The wall and the web.

October 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

Sinister rumblings in the publishing world predict the death of the printed book any day now.

Many readers take this death personally.

“I like the feel of paper.”

“I like curling up with a book and turning the pages.”

But there is something else dying, of which the passing of the printed book is emblematic.

A familiar way of thought, the very lens through which we view the world is vanishing because the printed book is more than the feel and smell of paper, more than crisp black type on a stiff white page.

Let’s take a closer look at this object that’s been part of each of our lives since “Cat in the Hat.”

In its construction, the book is a brick wall. Each page is identical in size and shape, a recognizable unit from which, through repetition, the whole is assembled. Meaning is built as each page is added to the ones that come before it.  Like the bricks in a wall, once laid out, those pages, remain in a fixed order.

Parameters probably first dictated by the size paper that could be handled by a printing press, and the size and weight that was comfortable for a reader to carry have, over time, determined the norms for how long a human story, or treatise should be.

Just try to publish a book with more than four hundred pages. You’ll see.

Beginning in the mid-1400s the physical attributes of the object we call “book” have affected the way we take in information.  The act of reading, eyes traveling from the top of the page to the bottom, creates a rhythm of ebb and flow, punctuated by the turn of the page.

In book-form, the act of reading has a pulse, like the beating of a human heart.

Turn a page and the weight of the book shifts imperceptibly from the right-hand side to the left, graphically showing the reader how far they’ve come.

When the reader finishes the book and closes the cover the story remains unchanged, ready for the next reader to make the journey from page one to The End.

Most often, the work bound between covers is the work of one mind. Strung, as they are, like beads on the thread of plot or premise, the thoughts offered by one mind to another feel orderly. Because of the book, humanity has grown up on this linear, sequential, organized and logical presentation of stories, facts, and ideas.

The orderly presentation that is the book is not unlike the orderly layout of a city like New York.

As printed matter begins to disappear, human thought seems to be tumbling toward an order more like the layout of a city like LA, a city with no overall pattern, no clear center.

A start-anywhere, end-anywhere city .

In terms of human knowledge, that start-anywhere, end-anywhere city is the Internet.

The era of the linear story with it’s norms and rules may be passing, along with the printed book.

Consider the way we roam the Internet, the story and information source of today. We type a couple of words and those words twang a thread in a vast web of words and images, bringing us a gazillion responses.

Some are nonsense. Some are exactly what we need. The recipient of the gazillion hits has to filter the myriad choices and decide which is which. An easily distracted person can get lost for days in the too-muchness of the Internet; touch the web at any point, and the whole trembles.

I heard recently that the human brain is being altered by our interactions with electronic media. I immediately thought of brainwashing—what was happening to the natural human way of thinking?

But as I write this, I wonder, has the human brain been shaped by long contact with rectangular sheets of paper covered with black type? Is the linear story as much a product of practical considerations dictated by the printing press as it is a tendency to shape story in this manner?

Like all modern people, I wander the immeasurable landscape of the Internet. While I can instantly locate individual bits of information that might have taken months of research in a conventional library, I am left to determine for myself whether what I have found has any value. Then, as if stitching  a coat of many colors I must join those odd scraps together into something whole and new.

I touch that spiderweb of information every day, and wonder where the vibrations will take me, but I still love books.

I too love the feel of turning a page, the smell of a paper book, but more than that I love the linear story with its beginning, middle and end. I love to hear the  individual voice of one person telling me what they think I should know and the gradual weight of that story shifting from my left hand to my right as I inhale and exhale–and fall under the spell of story.


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§ 4 Responses to The wall and the web.

  • Craig reeder says:

    Wow! The idea of the “linear story” disappearing is a jolting thought for folks of my generation. But story-tellers like yourself are so important to our world……we need something powerful to be a counterweight against the onslaught of inane “reality shows!” And to remind us, like you do in your novels, who we are, and who we should be.


  • KM Huber says:

    I share your concern regarding the linear story. Currently, I am reading an e-book on writing structure, emphasizing the importance of a beginning, middle, and end. I remain convinced that serious writers strive for the three acts but you know what an optimist I am.

    That said, the independent publishing explosion is a curious phenomenon, at least to me. Many of the stories are classified as dystopias, which seem to reject the magic of once upon a time as well as traditional story architecture. Ironically, many writers “see” their books as movies, perhaps forgetting (or not knowing) that screenplays also have three acts.

    A Kindle is easier on my eyes for reading but my love for books is not diminished. My faith is in the reader, the seeker of stories; at one time or another, we all are readers.



  • Thanks for writing about one of the big topics in the reader & writer’s world.

    It’s all leading to more reading. Fewer adults who want paper books mean more tangible books left around, for those of us who like ’em.

    Downloads, especially in genre fiction such as Westerns, Romance, Mystery & Science Fiction, are good for writers’ pocketbooks. I don’t need 100 little mystery books on the shelf, but I do treasure that uncommon, hardbound, autographed book from way back by …..
    (fill in the blank, I have a passel.)

    As for children’s picture books.
    They go with that cuddle in the lap reading moment, just like
    p.b. & jelly. Some children who read picture books on apps & downloads who I know of, want to “do it myself” because they can tap buttons & make butterflies pop up. I just heard that info again at a meeting of readers the other Sun. nite. Families who model reading traditional published picture books will be ahead in the bonding/cuddling/imagination-development game.

    We still have the popularity of radio, long after the forecasted demise.

    thanks for this post Adrian.


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