I want to tell you a little story.
Picture a restaurant in a small town. In fact, it’s the only restaurant for miles around, so almost everyone in the little town eats there at least once a week, not least because of the famous desserts: apple cobbler and cherry pie.
Now picture a horde of rabid lemmings eating the screaming old couple who own the place.
Freak accident. Don’t ask.
The couple’s eldest daughter, deciding she can’t stay in Lemmingville, sells the restaurant to a big conglomerate, which promptly changes the menu. But they understand the popularity of the desserts, which they leave untouched. They simply add a third: Carnal Chocolate Eruption.
As you might expect, sales of both apple cobbler and cherry pie go down. This is foreboding to the City Council, who call a town meeting to discuss “the decline of the community’s traditional values,” which everyone knows really means a vote to ban the new dessert.
But here’s the thing. If you give people more choices, then all other things being equal, the number of selections of any single prior item will go down. Sales of apple cobbler and cherry pie would almost certainly decrease if the conglomerate had added lemon meringue instead of chocolate (although maybe not as much).
It’s easy to see where a whole lot of people were probably satisfying themselves with the old desserts, or were skipping dessert altogether, and just never complained. However, it’s also possible that everyone in the town still prefers apple cobbler and cherry pie to any other dessert in the world–that if they could only have one dessert ever in their life, it would be one of those. But since they can have more than one, maybe they just want something different from time-to-time.
How you present choice matters to the choosing. For example, there was an article by the LA Times making it’s way around the internet recently that suggested 10% of people thought HTML was a sexually-transmitted disease. I doubt it.
First of all, only 80% of households (in the US) have regular access to the internet, so the fact that 90% of respondents didn’t think HTML was an STD seems pretty good. But that didn’t stop plenty of people from concluding from the article that their fellow humans are stupid. They might be, but if so, that article was NOT evidence for it.
If you ask any group of people a question and provide a list from which they must select their answer, some percentage of people are going to select the most far-out answer just at random. Some others will do it just to be funny. It’s really hard to control for these kinds of things–which are called survey artifacts–and you can go get PhDs in various means of combating them. Seriously. (And it’s still really hard.)
People see what they want to see, of course, and if you believe the masses are ignorant, if that is your dominant narrative, then you’ll see evidence for it all over the place. (And in this case, you’ll become one of the stupid masses yourself by getting duped by bogus clickbait “research”.)
The same applies to the supposed decline of reading. Those of you who don’t hang around writing circles probably don’t see it, but LOTS of people bemoan “the death of the reader” or some shit. The murderer is one of the usual suspects: the state of public education, the loss of traditional values, lazy parenting, technology, etc. But they all fall under the same dominant narrative of “the decline of . . .”, or her sister, “things were better when . . .”
Bullshit. And you’re a cum-farting ignoramus for saying it.
Now, some things are certainly going away. But there is an ocean of difference betweenchange, which is constant, and decline, which requires a normative judgment against a standard. For example, so what if people read fewer books today than in the past? I mean, the mechanical act of seeing words on a page is not a virtue in and of itself. That’s fucking ridiculous. Rather it’s that the cum-farting bemoaner has in their head a narrative, a normative association between reading and a set of civilization-supporting virtues.
I can demonstrate that this is bullshit without any scientific evidence. All you have to do is realize that there are bemoaners on both the Right and the Left and at every point in between, which means no two bemoaners share the same set of virtues. Just like in the world, people find in art what they bring with them. That’s aesthetic philosophy 101.
Virtue is at play in books, good ones anyway, and so books can reinforce virtues, but the virtues themselves come before.
For the hardcore materialists in the crowd, there is plenty of data to support that conclusion. I read a study not too long ago that suggested the total number of words read by the average person in the West–emails, text messages, social media and blog posts, company reports, updates scrolling across the bottom of a cable news broadcast, cat memes, chat messages, dating profiles, advertisements, menus, textbooks, and so on, even works of fiction–is actually going up. Words are everywhere.
