences, I think part of the constant recycling of ideas and easily recognizable plots, melodies, phrasings are based in our attraction to the patterns we’re already familiar with. We — meaning the aggregate of the hundreds of millions of people who bought and read books last year — like books, movies, art that’s, for the most part, smooth and unchallenging. Not all of “us,” clearly, but those of “us” who make books bestsellers and turn Mormon parables into a worldwide phenomenon.

Online Discovery Moment #1: I’m a consummate user of GoodReads. Within minutes of finishing a book, I’ve already written a brief review about it and updated my profile to review the book I’m about to start next. I scan the daily digest emails to see what my friends are reading, recommending, planning to read. I see this as one of the main ways I keep my finger on the pulse of the literary community, while finding out about titles worth checking out. (More on that below.) Recently though, I noticed that all of my friends are just like me. We read translations, we avoid “grocery store” books, we love the European modernists and the post-Boom Latin American authors. In a way, this is not dissimilar from picking out books that fit pre-existing patterns. My social group doesn’t necessarily inform me, it reflects back at me my own literary values.

Broadly speaking, “literature” is pattern breaking. This isn’t necessarily always true, but most of the truly lasting works are the ones that shift our perceptions, that shock us with the new. This is one reason why these books might not sell quite as well as their more entertaining counterparts, but as mentioned above, these books can turn out to be much more influential in the long run. Take David Markson for example. His early books sold like shit (and I know — I worked for his publisher), yet writers thought him a writer’s writer, which influenced their writing, which spread virally, which lead to his books selling better, and also to things like David Shield’s Reality Hunger.

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Not only would I argue that the cultural import of these books far exceeds their sales, but that the majority of these influential “literary” books are works in translation. America (and Great Britain) is notorious for sucking at the whole translated literature thing, and yet ask a crowded room to name their all-time favorite books and you’ll be inundated with a long list of titles not originally penned in English. (To hearken back: what could be better at throwing a wrench into predicted patterns than something coming from an entirely different culture, with a totally different semantic web, and unique way of perceiving the world? And it’s worth noting that although we may initially resist these sorts of titles, it’s the uniqueness, the upending that is most memorable and has the longest lasting impact.)

Nevertheless, for a long while now the cultural discourse as we know it has come to apply certain unfavorable words to the most serious of literature. Translated literature is talked about as “serious,” “European,” “difficult,” “dry,” etc. (Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story does a brilliant job of satirizing and taking this trend to its extreme.) It’s also always framed from the perspective that something has been “lost” in going from one language and culture to another — a perspective that diminishes the importance of the translation and provides yet another reason to avoid reading these books. (Unless the book being reviewed is a Swedish crime novel, or something that fits our patterns perfectly, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.) All of these phrases make it sound like reading these books would be work, no? Whether it’s acknowledged or not, this is part of the overriding prejudice that results in the oft-cited figure that only 3% of all the books published in America are works in translation. We know they won’t sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc.

This “musty” European literature — in outmoded printed book form! — is, in some ways, the antithesis to this Age of Screens in which every new gadget is “slicker,” “sleeker,” “sexier” than the last. We fetishize devices to such a degree that the common subway rider is more likely to judge their fellow commuters based on what Droid OS they’re using than what book someone is reading.

Despite all my depressive and resigned statements above — “the masses want Britney Spears ad infinitum!” — I do believe there is a countermovement. There is a group of readers, small but powerful, who see “literature” as something the cool kids do, analogous to listening to the hippest of the indie rock, to residing on the marginalized fringes of culture where trends are set. Which is what really brings me to the key set of questions I have when thinking about our book culture — both from the view of an avid reader and a publisher of “serious translated literature”: given all the other pattern-fitting entertainments available, what pleasures does a reader receive that cause them to pick up a work of “literature”?; how does this overcome the “negative priming” that’s become associated with literature in translation?; how does someone actually find out about a pattern-shattering book and what actually gets them to pick it up?; especially in an age of abundance where more than a million books are published every year?; which literary books are the ones that acquire a sort of “cool” veneer that helps them find a cult audience—one that slowly moves from cult to mainstream in a way that mimics the viral spread of internet videos?; and can our Age of Screens facilitate the development and expansion of this fringe?

How does someone actually find out about a pattern-shattering book and what actually gets them to pick it up?

Since the launch of the first idea of an electronic book, there’s been gallons of ink spilled comparing the publishing and music industries. There are some fruitful comparisons there, several lessons to learn, but there are a few key disconnects that influence the answer to the questions posed above.

In Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, he used the Rhapsody music service (which I swear by and am using as I write this) to show that in a digital marketplace, the niches find their consumers. When everything is made available and is equally accessible, the “fringes” can find their thing. We’re unbound by the physicality of space, where all that’s available is the top selling items. In other words, suddenly anyone can access those musicians who shatter patterns and help change the world.

But music does not equal books. Music is communal, immediate. You walk into the Gap and you’re exposed to the latest “indie” bands while you procure a sweater to keep you warm. And then that song shows up on a Volkswagen commercial, in a Starbucks CD . . . We are constantly exposed to music and we can become attracted to it within seconds. I’ve shopped at Banana Republic hundreds of times and never once have I heard someone reciting a Cavafy poem. And when I buy I book, I know I’m setting aside at least ten hours of my life . . . Whereas I listen to at least a couple new albums a week just driving to and from work.

So how does anyone find a pattern-shattering work of literature? Not on TV commercials. Or in the mall. Or in reviews. And there is no for edgy books.

Online Discovery Moment #2: I’m curious about what kind of impact a Pitchfork for books would have. Not just because a tastemaking sort of site like this would imbue reading with a sense of being hypercool, but because I think the numbered grading system would revolutionize the way readers relate to book reviews. As things are now, reviews are written to be read and pondered. Some are more obviously positive (or negative) than others, but most are crafted to be somewhere in between. This book “shows promise,” but is also “overly ambitious.” “Brilliant, yet flawed.” So on and forth. I think there’s a reason the majority of readers just look at the first and last paragraphs — they want the punchline: is this book good? Rather than deny this impulse (which is only ramped up in our age of abundance and screens), we should take advantage of the desire for fixed knowledge. By giving Franzen’s Freedom a 4.4, readers will immediately engage — either for or against. They’ll be encouraged to engage because they’ve been given a clear base against which to react. They’d be more likely to become involved in discussions, or read the book to reinforce (or dismiss) this very clear, numerological judgment. At least this is my hypothesis.

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered by Chad Post at the 8th International Nonfiction Conference: Quality Nonfiction in the Digital Era held in Amsterdam earlier this month. The continuation of the speech will be posted at the Three Percent Web site over the coming days.

DISCUSS: Do Book Reviews Need a Numerical Rating System?

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.