My mother returns from each visit to the local library with four or five thick hardbacks, the thicker the better. No matter how much she enjoys a book, if it’s under 400 printed pages, she feels cheated. I have a hard time convincing her to read short story collections: she enjoys the writing, but their brevity gets on her nerves.
I think of my mother when I consider the future of the book. No other form of human expression can create an entire world of thought and feeling as subtly, deeply, and thoroughly as a book-length text. Maybe the closest analog is the television series, which can—at its best, in cases like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under—develop great richness and complexity, with plots tangling and characters evolving as we watch. But that experience is so much more external than the opportunity afforded by a text, whose words occur as though in the reader’s own mind. Feature films, plays, paintings, poems, songs, ballets, even symphonies—these forms, glorious as they are, cannot induce an audience member to slip free of herself so completely and for such a duration.
This degree of absorption is not limited to narrative. A deft writer can draw us into the subtle involutions of an argument so that we experience the author’s intellectual process as our own.
I’m agnostic about how longs books will remain physical objects: I suspect a nostalgia for ink and paper will keep the presses going for a few more generations, but much of the book industry’s nonfiction content will have migrated to electronic form long before then. My deeper concern is whether the fragmented, multi-tasking nature of our new information technologies will erode the human capacity for extended narrative and argument. Then I think of my mom, and the millions of readers like her, and I am encouraged: surely there will always be an appetite that can be satiated only by a good, long book.