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Warren Adler

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Will the Tablet Kill the Novel?

Posted: 01/18/12 05:30 PM ET

The electronic punditry, with their technological, elitist mindset, is now making noises that the single-use e-readers like Kindle, Nook and the SONY Reader are merely stopgap devices that will one day merge into the tablet, offering immersion reading, like the novel requires, as merely one of a million other ways to gain "information" and fill leisure time.

They argue that a single-use device is inherently obsolete in the face of the multitasking onslaught of the tablet, which packages in one carry-around-gadget everything one needs for the fulfillment of most communication activities from video to gaming to record keeping, scheduling, shopping and most other entertainment and information requirements.

Indeed, it is a powerful argument and is, from a business perspective, profoundly compelling. The convenience and choices the tablet technology offers have infinite possibilities.

Faced with such a smorgasbord of uses, what is to become of what I define as the serious novel? My concern is for the fate of the mainstream novels that offer stories of enduring interest, such as those created by Dickens, Trollope, Balzac, Tolstoy and, the more contemporary, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Roth, et al., to mention just a few of my favorites.

To engage with such novels requires time, effort, concentration, and an openness to reading these stories not only for pleasure but to enhance one's understanding of the human condition. It would be a pity if other distractions crowded out the pleasures of immersion literature, but the temptation to do so can be tantalizingly seductive, especially to young people who have not been grounded in the enhancements and benefits of reading great books.

Nevertheless, the technology addiction cannot be ignored as a competitor to reading. Indeed, some prognosticators may be right in citing the eventual rise of the tablet as a device of choice for everything under the techie sun, including reading. Perhaps I am being overly protective of the single-use reading device because of my career as an author and my lifetime love of the serious novel, but I cannot deny the threat to reading long-form stories that the tablet presents by its sheer multiplicity of competing distractions.

One may argue, as well, that the printed book, although in a steep decline, still dominates book sales. It could make a resurgence if the tablet begins to intrude on the exclusive e-reader market. I'm not sure that argument is winnable but who knows how the storefront book business might counteract its predicted demise?

There is another threat to the novel that could be even more destructive, and that is the devaluation of reading in general by technology addicts who believe sincerely in the primary importance of greater and greater reliance on electronic devices to navigate through life. I keep wondering how far up the technological benefit scale we can go before we hit a counterproductive wall.

This is in no way meant to denigrate those aspects of the electronic world that have acted as handmaidens to bettering the human condition, expanding our communication universe, organizing our time and finances, speeding up information exchanges, and widening our choice of movies.

Technological advances have enhanced our ability to create a moving record of our lives through video and still photography, helped us connect to people, locally, nationally and internationally, and have improved our research skills and medical diagnosis abilities. It has enhanced our ability to react to events, bring people swiftly together to enlist their cooperation in various causes, air our grievances, and accomplish a thousand other tasks that might have taken past generations days, weeks or months longer to realize.

Such alleged progress cannot be ignored, but neither can the concept of deep, personal reflection, thoughtful concentration, philosophical cogitation, creative imagination and aspects of insight that one can glean from literature which can only be conveyed through the privacy of immersion into a parallel world best dramatized in the imagination through storytelling.

It may seem odd that here I am questioning the survival of the novel in the face of a vast tsunami of novel writers who have taken advantage of technology to post their self-published works on the various online venues. There are millions of them out there pounding away on keyboards, creating their long-form stories, and hopefully making them available to potential readers through the welcoming ease of the Internet.

Whether or not this vast inventory of novels will enhance or multiply readership is an open question since it faces the same competition from the tablet.

Perhaps my speculations cite dangers that are not there. A part of me believes that the novel is an essential tool of human insight and knowledge and will never go away under any circumstances. But there is a part that worries that the relentless march of technology has a negative side that has not yet revealed its true destructive nature.

 
 
 

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