Barnes& Noble, that once proud anchor to many a suburban mall, is diminishing. It is not failing all at once, dropping like the savaged corpse of Toys ” R ” Us, but it also clear that its culture minute has passed and only drastic measurements can save it from joining Waldenbooks and Borders in the great, paper-smelling ark of our book-buying recollection. I’m thinking about this because David Leonhardt at The New York Times calls for B& N to be saved. I doubt it can be.
First, there is the sheer weight of real estate and the inexorable slide away from print. B& N is no longer a place to buy books. It is a toy store with a bathroom and a coffeehouse( and now a restaurant ?), a spot where you’re more likely to find Han Solo bobbleheads than a Star Wars novel. The age-old elation of visiting a bookstore and discovering a few magical volumes to drag home is fast being replicated by smaller bookstores where curation and provenance are still important while B& N draws more and more names. To wit :P TAGEND
“Save Barnes& Noble” is trending. presuming they signify the storage that got rid of half their volumes and mostly sells toys now, and which literally did not have copies of Newsweek when I ran there specifically to buy matters of Newsweek I was in
— drewtoothpaste (@ drewtoothpaste) May 7, 2018
But does all of this matter? Will the written word — what you’re reading right now — survive the coming century? Is there any value in a book when VR and AR and other interfaces can recreate what amounts to the implicit value of writing? Why save B& N if publish is doomed?
Indulge me for a moment and then argue in comments. I’m positing that B& N’s failure is indicative of a move towards a post-text culture, that AI and new media will redefine how we ingest the world and the fact that we insure more videos than text on our Facebook feed- ostensibly the world’s social nervous system- is indicative of this change.
First, some thoughts on writing versus cinema. In his volume of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes about the complexity and education and experience needed to consume various types of media :P TAGEND
The book has been largely unchanged for centuries. Operating in language expressed as a system of marks on a surface area, I can induce extremely complex experiences, but merely in an audience elaborately educated to experience this. This platform still possesses certain inherent advantages. I can, for instance, render interiority of character with an ease and specificity denied to a screenwriter.
But my audience must be literate, must know what prose fiction is and understand how one retrieves it. This requires a complexly cultural education, and a certain socioeconomic basis. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of such an education.
But I recollect being taken to my first cinema, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary( I can’t remember which I appreciated first ), and being overwhelmed by the immerse yet almost instantaneous reading curve: In that hour, I learned to watch film.
This is a deeply important suggestion. First, we must appreciate that writing and movie offer various value adds beyond linear storytelling. In the book, the writer can explore the inner space of the character, giving you an imagined world in which people are guessing , not only behave. Film — likewise a linear medium — offers a visual representation of a tale and guess are deduced by dint of their humanity. We know a character’s inner life thanks to the feeling we deduce from their face and body.
This is why, to a degree, the CGI human was so hard to make. Thanks to volumes, comics, and movie we, as humen, were used to making animals and enchanted things organization. Steamboat Willie mostly envisioned like us, we imagined, even though he was a mouse with big round ears. Fast-forward to the dawn of CGI humen — belief Sid from Toy Story and his grotesque face — and then wing even further into the future Leia looking out over a space battle and mumbling “Hope” and you watch the scope of accomplishment in CGI humans as well as the deep problems with representing humen digitally. A CGI auto named Lightning McQueen acts and thinks like us while a CGI Leia seems somewhat off. We cannot associate agency with fake humen, and that’s a problem.
Thus we needed volumes to give us that inner looking, that frisson of discovery that we are missing in real life.
But soon — and we are capable of argue that films like Infinity War prove this — there will be no uncanny hollow. We will be unable to tell if a human on screen or in VR is real or fake and this allows for an interesting defined of possibilities.
First, with VR and other tricks, we could see through a character’s eyes and even hear her believes. This interiority, as Gibson writes, is no longer found in the realm of text and is instead an added attraction to an already rich medium. Imagine hopping from character to character, the reactions and beliefs arriving hot and heavy as they move through specific actions. Maybe the narrative isn’t linear. Perhaps we make it up as we go along. Suppose the remix, the rebuild, the restructuring.
Gibson again :P TAGEND
This spreading, melting, flowing together of what once were distinct and separate media, that’s where I see we’re headed. Any linear narrative film, for instance, can serve as the armature for what we would think of as a virtual reality, but which Johnny X, eight-year-old end-point customer, up the line, guess of as how he looks at stuff. If he detects, mention, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, he might idly pause to allow his avatar a freestyle Hong Kong kick-fest with the German guards in the prison camp. Just because he can. Because he’s always been able to. He doesn’t think about these things. He probably doesn’t fully understand that that hasn’t always been possible.
In this case B& N and the bookstore don’t need to exist at all. We get the depth of books with the vitality of cinema melded with the submersion of gaming. What about artisanal book lovers, you argue, they’ll maintain things alive since they are enjoy the seem of books.
When that seem — the odor, the heft, the old volume aroma — is also possible simulated do we need to visit a bookstore? When Amazon and Netflix invest millions to explore new media and are sure to branch out into more immersive sorts do you need to immerse yourself in To The Lighthouse ? Do “weve been” require the education we once had to gain in order to read a volume?
We know that Amazon doesn’t care about books. They used books as a starting point to taking over e-commerce and, while the Kindle is the best system for e-books in existence, it is an afterthought compared to the rest of the business. In short, the champs of text scarcely support it.
Ultimately what I posit here depends on a number of changes coming all at once. We must all agree to fall headfirst into some share hallucination the replaces all other media. We must feel that that world is real enough for us to abandon our books.
It’s up to book lovers, then, to decide what the hell is crave. They have to support and pay for fictions , non-fiction, and news. They have to visit small booksellers and retain is asking for books alive. And they have to make it possible to exist as a novelist.” Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has refused. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book marketings that looks permanent ,” writes Leonhardt and he’s right. There is no upside for text slingers.
In the end perhaps we can’t save B& N. Perhaps we let it collapse into a heap like so many before it. Or perhaps we fight for a medium that is quickly losing cachet. Perhaps we fight for volumes and ensure that simply because the big guys on the block can’t make a bookstore study the rest of us don’t care. Perhaps we tell the world that we just want to read.
I shudder to think what will happen if we don’t.