Bohjalian calls Kindle ‘terrible and brilliant’ device
By Susan Shinn
Chris Bohjalian is a writer ó but he’s also quite good with statistics.
One of the “chilling” statistics he talked about during the Brady Symposium at Catawba College on March 26 was a steep decline in the reading of novels.
Only half of Americans now read at least one novel a year.
Bohjalian was speaking to the other half ó those who came to hear his night-time speech, “Reading in the Digital Age.”
Bohjalian doesn’t believe reading itself is beleaguered. Because of the massive amount of time we spend in front of computers, we’re reading more than ever.
And even though fewer people may be reading fiction, they’re reading a lot of it.
Bohjalian is heartened by reading groups and those folks who read a half-dozen or more novels a year.
But something, he admits, is changing.
Which brings us to Kindle. Or electronic readers.
At Random House, every single person has been given a Sony e-reader, Bohjalian said.
His editor reads all manuscripts electronically now.
His agent has a Kindle.
Kindle is one of those rare technological innovations he said, which older reader are into before younger ones.
Bohjalian characterizes the machines as “terrible and brilliant” at the same time.
For example, it took audiobooks 10 years to transfer from cassette to compact disc. The change in format from CD to electronic download has occurred twice as quickly.
Sales of actual books dropped 13 percent in December, “the month bookstores have to make it or break it.”
Newspapers, too, are declining, Bojhalian noted.
“I don’t just worry about books, I worry about newspapers,” he said.
He pointed out that as talented as bloggers are, they don’t have the resources that newspapers do to pursue a free press.
He also praised the Literary Bookpost as a local treasure.
He loves nothing more, he said, than to “bask in the soul of a bookstore.”
On the other hand, Bohjalian admitted he loves technology and loves the Web and the myriad resources it offers. It’s become indispensible to him in the exhaustive research he does before writing a book.
“But. But. But,” he said. “We read differently online. Newspapers are a perfect example.”
When you read an article in the newspaper, you usually read it to the end.
If you need an article online, you only read one in seven articles to their conclusions.
That’s because you’re looking at other stories, other links, other videos, checking e-mail or Facebook.
(Try it sometime. You’ll see he’s right.)
Reading online, Bohjalian said, has caused us to multitask. “Our attention spans are the worse for it.”
Books, Bohjalian said, have personal memories built in to them.
“When I see a dust jacket,” he said, “I can remember where I was when I first cracked the spine. I can do that with an awful lot of books.”
Books, he said, define who we are as much as our music and our clothes.
“That is one of the risks we have going to digital ó losing our totemic, fetishistic, soulful connection to pulp and ink and glue.”
But in the digital age, he said, the genie has been let out of the bottle.
Bohjalian likened the electronic readers and books to contact lenses, eyeglasses and laser surgery ó perhaps they can co-exist.
“I am hoping that 150 years from now, there will still be a place for books,” he said.