iPad apps won’t replace the narrative art form known as a “book”2010-04-13
A tweet directed me to a TechCrunch guest post titled, “Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, not an iBook.”
While the post’s author, 21-year-old startup exec Cody Brown, doesn’t exactly make the case that books are dead, he does suggest that authors eyeing the iPad as a platform for their books are “missing the point:”
What do you think would have happened if George Orwell had the iPad? Do you think he would have written for print then copy and pasted his story into the iBookstore? If this didn???t work out well, do you think he would have complained that there aren???t any serious-readers anymore? No. He would have looked at the medium, then blown our minds.
It’s Cody, in his entirely understandable enthusiasm for the iPad, who’s missing the point. Authors won’t see the iPad as the platform for their work, but rather a platform. The iPad is one more outlet for their work, accommodating the notion that readers want access to authors’ work on the device of their choice, whether it’s a printed book obtained at Barnes & Noble or their iPods delivering an audio book downloaded from Audible.com.
It’s the same concept so many people have applied to music: I want to buy a song once and be able to listen to it at home on my computer, on my portable digital media player while I’m working out at the gym, in my car on my iPod, at work on a streaming service, and so on. Besides, if distribution were limited to the iPad, only iPad owners would ever be able to consume it. How many artists—out of either artistic or financial motivations—would ever want that kind of constraint on access to their work?
But it’s Cody’s assertion that an app is inherently better than narrative that bothers me the most. It’s not the first time the notion has raised my hackles. On an early episode of the podcast, Media Hacks, panelist Julien Smith suggested that printed words might never have emerged if video had been available to early man.
Yep, video would have been the ideal medium for T.S. Eliot to express the thoughts and vision that resulted in “The Waste Land.” Watching a video would have been so much better than reading “April is the cruelest month.”
What Smith and Cody seem to suggest is that all writers will want to become either videographers or programmers, and that all readers would rather manipulate apps or watch videos.
The notion that reading will wither with the onslaught of new technologies isn’t exactly a new one. The same fears were voiced when television gained popularity. But those unaware of history are doomed to repeat it, so we’re hearing the same old predictions today that were articulated 50 years ago. It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now. The media landscape is expanding. There are more choices, not replacements, for expression.
What the doomsayers fail to recognize is that writing is, in fact, a form of artistic expression. Photography didn’t kill painting. Movies didn’t kill live theater. Artists continue to find an outlet in these art forms and their work continues to find audiences that love it.
Authors and books are no different.
There is ample evidence that reading is alive and well:
- “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” sold 9 million copies in the US and UK alone in its first 24 hours. Readers lined up at bookstores for the midnight release of the book. Cumulatively, the Harry Potter series has sold in excess of 400 million copies and been translated into 67 languages. And keep in mind, the target audience for the Potter series is primarily smack in the middle of Cody’s generation. The same is true for the Twilight series, which has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 38 languages.
- The last time I was at the beach—about 15 months ago—I saw hundreds of people with paperback books, magazines and Kindles. The Kindle makes more sense at the beach than an iPad, since you can actually read it in direct sunlight. Even the most gushing reviews of the iPad note that it’s rendered essentially useless outdoors.
- Whenever I ride BART, I notice about half the passengers with books and e-readers open—and most of these are younger riders.
- The print-on-demand company Blurb continues its mind-boggling growth, suggesting that not only is reading alive and well, print is, too. A friend who works for Blurb shakes his head whenever he hears the “print is dead” meme. The market isn’t vanishing, he says; it’s just changing.
There will always be a sizable of audience of people who just simply love the narrative art form. It may be true that, if the iPad had existed in 1949, George Orwell might have opted to express himself with an app instead of a book called “1984.” Some artists will undoubtedly find the app more conducive than a book to the stories they want to tell. On the other hand, I can’t see “The Sun Also Rises” as an app, and a “Bad Hemingway App” contest just doesn’t have the same allure as the annual International Bad Hemingway competition.
It would sadden me to think that we would devolve into a world where the staggering beauty of words nevermore emerge from the fertile minds of narrative artists like Garbiel Garcia Marquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich…
It would sadden me, but it doesn’t. There will always be a market for people who want to drink in stunningly crafted words that send their imaginations reeling—and for people who are able to create such works.
As is nearly always the case, apps fit into the “along with, not instead of” category.
In his post, Cody takes issue with an earlier Techcrunch post by author Paul Carr, who lamented those who read a paragraph or two of a newspaper article, then tweet it, noting that this is “reading in the way that rubbing against women on the subway is sex.” Cody retorts that Carr is confusing length with quality. While length for its own sake is never better than brevity, there is much to be said for substance over superficiality.
Cody’s post ran nearly 600 words, and it wasn’t an app. It was, evidently, the best means by which Cody was able to express himself.
There is much excitement over the recent announcement from J.K. Rowling that a new book is in the works. I haven’t read a single complaint that she hasn’t opted instead to produce an app.
Cody concludes his post saying, “I???m 21, I can say with a lot of confidence that the ???books??? that come to define my generation will be impossible to print. This is great.”
Some books, yes. But my 21-year-old daughter—who seems to prefer texting to talking—always anticipates the next release of a Chuck Palahniuk book. I can say with great confidence, that some of the books that will define Cody’s—and my daughter’s—generation will be bound between covers. Apps are great. Some are genius. But words-as-narrative will continue to be the best way for some people—even those under 20—to express themselves. As long as what they write resonates, people including those under 20 will read it. That’s the beauty of choice: Everyone can opt for the platform that best suits them.
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