“Douglas [Adams] said…Books are sharks.”

“I must have looked baffled because he he looked very pleased with himself. And he carried on with his metaphor. Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”

“‘Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.’ And he was right,” -Neil Gaiman on Douglas Adams’ view of books

If you ever see me in a non-temporary living setting, odds are, you will see some books with me. In traditional, silver-fish-edible variety, not the Kindle (we can talk about how much trouble e-readers are for those of us with neurological motor deficits another time).

This sort of “What is the future of books” question is asked frequently in my book clubs (Hey Yolanda and Zoe). I spent some time pondering this, and trying to figure out what books can do better than screens (apart from not giving you insomnia, potentially exposing you to EM fields, sucking down battery, requiring costly conflict minerals, etc). And my kind of go-to answer, at the end was that books can play with the interplay of art/illustrations and text in a way that screens currently can’t. My two inspirations for this answer were Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, which brilliantly intertwines text and sketches to create an effect that’s beyond emotionally powerful, and The Explorer’s Guild, Vol 1, by Jon Baird and Kevin Costner (yes, he of Fishtar fame). Admittedly, I haven’t finished it, because I started on chemo cycle 2 or 3, and chemo brain will screw up your memory and focus (in the meantime, I made a lot of progress on my Wodehouse collection). But, it wasn’t until I did a little research that I found out that, apparently, other readers find this book challenging. “Challenging” is the exact word used, and the mot juste for describing the book.

It was that word, in conjunction with a semi-satirical comment on Jordan Peterson’s ludicrous all-meat diet (don’t ask, it’s really stupid) that the author (who was experimenting with an all-meat diet that even 16th century seamen would view as somewhat unhealthy) read 20 books that made me realize there’s a bigger, more immediate danger to books than that: we no longer read for fun. It’s simply a meaningless scholastic achievement or exercise; an odd boast about being productive. I suspect that the roots to this are in the old cultural complaint that we hate school and education (until you need a surgeon), which somehow gets woven as the central, more-troublesome, larger problem; we don’t like learning in a formal setting, and anything associated with that setting is a turn-off. Anything associated with that setting is labeled “productive, if boring,” and we give it a collective pass (never mind that most primary-school education is largely indoctrination). Somehow, we’ve gone from “reading for pleasure” to “I only read non-fiction, because it’s useful.” We will ignore that In the Heart of the Sea, while non-fiction (and the incident served as one of the inspirations for Moby Dick) has rather limited application, unless you intend to survive a Sperm Whale attack and subsequent survival on a life boat. But here’s the dangerous thought: books — and reading — must serve some sort of larger purpose. Or, to put it in a context most people might appreciate more; you can only, from this point forward, ever have sex for procreative purposes. A lot of you would consider celibacy. A lot of people don’t read (and they vote).

Dear Reader, this may surprise you, but there was, I hope, a time in your life when you lived to be read to. Or hear someone tell you stories. There’s a growing body of evidence from neurologists and memory experts that, evolutioanrily, our mind seems designed to remember two things really well: visual-spatial navigation (for those trips across the Bering Strait)(this is also the basis of the infamous memory tool/method, “The Roman Room”), and linear stories (there are memory contests to see who can memorize the most stuff the fastest — previous winners have mentioned that they turned it all into a weird story that made it easier). This idea — that stories are built into our DNA — is an old one. 20000 years old, to be exact. That’s roughly the estimated age of the Lascaux cave paintings (and there are some in Indonesia that are estimated to be almost twice as old). Even though we are a dramatically different species now, the concept — and importance — of narratives are so important, so innate, that we — in a completely different technological era, with vastly different languages — can get a rough idea of the information being conveyed.

I’ve made an informal study over the past decade, as to what humans can do that is unique in the animal kingdom. Jerry Falwell isn’t going to be happy with my conclusions. Touch the end of your pinky to your thumb — that precise movement of your thumb across the midline of your palm is called “opposition,” (hence, the term, “opposable thumb”), and it is one of the two things only humans seem to be able to do. The other is pass information on to distant strangers via written word or symbols (or drawings). We can teach dolphins and gorillas to read and write in synthetic pictographs (and there’s a lot of evidence that these species — and some birds — use complex forms of communication we might identify as language), but, as far as I know, there’s no evidence that they would naturally develop a written form of communication (although dolphins are slippery devils, and there’s no telling what they’re up to in the depths of the ocean).

In our Euro-centric post-colonial world, we usually give Johannes Gutenberg credit for inventing the printing press. Which he promptly used to print the Bible. Most of us see this as a stride forward for technology, religion, and Western civilization. That’s the wrong way to view it. This was the first step toward democratization of information. And crowd-sourcing (the King James Bible was written/interpreted by a committee of historians and scholars). And, physical media has the immense benefit of being able to physically last. If Amazon goes bankrupt (unlikely, I’ll admit, but we live in a boom-and-bust economy), I don’t know what happens to your kindle, but I suspect it would take some serious maintenance and hacking to keep it working.

In short, I think books — those things made of trees, ink, glue, and bits of common humanity — will last and be in demand for the foreseeable future (the problem with that concept is the word “foreseeable,” post-11/16, all bets are off). What I’m growing worried about is reading and readers. By turning reading into a tireless chore that’s necessary for success, instead of something you do when you’re bored, frightened, lonely, etc, we diminish reading. Which, as I’ve noted, is a fundamental part of being human. Our education system hammers this home by using pre-set literary goals and textbooks and the required reading list (if you think that’s a good idea, you’ve clearly never tried to read “Catcher in the Rye,” or the truly hateful, “Great Gatsby”). If I were to ask you for a list of top-five films or albums everyone should experience, along with a few sentences to justify your choices, everyone in the world would have dramatically different lists (except for the immortal Road House, which all right-thinking people can agree was screwed over by the AFI list). Now, imagine that you’re a member of the Texas Board of Education, or an adviser to the Library of Congress, and you can see how many people get turned off of reading, or view it as an elitist past-time, instead of what it was in the 19th century: a form of popular, relatively-cheap entertainment. So, when I hear, “I don’t read,” all I hear is, “I was taught from an early age that reading was checking off a list of books I could claim for college credit, and I never bothered to walk into a library or bookstore and develop my own tastes.”

So, my literary challenge to you, dear reader, is this: find a book that has absolutely no real bearing or import on your life, but you think you’d enjoy reading. And read it. If we, as a society, can carve out the time and money to make Game of Thrones or the hideously monotonous Westworld into “water cooler” moments, we can return to the days of Harry Potter, when we didn’t sneer at reading as some sort of waste of time (but watching television is fine)(ironically, most people who haven’t heard Ray Bradbury’s discussion/rant on Fahrenheit 451 think it’s about censorship — which is a definite theme — but he originally wrote it after noticing that all the homes on his street were dark at night, save for the flickering light of television — he wrote it because he was afraid our society would stop reading). And then find a book — any book — for a friend you think they’d enjoy.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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