Barnes & Noble, that once proud anchor to many a suburban mall, is waning. It is not failing all at once, dropping like the savaged corpse of Toys “R” Us, but it also clear that its cultural moment has passed and only drastic measures can save it from joining Waldenbooks and Borders in the great, paper-smelling ark of our book-buying memory. 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 cafe (and now a restaurant?), a spot where you’re more likely to find Han Solo bobbleheads than a Star Wars novel. The old joy of visiting a bookstore and finding a few magical books to drag home is fast being replicated by smaller bookstores where curation and provenance are still important while B&N pulls more and more titles. To wit:
But does all of this matter? Will the written word — what you’re reading right now — survive the next 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 writing 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 society, that AI and new media will redefine how we consume the world and the fact that we see 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 film. In his book of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes about the complexity and education and experience needed to consume various forms of media:
The book has been largely unchanged for centuries. Working in language expressed as a system of marks on a surface, I can induce extremely complex experiences, but only 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 accesses it. This requires a complexly cultural education, and a certain socioeconomic basis. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of such an education.
But I remember being taken to my first film, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary (I can’t recall which I saw first), and being overwhelmed by the steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve: In that hour, I learned to watch film.
This is a deeply important idea. First, we must appreciate that writing and film 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 thinking, not just acting. Film — also a linear medium — offers a visual representation of a story and thoughts are inferred by dint of their humanity. We know a character’s inner life thanks to the emotion we infer from their face and body.
This is why, to a degree, the CGI human was so hard to make. Thanks to books, comics, and film we, as humans, were used to giving animals and enchanted things agency. Steamboat Willie mostly thought like us, we imagined, even though he was a mouse with big round ears. Fast-forward to the dawn of CGI humans — think Sid from Toy Story and his grotesque face — and then fly even further into the future Leia looking out over a space battle and mumbling “Hope” and you see the scope of achievement in CGI humans as well as the deep problems with representing humans digitally. A CGI car named Lightning McQueen acts and thinks like us while a CGI Leia looks slightly off. We cannot associate agency with fake humans, and that’s a problem.
Thus we needed books to give us that inner look, that frisson of discovery that we are missing in real life.
But soon — and we can argue that films like Infinity War prove this — there will be no uncanny valley. We will be unable to tell if a human on screen or in VR is real or fake and this allows for an interesting set of possibilities.
First, with VR and other tricks, we could see through a character’s eyes and even hear her thoughts. 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 thoughts coming hot and heavy as they move through the action. Maybe the story isn’t linear. Maybe we make it up as we go along. Imagine the remix, the rebuild, the restructuring.
This spreading, melting, flowing together of what once were distinct and separate media, that’s where I imagine 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 consumer, up the line, thinks of as how he looks at stuff. If he discovers, say, 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 film melded with the immersion of gaming. What about artisanal book lovers, you argue, they’ll keep things alive because they love the feel of books.
When that feel — the scent, the heft, the old book smell — can be simulated do we need to visit a bookstore? When Amazon and Netflix spend millions to explore new media and are sure to branch out into more immersive forms do you need to immerse yourself in To The Lighthouse? Do we really need the education we once had to gain in order to read a book?
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 champions of text barely 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 they want. They have to support and pay for novels, non-fiction, and news. They have to visit small booksellers and keep demand for books alive. And they have to make it possible to exist as a writer. “Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has declined. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book sales 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. Maybe we let it collapse into a heap like so many before it. Or maybe we fight for a medium that is quickly losing cachet. Maybe we fight for books and ensure that just because the big guys on the block can’t make a bookstore work the rest of us don’t care. Maybe we tell the world that we just want to read.
I shudder to think what will happen if we don’t.