The stages of a writer's professional life are marked not by a name on an office door, but by a name in ink. There was the morning when my father came home carrying a stack of Sunday papers because my byline was on page one, and the evening that I persuaded a security guard to hand over an early edition, still warm from the presses, with my first column. But there's nothing to compare to the day when someone—in my case, the FedEx guy—hands over a hardcover book with your name on the cover. And with apologies to all the techies out there, I'm just not sure the moment would have had the same grandeur had my work been downloaded instead into an e-reader.
The book is dead, I keep hearing as I sit writing yet another in a room lined with them. Technology has killed it. The libraries of the world are doomed to become museums, storage facilities for a form as antediluvian as cave paintings. Americans, however, tend to bring an either-or mentality to most things, from politics to prose. The invention of television led to predictions about the demise of radio. The making of movies was to be the death knell of live theater; recorded music, the end of concerts. All these forms still exist—sometimes overshadowed by their siblings, but not smothered by them. And despite the direst predictions, reading continues to be part of the life of the mind, even as computers replace pencils, and books fly into handhelds as well as onto store shelves. Anton Chekhov, meet Steve Jobs.
There's no question that reading off-paper, as I think of it, will increase in the years to come. The nurse-midwives of literacy, public librarians, are already loaning e-readers; a library that got 10 as gifts reported that within a half hour they had all been checked out. And there's no question that once again we will be treated to lamentations suggesting that true literacy has become a lost art. The difference this time is that we will confront elitism from both sides. Not only do literary purists now complain of the evanescent nature of letters onscreen, the tech aficionados have become equally disdainful of the old form. "This book stinks," read an online review of the bestseller Game Change before the release of the digital version. "The thing reeks of paper and ink."
Perhaps those of us who merely want to hunker down and be transported should look past both sides to concern ourselves with function instead of form. I am cheered by the Gallup poll that asks a simple question: do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present? In 1952 a mere 18 percent of respondents said yes. The last time the survey was done, in 2005, that number was 47 percent. So much for the good old days.
But not so fast: the National Endowment for the Arts released a report in 2007 that said reading fiction was declining sharply, especially among younger people. Market research done for booksellers has found that the number of so-called avid readers, those who buy more than 10 books a year, skews older and overwhelmingly female. One of the most surprising studies indicates that the biggest users of e-readers are not the YouTube young but affluent middle-aged men. (Some analysts suggest that this may be about adaptable font size; oh, our failing eyes!) The baby boomers are saving publishing; after them, the deluge?
The most provocative account of the effect of technology on literacy is now 16 years old, and while it remains a good read—in ink on paper but not, alas, digitally—the passage of time shows that its dark view of the future is overstated. Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegiesnotes, correctly, that "our entire collective subjective history—the soul of our societal body—is encoded in print." But the author rejects the notion that words can appear on a computer screen in a satisfactory fashion: "The assumptions that underlie their significance are entirely different depending on whether we are staring at a book or a circuit—generated text," he says.
Is that true? Is Jane Austen somehow less perceptive or entertaining when the words "It is a truth universally acknowledged" appear onscreen? It's disconcerting to read that many of the bestselling novels in Japan in recent years have been cell-phone books. But it's also cheering to hear from e-book owners who say they find themselves reading more because the books come to them rather than the other way around. I remember an impassioned eulogy for the typewriter delivered years ago by one of my newspaper colleagues: how, he asked, could we write on a keyboard that made no sound? Just fine, it turned out.
There is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction. That's because they're really judgments on human nature. If you've convinced yourself that America is a deeply anti-intellectual country, it must follow that we don't read, or we read the wrong things, or we read them in the wrong fashion. And now we have gleeful e-elitism as well, the notion that the conventional product, printed and bound, is a hopeless dinosaur. Tech snobbery is every bit as silly as the literary variety. Both ignore the tremendous power of book love. As Kafka once said, "A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us."
Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives. There are book clubs and book Web sites and books on tape and books online. There are still millions of people who like the paper version, at least for now. And if that changes—well, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul? Would Dickens have recognized a paperback of A Christmas Carol, or, for that matter, a Braille version? Even on a cell-phone screen, Tiny Tim can God-bless us, every one.