Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Have you heard any good books lately?

Print is out. Video and audio are in.

Fueled by cheap, ubiquitous broadband and tech like smartphones, smart speakers and wireless earphones, we’re listening to Spotify podcasts and Audible audiobooks, watching hourlong pop culture essays on YouTube, we’re consuming stories in almost every form but words on a page or ink on paper.

Take the car industry, for example. The company I work for makes manuals—owner’s manuals, repair manuals, wiring manuals, stuff like that. And the single biggest challenge we face is that nobody reads any of them. Not a one. When was the last time you looked at your owner’s manual, and the only correct answer is ‘never.’ They’re about as effective as banner ads on websites.

In terms of online publishing, the smartphone, and the associated rise of one-stop-shop sites like Google, reddit and Facebook, have annihilated advertising revenue, leading to both the decline of the traditional newspaper and magazine, and the rise of one-paragraph stories written by freelancers and capped with a clickbait headline.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be a problem with attention spans. Passive entertainment is up, up, way up. Red Letter Media’s Star Wars prequels takedowns were longer than the movies themselves. A third of people in Canada, Australia and the US listen to a podcast on a monthly basis, and ad revenue for podcasts has grown from $169 million to an estimated $659 million from 2016 to 2020.

Although book sales were up 1.5% from 2016-17, audio books were up 20% over the same period in the USA. More recently, in January of this year, accounting firm Deloitte predicted the audio book market would growth a further 25% in 2020. Even in the current crisis, the spoken word is in—Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets, Andy Serkis the Hobbit.

Which got me wondering: Are we slowly becoming a post-literate society? And if so, what does that mean?

For centuries, the written word had a lock on literature thanks to a killer combination of advantages—permanence, portability, shareability, long reach at relatively low cost—but tech is eating away at those advantages, byte by byte. Audio and video files are as permanent as any paper or digital book, as light and portable as the latter, and have the added benefit of not requiring any of that tedious eyeball movement to enjoy.

(Tangent: People banging on about podcasts being popular now because of people’s “busy lives these days” irritate the piss out of me—like everyone was just lounging around for the last three centuries until the iPhone came along. Average working hours have been going down since the Industrial Revolution. It’s like SciFi franchises that excuse the drab nastiness of their grimdark settings by talking about reflecting the ‘dark times’ we live in. Mate, I grew up expecting the Russians to nuke us all into oblivion any day. Settle down.)

Much as I love reading though, I got to admit, it isn’t exactly natural, is it? Millions of years of evolution weren’t really selecting hominids on the basis of their ability to get through Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time", were they? There’s a reason millions of people around the world are illiterate: Reading is effing hard, man. It takes concentration. Time and effort. Given the choice between reading and, er, not reading, plenty of us are opting for Plan B.

When all the world’s knowledge was stored in written form, that attitude was a drawback, but hey presto, it ain’t so anymore. Every explanation is now a 10-minute YouTube tutorial. You could, for example, acquire an in-depth knowledge of the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars without ever reading a line of text more challenging than the title of a video. Why send an Email when you can talk to them on Zoom?

With social media, even our text-based messages are behaving more like oral communication: Temporary, here now, gone tomorrow; repeated, repackaged and regurgitated in different forms depending on the audience; subjective, their effectiveness dependent on the personality and character of the person providing the information, rather than its accuracy or truthfulness.

And I think that’s the way we’re going. There will always be books, of course, just as some people still write letters, just as there are still printed newspapers or vinyl LPs, just, I don’t think they’ll be the mainstream anymore. Entertainment, especially, where accuracy and retention is less important than say, civil engineering where there’s a possibility of crushing hundreds of people if your bridge collapses, are going to become more and more oral, with all that entails.

Novels will become performance pieces. The voice talent is going to matter as much as the story itself does. Ah boy oh boy, you're never going to get what ironically appropriate thing is going to happen to the  “death of the author” theory (Hint: It will die). 

We’ll see more retellings and reboots and mashups, as the same winner-takes-all mechanics that reduced the Internet to about a dozen sites winnow away our stories to a handful of classics (thousands will continue to self-publish, but then as now, nobody will notice). The Iliad, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, Jesus. That’s it. As with modern movies, you’ll have the literature equivalent of Marvel, Star Wars, Fast Furious, Disney Princess and then a whole ocean of minor hits for niche audiences.

Novels, however, are not the most digestible form of audio storytelling. Shorter, more easily digestible serials will be back in a big way, like the way Charles Dickens originally appeared in print, or think Conan and Gray Mouser, John Carter, Green Hornet or Flash Gordon. It'll be the audiobook equivalent of a 10-part Netflix series.

Blogs, of course, will quickly die a slow and horrible death. But, come on man, who even reads blogs these days?


  1. I do. I just haven't commented since the last comment, since Google appears to be blocking Anonymous comments.

    No, I disagree; the written word will always be around because in a world of big-budget extravaganzas it's the one thing that can accomplish the communication of ideas with nothing more than pen and paper. It's the ultimate equaliser, the Colt Peacemaker of the Culture War. If only to act as counterpoint to The Man/Woman Up There telling you what to do, what to think, what to believe, with all the power of beautifully photo-edited people mouthing convincing platitudes set to moving orchestral motifs... the written word will live on.

  2. Here's what I'm talking about:

    1. Big love to Ice-T though. He was great in Tank Girl.

  3. Here's another addition to the discourse:

    "The question is whether our culture is morphing into newer, less ‘alphabetic’ forms." writes British author Adam Roberts. "Perhaps we are witnessing a return to a mode of more immediate access that in turn informs a sort of faceless orality—to the sort of thing we might associate with (for instance) social media such as Twitter."