In this chapter, Carr turns his attention to the fate of the printed book. To some extent, Carr argues, the book has remained fairly safe from the Net’s influence. You don’t have to worry about a book breaking, there is far less eye fatigue, and engaging physically with a book offers a pleasure that reading Internet text cannot. However, though it has taken a bit for e-books to get off the ground, digital readers are making improvements in an attempt to compete with the old-fashioned intellectual technology of books. New high-resolution screens have reduced eye strain and features like the ability to enlarge type or sound out words are boons for the elderly. The ability to download as many books to your reader as you can mp3s to an iPod has a definite appeal. The e-book has started to take hold.
The pastime of reading has been safe in some ways from the influence of the Internet, but only in so far as the printed book still exists––and even that is changing. Though the book has an enduring appeal due to its non-electronic nature, new digital readers are gaining increased popularity. Alluding to the fate of the printed book prepares the reader for a chapter devoted to this “old-fashioned” technology and how it may be in danger.
Carr emphasizes that the experience of reading on an e-reader is much different than the experience of reading a paper book. The Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader, has a built-in wireless component allowing you to purchase new books, read newspapers, search the web, etc. One of the most notable Kindle features is the incorporation of links. You can be redirected to an article on related topics, a word’s definition, or Google search results. The author Steven Johnson worries that the new dynamic offered by the e-book, where a world of pertaining information is so easily searchable, will cause us to lose the total immersion that is the classic joy of book reading. Of the digitized book, Carr writes: “It loses what the late John Updike called its ‘edges’ and dissolves into the vast, roiling waters of the Net.” Reading printed books in e-book form has, in other words, become as distracting as reading websites.
E-readers like the Kindle present the same issues as other media absorbed by the Internet. Through the process of digitization, the media, and thus the experience of the content itself, is changed. Being able to check the definition of a word or search a related article at any time is not recognizable as a traditional reading experience. Once more Carr urges us to look at the consequences of digitization of content––namely, that we are distracted from truly engaging with the content by the very nature of the medium.
The digitization of the book is influencing how new books are produced as well. The more readers find books using online search engines, the higher the pressure for writers to craft their books with the question of how their book could get clicks in mind. Essayist Caleb Crain describes the coming phenomenon as a trend towards “groupiness” in writing and reading, where people read “for the sake of a feeling of belonging” rather than enlightenment. Writers, Carr worries, are in the same vein moving away from risky experimentation and towards palatable and accessible styles. The odd result is that we are reversing a historical pattern. The era of mass book reading is coming to a close, and literary readers are again becoming a minority group.
This segment introduces the concept of historical inversion. Literary readers are again becoming a minority. The culprit, for Carr, is once again the amazing influence of the Internet. Writers are changing their styles to accommodate the “groupy” atmosphere of the Internet. As a result, book writers are shying away from experimentation in order to gain more readers, a mindset inherited from the Internet-born desire to get the most hits. The pull away from the individual and towards the most palatable is, for Carr, a worrisome trend because it shuts the door on literary reading.
Throughout history, Carr explains, people who believed that new technologies would replace books have always been wrong. Phonograph lovers thought soon all books would be recorded as audio, but listening didn’t replace reading. Neither have technologies like the Internet or TV, but our preoccupation with these new technologies means we devote less time than ever to actually reading solid books. They may still be around, but we are no longer, Carr argues, in the age of print.
The time we devote to the Internet has consumed our leisure to the point that Carr can confidently announce the end of the era of print. The takeaway from this segment is that while books may still be around, they may as well not be because we just aren’t reading them.
Scholars like Clay Shirky from NYU are fine with this change. Shirky argues that people don’t need or want to read Tolstoy or Proust anymore for good reason. Those big tomes and the literary reading they invite were, to Shirky, “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.” His point is that we only read such long works because a more efficient way of learning wasn’t yet available. People like Shirky represent the new anti-literary mind, but Carr is skeptical of his argument. He worries that Shirky’s attitude is less an argument than a convenient way to avoid guilt about wanting to constantly slip into the distracting, addictive juggling act of online life. Carr’s conclusion in this chapter is that we have rejected the individual, focused intellectual tradition for a working life preoccupied with juggling a multiplicity of tasks.
Here Carr addresses a very important counter-objection: What if people are fine with the end of print? Attitudes like Shirky’s suggest that the end of literary reading is actually a sign of progress and ushers in a new age of informational accessibility. Carr suggests that this attitude is concealing the justifications of an addict, however. The juggling act of the Internet, to put it bluntly, is fun––and people will go to great lengths to convince themselves that the fun way is the best one. But choosing fun, for Carr, means rejecting the literary tradition that gave us enriched individuality. That has to have some very serious consequences.