The books to come, Alan Loney (Cuneiform Press, 2010), 136 pp., $39.95
Our media landscape is changing at a greater speed than ever before. It is likely that children born 20 years from now who discover a copy of a printed newspaper will need to ask a grandparent to explain the function of this curious object.
Our own new century seems not yet to have provoked any radical activity in the arts, unless it has happened in obscure corners of the Web where we have not yet discovered it. But meanwhile there have been a number of thoughtful books commenting on the changes to reading and writing. Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid (New York, Harper, 2008) draws on scientific evidence to explain how learning to read books shapes and develops a child’s mind, then in her final chapter she considers the changes now being produced by the computer. The plasticity of a young brain ensures that, for better or worse, it is going to be wired up differently. Lucky children will learn the old book-based skills as well as the new digital ones and will develop the ability to ‘code switch’. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York, W W Norton, 2010) by Nicholas Carr (a former writer for Wired) offers a less hopeful scenario. Children are becoming more adept at scanning, skimming and multi-tasking – skills needed in a world flooded by an increasing number of texts and images – but they tend to lack the patience for slow, careful reading. The way film and television editing has accelerated illustrates the same shrinking attention span.
Sherman Young’s The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book (Sydney, University of NSW, 2007) argues that traditional ‘book culture’ has already collapsed, and we need to get busy developing a new kind of e-book culture, embracing and experimenting with the new technology. The most pessimistic commentator is Morris Berman whose The Twilight of American Culture (NY, W W Norton, 2006) sees American culture sinking into a new Dark Age, with the Internet intensifying the populism that already dominates the older media. Berman argues that the skills of serious reading will only survive if individuals work to preserve them like the rebel book-lovers in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or the monks who kept culture alive during the Middle Ages.
Alan Loney’s The books to come offers a fresh perspective by choosing to focus not on sociological or economic aspects but on the deepest aspects of our experience of books. He takes his title from Maurice Blanchot’s Le Livre à Venir, written over 50 years ago. Loney adds diversity (‘books’ plural), but he respects the fact that the French theorist’s writing came ‘from the depth of his life/work as a reader’ (65). Loney’s thoughts emerge from the depth of his own life/work as writer and printer as well as reader.
of hand-cut handmade paper on my bench this morning are beautiful to me – very
beautiful, as if I had suddenly understood after all this time that it is paper that
makes a book, and more so than type or words or images. It’s an odd event for
someone in my position to be sure, but it is certainly what it feels like this morning
under a blue sky after night’s rain with silver drops highlighting myriad leaves (57–58)
To destroy them is to revere what everyone reveres. The book contains both the
expressiveness and the energy of its making and of its maker. It is a mark of the
cultivation & achievement of its creators regardless of whether it holds any
interest for others or to later generations. Passed on generationally, the book
registers the attainment of knowledge thru the suffering and the craft of the
individual, which is then given over to the rest of humanity. (57)
ROGER HORROCKS was the founder of the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland. Recently he has edited a collection of prose poems by Len Lye (Body English) and made a film about Lye (Art that Moves) which won the Van Gogh Award at the 2010 Amsterdam Film Festival.