About a month ago, I was talking to my friend Alanda for the first time in over a year. She was visiting her old friends still at McMaster philosophy after having moved to Barrie, gotten a teaching job at a college, and gotten married. One part of our conversation was about a new set of theories floating around educational circles about how to teach Millennials. This was a generation that had an entirely different perceptual understanding of computers, the internet, the temporal structure of the day. Millennials understood privacy, social interaction, how to behave in a classroom, how to learn, entirely differently than the generations before, because of their different relations to computer technology. She described them as a very alien society. It was then that, to her horror, I informed her that, having been born in 1983, I was a Millennial.
Normally, I don’t think this Millennial generational difference is that big a deal. But I saw some stuff at the Book Conference that made me think differently. The Book Conference had a different title when it began eight years ago, The Conference on the Future of the Book. The conference as I’ve come to know it in the last two years has covered many aspects of the phenomenon: literacy, education, book history, publishing business, the analysis of literature itself, intellectual and academic culture, and combinations and convergences of all these disciplines. But among them is a holdover from those early conferences: people who shook in their boots about the destruction of the book.
Their concerns were not Taliban-like anti-literacy movements, which exist and should be taken seriously and combatted. No, they were people scared of ebooks. Any new medium, like the electronic book, is going to have benefits and limitations. One advantage of ebooks is that they can be carried easily in large numbers. A library will be able to fit on an iPad. A limitation is the difficulty of controlling commerce in ebooks. They’ll be easy to download without financial recompense to the writer, so the economy of writers and books will have to change.
But I saw presentations and read essays about the popularization of ebooks that were conservative bordering on hysteria. I saw presentations that sought relevance for the physical book as a figure of fetishized pleasure, the turning of pages and the smell of ink deeply eroticized for the sake of preservation against the onslaught. I reviewed an essay for the journal that used Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts to villify the ebook as destructive of the individual human subject itself.
Every one of these people who were so afraid of ebooks was over thirty years old. They were all pre-Millennial, members of the generation less used to dealing with electronic media, generally less comfortable on the internet, those who find reading from a screen more difficult, an alienating process. It’s such a stupidly hysterical point of view that I can’t really take it seriously. It reminds me of those people who thought the advent of television would destroy cinema. But I’m not going to argue by analogy, because an analogy can be easily argued against: that’s A and B, but this is X and Y, with very different characters.
I still think this point of view, the defense of the paper book against the onslaught of electronic media, is utterly counter-productive to the best thinking on the topics of books and writing. The ebook is a different kind of medium for writing, one that is more mobile, easily distributed, copied, and stored. It will no more destroy literature and publishing than digital video has killed filmmaking. I think, like digital video, the ebook will offer a cheaper distribution method that will allow even more independent writers and presses to flourish, and encourage experimentation with literary techniques and tools. People who don’t understand this, because they’re too old and set in their ways to be comfortable with a new medium of artistic expression, should be quiet and let presentation slots at prestigious conferences go to creative people instead.