Did the Internet Save the Novel?

When I saw that headline over an editorial in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, I thought it was a joke. But Gordy Crovitz was apparently quite serious when he wrote, "Engaging with a novel—whether through print or e-book—requires rare focus in our information-snacking lives. The more time people spend tracking fleeting pixels across digital screens, the more they seem to yearn for something else. The well-crafted novel is more alive than ever."  Which is editor-speak for a good book is cross-platform.

"The more popular online reading becomes," he continues, "the more printed book sales rise. More than 100,000 novels are now published in the U.S. and Britain each year." So much for the much-touted demise of the printed page.

These days, the average citizen carries a computer powerful enough to access a world where all information is available to one who knows the password. This tool has changed the universe. Anybody or anything can be verified straight away. And progress like this has contributed to people reading again. Before the computer, there was a large portion of the population that didn't read anything at all. Zilch. These same people now have to read and understand a computer screen on a regular basis. Jobs depend on it. It's inevitable that a good percentage of that group will begin to want more than bits and bytes and zeros and ones.  Enter literature.

The ability of the human mind to be transported to another place and time by lines of words on a page is something remarkable and unique to the species. When the experience is as real as being there and seeing it and touching it, that's called good writing.

If Gordy is on it, the method of delivery doesn't alter the content.  For my part, I still prefer printed books. Not that great writing doesn't live and breathe on a screen or monitor—of course it does; but the paper page is a different experience. Solid is different from virtual, no two ways about that. On the other hand, there's less competition with regard to physical attributes between works online because they're all presented in the same basic way.

And then, of course, there's the olfactory factor—the smell of old books.  If you're been around printed materials for very long, you learn to love it.  But a lot of folks don't appreciate the pungent fragrance of rotting paper permeating their workspace and opt for the online route.  After all, there is no odor emitted by an electronic reading device. At least, there shouldn't be.

With so many millions of volumes in book form, one can't help but consider of the longivity of the platform. Books are proven, books have endured.  What did we ever do without them?  But even hard copy isn't permanent.  What about the old civilizations that came and went long before us?  Why don't we have their literature and their history carved or etched in the medium and format of their day? You know they all did something.

They tell us it was lost or destroyed, every bit of it.  Some people believe that, some of us don't.  Can you imagine how incredible it would be to read about Earth's earliest inhabitants—in their own lexicon? Imagine what it would be like if we could go to the library and read stories by the Mayans or the Romans or the first Christians, the eyewitnesse accounts from the real people, like Cleopatra's promises and Caesar's war stories. Did they just not take the time do it?  Please.  Or was everything destroyed?  Everything?

Is it possible that the greatest treasures in the history of the Earth are and have always been in the hands of private parties?  Would any of these historic artifacts, if seen by the public, forever alter the way we understand our world?

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