The criticism of course is that most of those words are banal, commercial, or both, and do not have the same value as those in a book. And certainly that’s true for a lot of them. But peruse that list again. Most of those words are at least informative, and the majority come from other human beings. People share what’s important to them, things they find funny or interesting, and we should not be surprised if some of them are banal.
But the criticism belies the bemoaners bias. They claim that sitting alone in a corner reading about imaginary people is superior than interactions with real ones. For the bemoaners, the book is not only better than the movie, it’s better than real life.
And that’s fine. Really. There’s nothing wrong with a personal preference for books over reality. For fuck’s sake, I write books! You better believe I read too (although I prefer non-fiction).
But some of these asshats genuinely believe that, because the relative amount of book-reading is going down, the world is in decline. (Or something. The impending evil is often quite muddled. It’s hidden in shadow, but by God it’s there and you better take heed. They warned you.)
If you go back 150 years, the literacy rate was piss poor. VERY few people in the world could read. (Amazingly, folks managed to be virtuous even then.) If you go back 100 years, literacy was on the rise, but books were hardbound and cost the equivalent of $50 or so. Hence the original push for public lending libraries, which at first weren’t widespread outside major metros. (Back then, more people lived in small towns and rural areas than in major cities, the opposite of today.)
The paperback came out in the 1930s. It piggybacked on the cheap printing technology–including a vast distribution network–developed for the periodical industry. Back in the day, average working people read more newspapers, their internet, than books. After the paperback, there was an explosion of book-reading, much of which was serialized in magazines. So yes, measured as a percentage, people read more books back then. A lot more.
But then something amazing happened. People got a choice.
Think about it. In 1960, there were basically three TV channels broadcasting only part of the day and in black and white. If you didn’t like what they had on, you could go see a movie, if one was playing at your local theater and if you hadn’t already seen it. (Remember, most people did not live in large cities.) Or you could play cards or a board game, the same ones you probably played countless times already because you didn’t have a game library in your closet, nor did the local store probably have much of a selection, nor could you afford to keep buying games even if they did.
My grandparents passed the time sitting on their front porch. Seriously. Or they went “calling on” their neighbors, which if you think about it means people were so bored that it was not unreasonable to expect them to have time to chat even if you showed up at their house at random one afternoon. Holy fucking shitschnizzle on a cracker.
Think about the desserts from before. For the longest time, there was only apple cobbler and cherry pie. Now we have Carnal Chocolate Eruption: Netflix, YouTube, DVRs, umpteen different social media platforms, blogs, gaming consoles (with an online library of affordable games), apps on phones and tablets, random internet surfing, podcasts, live music streams, and all the rest, not to mention older media that are still alive and kicking like TV, movies, comic books, and yes even newspapers and radio! And all of it is, in adjusted dollars, a helluva lot cheaper than anything available back in the day.
The conditions that created the boom in paperback book-reading only existed for a relatively brief period of time. In the whole history of mankind, the combination of high literacy, cheap ubiquitous printing, and a dearth of alternatives pretty much only existed from the end of the second world war to the advent of the internet, and even then only in the West.
And yet some would have us believe that reading books (versus any other media) is singularly virtuous. That’s bone-chilling stupidity, and I want to stab those people in the throat with an archaic writing implement after beating them with a buggy whip. Really. I mean, it only seems appropriate.
Things are different. Frankly, it’s not the end of anything magnificent. It’s the beginning of an age when everyone–or almost everyone–can create and distribute their own videos, their own poetry, their own art, and yes, their own books. They can share their creations with other real live human beings, whose are also creating.
Why on earth would you lionize a broadcast-style, three-sizes-fit-all corporate publishing model? It’s only unique characteristic was curation, which is a fancy way of saying you let someone in a company somewhere pick what you were going to read for you, which might not be bad if they weren’t reflexively trying to pick what they thought you would buy.
Around 10,000 books were published the year Stephen King was born. This year, across all platforms, digital and traditional, all over the globe, that number will be closer to 1.6 million. And guess what, bitches? This weekend, one of them will be mine.
Long live the Carnal Chocolate Eruption.
art by German artist Lilli Hill. Found without buggy whips courtesy of the internet