Against books -- sort of
George Packer's post on Twitter is rather less considered than his colleague Steve Coll's. Packer, a prominent figure who offered a controversial argument in a public forum, responds to the criticism of his argument by saying, "the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions." As the Twitterites would say: #fail.
As it is, there's nothing bold or brave about "mourn[ing] the loss of books and the loss of time for books." You don't get hunted through the streets for saying there's "no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world." This is inside work, and tapping out the conventional wisdom does not count as heavy lifting. Let's stop being so world-historical about our blog posts.
As it happens, the more uncomfortable position is the inverse: Celebrating the loss of time for books, and the cacophony of alternative mediums suddenly available for readers. I like books. I read them. I want to write one. But many books are -- sorry about this -- quite bad, and the time it takes to figure that out is quite significant. We venerate the medium, but not for good reason.
It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro's blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.
Then there are the advantages that online media offer that books can't match: It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent. Packer is insistent on making the point that something is lost as we move into this faster, more fractured, more condensed media environment. But so too is something gained.
And finally, I wonder whether online media is crowding out books to the degree Packer assumes. My blog is primarily read during the workday. That's true for every blog I know of. It's also true for the type of Tweeting under discussion here. This is all operating in the crevices of the workday, in part because it can be done on the computer, and so it looks like work. Cracking open a biography, conversely, is not the sort of thing that you can do while your boss roams the halls or in the spare moments between finishing one task and beginning another.
The different mediums are suited not just for different types of information but also for different levels of possible focus, and that makes them a lot more complementary than some think. Packer's post is about the competition between them, but my hunch -- and my experience -- is that people read blogs and online articles (which is what Twitter mainly links to) during the day and books during the night. That seems unambiguously better than when the only option was books during the night.
Photo credit: By Robert Pratta/Reuters
February 9, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
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