In the future people will cease to own books. Or they’ll own fewer books than they do now. Or they’ll own just as many as they do now. I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. That might seem surprising – I am, after all, an English teacher and an aspiring writer – but I believe that I can still be those things in a world without books. A musician can still be valuable and popular in a world where vinyl records are collector’s items, where cassettes are laughable and even CDs have been overtaken by mp3 files. In the future, perhaps there won’t be books, but there willstill be literature.
There exists in our society a kind of dichotomy when it comes to technology: both a fevered acceptance of the new and nostalgia for the old. I recently received an internet meme sent from my husband’s ipad that commented how “kids these days” don’t recognise what the “save” icon on Microsoft Word is supposed to represent. In the staffroom, teachers trawl the internet for their next lesson plan and upload topic quizzes to moodle and edmodo, simultaneously blaming the internet for their students’ lack of interest in the classics.
So if there won’t be books, what will there be? Obviously ebooks are the first alternative that comes to mind. But just as print newspapers are slowly being replaced by online equivalents, updated hourly and with space for reader comments, the future of writing is not simply a change in physical format. There is a demand for greater interactivity, where the “death of the author” is made explicit by visible reader involvement. There is a demand for user-control, where readers can decide what to read in what order and what to skip over altogether. There is a demand for instant gratification, where readers can have new information (or new stories) in their hands within seconds of it being written. There is a demand for evolution.
Naturally, the expectation is that much of this evolution will occur on the internet. Blogs, wikis and interactive novels are already stepping into those spaces, just as web series are taking up a place in the world of film. However there are also forms of publication that are not permanently linked to the internet, such as interactive ebooks, ipad and android applications, that have a place in the growing alternatives to traditional books. As with internet publication, these models offer an opportunity for cheap, sometimes free, self-publication and mass marketability.
The idea is not without its pitfalls. Internet publication means more opportunity for copyright fraud, less recognition (and usually money) for the author, less regulation and a greater abundance of poor quality fiction to sift through. Sometimes well written gems hide on a blog page while a piece of fan fiction skyrockets to stardom, makes it to print and cashes in millions. It seems desperately unfair, especially to those who have spent several years with editors and agents attempting to get a first novel onto the desk of a publisher. But it also offers a platform for that new novelist to try to make a name for themselves. It offers the reader a chance to sample works that might interest them without having to part with their money or return to the library if they are disappointed. And for the fan or amateur critic, it offers an opportunity to be involved in the editing process or the creation of a sequel.
For the traditional reader or writer, these ideas may seem confronting, almost a violation of an art form. Like digital photography and Photoshop, there will be those who argue that interactive literature is not true literature. Likewise there will probably always be purists who enjoy old media for what it is. But for educators, perhaps rather than seeing this as the demise of books, we should see this as an opportunity for a new era of literature. We are, after all, growing the next generation of writers. Instead of grooming them to be the audience we want, perhaps we should be asking them how they can meet the demands of an audience made up of their peers. The existence of Virginia Woolf did not throw Jane Austen into oblivion. Likewise, if we want the future to be filled with good writing, let’s teach people how to write well in the new formats and purposes that they’re drawn to.