“Dad, what’s a book?”
That’s a question I won’t have to answer _ but perhaps my children will.
The classical concept of a book _ a paper book, that is _ is rapidly changing. And so are the habits of young readers. Already, Amazon sells more e-books than traditional, paper ones (for every 100 paper books the website sells, it sells 115 e-books).
Young readers in the U.S. are also leaving behind traditional newspapers when it comes to news consumption: Most use the Internet as their main source of information, even more than television, according to studies.
So it seems the present has indeed become the future. People are forgoing paper, instead reading books and gathering information on their cell phones, laptops and other technologies. This is certainly changing the way both journalism and literature are produced.
Every day more and more and more people learn about breaking news first Twitter and Facebook and their equivalents. It’s understandable _ television is too slow and printed newspapers are, by their nature, a day late. As evidence, look at how the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan was initially reported: Many people heard about the crisis first through Twitter, not through CNN or the BBC.
Also, most cell phones are equipped with cameras these days, so every user is a potential reporter. For journalists, it’s no longer necessary to be in the field when breaking news is happening in order to report it; they can just look at the reports people are broadcasting on Twitter. Journalistic credibility is still vital to media organizations hoping to attract readers, but it’s almost impossible for them to compete when the dissemination of information worldwide is so simple.
Like journalism, the world of literature is changing quickly. I just finished reading two books that opened my eyes to this fact: “Good Against North Wind,” by Austria’s Daniel Glattauer, and “Shorts,” by Colombian writer Juan Carlos Ortiz.
Glattauer’s novel is based on email exchanges between characters Emmi Rothner and Leo Leike. They have never met, but a digital mishap somehow connects them _ and they eventually wind up falling in love. Despite some crawling early morning emails, the novel is tense, and the end quite dramatic (I won’t say more).
What is most interesting about Glattauer’s book is the way it’s written. A narrator is absent; all the action depends upon the exchange of email. This is a very modern relationship, similar to those that millions of people around the world start online. Since the days of hand-written letters are pretty much behind us, the exchange of email is a new way to tell a story _ and, at the same time, explain our interconnected world.
The other book, “Shorts,” is even more innovative. A collection of short stories, the book was written by Ortiz, the president of the DDB Latina publicity agency, on his BlackBerry in English and Spanish as he crisscrossed the world by plane over the course two years. Ortiz reveals some of the secrets of the world of publicity _ “The hair seduces (in China)” _ a little about philosophy _ “mistakes are bound to happen” _ and his personal experiences _ “I believe this has been the fastest year of my life.”
But, as in Glattauer’s novel, what is most intriguing about Ortiz’s book is the way it was written _ solely by thumbing a BlackBerry, 30,000 feet above the earth.
But this is not to say that we have seen the end of long novels. The late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson proved with his popular Millennium series trilogy, which begins with “The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo,” that long-form books can still become worldwide bestsellers. However, the rest of the world is going in another direction: concise and short.
Traditional literature is at last beginning to coexist with what we could call digital literature.
I have no doubt that authors who write specifically for the small screen of a phone or e-reader will be the ones who produce the next forms of literature.
This evolution reflects the world from which it comes. The wonderful practice of eliminating the superfluous and unnecessary that we admire so much in the novels of, say, Ernest Hemingway is today a task repeated by millions of people who are limited to 140 characters on Twitter. Not that there are millions of Hemingways out there, but so many tweeters do succeed in filtering messages about life to the briefest of expressions.
Some even manage to do it with extraordinary talent.
So one day soon, when the question “What is a book?” comes up, the answer will surely be: “Whatever you are reading on your cell phone.”
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