Only The Dinosaurs Are Extinct

May 30th, 2007 · 4 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Regular readers will recall that “death of the novel” stories appear in traditional print media (also, non-traditional non-print media) with comforting regularity. Sort of like Spring cleaning without the Windex. Somehow, there is an editorial guideline out there that equates “reading elsewhere” with the “death of reading”. We dispute this assertion.

Those who declare that the novel is dead are living in caves.

Sort of.

Based on our careful, exhaustive research — some of which took us to the furthest corners of the globe, places hot and cold — we have determined that the story is as much a part of human history as the wheel. We have this almost obsessive need to gather information sitting right alongside an innate desire to hear tall tales by the campfire (or in a hammock or doctor’s office or anywhere we can find the time). To (probably mis-)quote the departed Robert Anton Wilson, “The map is not the territory.”

When the death of the novel is discussed, it is the death of the novel as we know it today, at this moment. Limiting our viewpoint in such manner shows a distinct lack of imagination. While the mass market paperback remains a comfortably portable format (moreso than hardcovers that often do not fit neatly within a purse or other carrying device [having been informed that men have such carrying devices, though all men we’ve queried refuse to give said devices a proper name]), there are other ways to consume stories.

Audiobooks, for example, are the direct descendants of our rich oral tradition. If you ignore the extensive production and expensive side effects, you can almost imagine yourself sitting around your brand new invention (you’re calling it fire, but your husband insists that’s not a good name and he’ll come up with something better, you wait and see) and listening to a good yarn about water buffalo or mastadons or, as has become a standard tale throughout history, the one that got away.

The shape and form of storytelling has evolved over the centuries, but the need for story, whether it be stuff that is made up, a way of sharing a moral tale, or straight information conveyed in an engaging manner with a charming voice, remains as strong as ever. Best of all, the ability to deliver story to readers (we are deliberately using the broadest possible definition of the word to include such individuals as people who don’t really read, but they’re suckers for audio) is greater than ever before. The dawn of the 20th century, a gloomy time filled with smokestacks and horse-drawn carriages, saw story coming in limited ways, a newspaper here, a book there, some crazy dude earning a few pennies shouting out “the end is near” on a street corner.

The dawn of the 21st century had all that (except the horse-drawn carriages, certain instances excepted) and more. Widespread, cheap electricity lead to the creation of devices we consider as much a part of the family as the puppy we purchased on impulse. Who knew it would get so big? Portability and storage are changing the landscape.

Oh, to be sure, there is a downside to all this technological wonder. There ought to be special laws for stupid public use of cell phones. And punishments for people who miss important parts of meetings because they are too engrossed in their Blackberries. Also it would be really helpful if laptop manufacturers understood that keyboards should withstand the rigors of a normal-sized glass of wine.

Those who declare that the novel is dead are living in caves. Very dark caves with almost-claustrophobic walls. They are missing a fine and lovely truth: the novel is not dying but it is evolving. Rather than lamenting the end of one format, why not celebrate how it fits nicely alongside all of the other ways of telling story?

Next Up: Microcontent, or Dickens Rises Again!

File Under: The Future of Publishing

4 responses so far ↓

  • Isabel Swift // May 30, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    Let me just be boring and note that I totally agree with Kassia. I realize that change can be frightening to some, but it still surprises me to see closemindedness or irrationality. New things rarely replace originals, they just add new dimentions and new opportunities. Physical books won’t go away–they’re wonderful. But I love being able to knit, look out the train window and listen to a story…on my phone. And no matter what the media and the medium, it’s ALL about the story.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 31, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Oh, go ahead and be boring

    I have a good friend whom I rank among the top tier of the smartest people I know. Not a reader. He really gets into audiobooks — and is possibly the person who really changed my thinking on what makes a book a book.

    And, I haven’t tried knitting while reading, but that’s probably because my current project requires a high degree of concentration and I’ve been known to lose myself in what I “reading”.

  • Diana Hunter // Jun 3, 2007 at 4:19 am

    Hear, hear!

    I second the motion for more durable laptop keyboards!

    Diana (moving her Starbucks hot chocolate a bit further away from her precious link to the world)

  • Brian Guerin // Jun 4, 2007 at 4:26 am

    Well, the novel may not have been killed off by the internet, but the increase in availability of alternative media probably is weakening it. While people are still writing, publishing, and buying novels, there is significant evidence (albeit anecdotal) to suggest that reading, in particular reading that requires concentration, is becoming a fringe hobby. In ‘The Gutenburg Elegies’, author and university lecturer Sven Birketts reports on the increasing difficulty with which successive classes of his students have been reading their texts. He attributes this (correctly, I believe) to the ubiquity of the screen and its effect on the attention span. Maybe only the dinosaurs are extinct, but there aren’t a whole lot of coelacanths either.