The now of the book

Since I began writing, the book has been dying. No one has time to read any more. In our busy digital lives prose needs to readjust itself to fit in. It needs to be sliced in to ever tinier sections. The blog-post. The status update. The tweet. These things have their purposes, but they do not suit fiction overly well. There will never be a great, or even satisfactory, Twitter novel.

It’s one of those common sense fallacies that flash fiction suits our modern life better. No one has time to read anymore, goes the logic, except the occaisional five minute life-gap during the daily commute. Maybe, between emails and tweets, we might read a very concentrated burst of literature.

We won’t.

We won’t have novels with embedded videos either. Or sound-clips. Or RSS feed streaming content. And stories won’t be interactive. Most of all, they will not be interactive. Not that people will stop trying to do these things. They make perfect sense from a marketing perspective. The customer is always right. Prose fiction, says the marketeer, must adapt itself to the whims of the customer.

No. The customer must adapt themself to the demands of prose fiction. The book is defined by the fact that it takes time, and during that time you must concentrate on what you are being told. You do not get to lapse in to the zombie state of the television viewer. You do not get to choose what happens. The book does not change, the book changes you.

The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be. Fewer people may choose to test themself against it, in which case there will be more idiots in the world. Or more people will grow their minds and consciouness through reading, and the world will be a better place.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

20 thoughts on “The now of the book

  1. I can understand that you wrote this to get a reaction, but it does seem extraordinarily abrupt and closed to reason. The penultimate paragraph is hard to beat for presumably feigned arrogance, but the final tries.

    “The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be.” – Hard to believe that the evolution of the form is complete, that there is no room for improvement. At the very least, I wouldn’t claim certainty in the matter. What criteria are you using here?

    “Fewer people may choose to test themself against it, in which case there will be more idiots in the world.” – A writer tells us that not reading books will make us an idiot. Could we ask for more explanation of that bold idea? Or is this a case of “you must concentrate on what you are being told”?

    “Or more people will grow their minds and consciouness through reading, and the world will be a better place.” – Minds and consciousness can be grown in many more ways than through books. Human contact, exploration and exercise for example, creative pursuits beyond the written word even. Reading does generally help with spelling though.

    Perhaps a definition of ‘book’ is needed too, because I’ve read a mixed bag in my lifetime.


  2. In a world of increasingly fragmented attention spans two things above all return me to myself: reading a long book and a long hike in the woods.


    1. Interactivity makes perfect sense, until you remember that reading is already interactive in a much deeper sense. The reader is the one realy telling the story. Gross interactive frameworks just get in the way of that.


      1. Agreed. The operationalized idea of interactivity, where the reader’s choices and creativity are more limited and essentially submitted to a structure that distances the story from their imaginative absorption, certainly inhibits engagement. I think people do forget that books are not “just-so” but that we give them life by interacting with them.


  3. Hi Damien,

    I agree entirely.

    My heart sinks when I hear people talking about all this interactivity that somehow needs to be wrapped into e-books. Wrong. These “interactive books” exist and they are called computer games. What marketeers presumably mean is the breadcrumb viral ad-stuff that will allow them to put something in your field of view. And to that I say thanks but no thanks.

    Another thing that seems to be very fashionable is the idea of books becoming social. Outside of a book group why would I want that? Why do I need to be distracted by someone else’s thoughts when I am trying to enjoy the world that someone has created for ME.

    But I don’t think it’s all bad news.

    I listened to an interesting interview with a US publisher a while back. He went on record as stating that he was surprised at how many teenagers appeared to be reading and swapping books. He’d expected (I think this was part of some school visits he was involved in) to find US schools a literature wasteland – but he turned out to be wrong and was happy to admit it.

    If I recall correctly he also thought there was a lost generation (people just out of their teens but not yet settled with kids) who had stopped reading. So maybe it’s a generational thing.


    1. Ah now, the social book ideas are the only parts of interactivity that DO interest me. The possibility that I could read a super-annotated text is fascinating, with comments from the author, trades, critics etc. I would want to turn it off, but in principle it is something I would like to see.


      1. I read a lot of non-fiction (Science and History for the most part) and annotations are one of the best bits. I really like seeing them. Particularly if it’s some little nugget of an aside. This doesn’t work as well in fiction. Those that manage it (you know who they are) do so because they do it well but they are exceptions. If you’re saying a an electronically annotated text is what you want to see then I understand that. But would you feel the same if an annotation turned out to be an advert for another product? Or some wittering gibberish from somewhere else on the web? Or even just a relevant animated image blinking just in your field of view.

        I wasn’t joking when I said that interactive books do exist – some are even lauded – all anyone has to do is play through something like the Grim Fandango or Monkey Island. They play out rather like [surreal] books – with pictures in.

        It could even be argued that the really good PC games (e.g. SS2) tell an unfolding story in ways that are similar to books AND cinema. But that may be a running into a different topic.


      2. It’s true that quality control might cripple community annotations. It would only take interventions from one Justin Bieber fan to muddy an otherwise good conversation about, say, Don Delillo’s Underworld. But fundamentally I like the idea of being able to add to a discussion on a text that might have been going on for years or decades. Hmmm…perhaps authors could moderate the annotations to their texts? Or nominate fan moderators? A system a little like Wikipedia?


  4. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a novel is a ‘ long printed story about imaginary characters and events’. So anything that isn’t printed isn’t a novel! Flippancy aside, I do believe there’s nothing to beat the novel (whether printed in ink or its e-alternative or narrated and squished into a series of MP3s) for simple escapism. When it comes to speculative fiction in particular this frequently feels like an escape to another reality altogether but what it really is, of course, is escape into ourselves. The paradox is, we don’t know the way. That’s why should keep our mouths shut and let the author plan the route, surprise us and shock us, and leave us feeling different coming out than we did going in. That said, I also believe the novel is bound to evolve. What doesn’t? When the seas rise you grow flippers. The point is, you survive.


    1. Yes, novels take us on a journey in to ourselves. That’s so true, but also so difficult to grasp. It’s one of the reasons why we need to trust authors, much in the way you need to trust a teacher or counsellor. One of the reasons I struggle with much literary fiction is because I never quite trust the author to get over their own ego.


  5. “… might cripple …”

    I think will is the word you’re looking for.

    We’ve both been on the net long enough to know that the old adage is true: “The biggest argument against social books is a five minute discussion with the average person. “


  6. As far as I’m concerned, I think the only interactive book is the Choose Your Own Adventure kind — and that has its limits, of course.

    Very thought-provoking post. I came here via a link from Kat Howard’s blog (for a different post).


  7. “Since I began writing, the book has been dying. No one has time to read any more”
    Claire Marriott, in this month’s Writer’s News says “According to The Bookseller the UK market has achieved volume growth of 9% and has increased in value by 4% since 2004″.
    So hopefully the fears of decline are unjustified.
    She also claims that books are shorter than in 1989, on the basis of very slim evidence. That’s not my experience, on a longer time spanadmittedly, popular books have become very much longer since the 1960’s, which is not necessarily a good thing.



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