Borders bookstores around the country have all but shuttered. Magazine newsstand sales have dropped. And Steve Jobs had put it bluntly: “people don’t read anymore.” The good news? The literary world has dealt with these worries long before. Novelists have been composing their elegies for the book since the middle of the nineteenth century. Concerned for the future of critical thought and skepticism, authors have been embedding their fears of a diminished literary culture into their dystopian works. As a result, the book itself has become an artifact, a chronicler of writerly anxiety about the future of reading.
Jules Verne, who inaugurated the tradition of science fiction with Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, articulated perhaps the first of these concerns about the future of literature. In Paris in the Twentieth Century, a lost manuscript written in 1863 but published only in 1994, Verne feared that by next century, the poetry of his age would be forgotten, instead supplanted by the antiseptic jargon of science. As the book’s protagonist Michel navigates the year 1960, this becomes quite clear. Searching for the works of Hugo and Balzac to no avail at a bookstore, he bemoans how poorly his favorite authors have aged. “So all that fame had lasted less than a 100 years! Les Orientales, Les Méditations, La Comédie Humaine—forgotten, lost, unknown!” To Michel’s dismay, math and science have infected contemporary literature; popular titles include Decarbonated Odes, Poetic Parallelogram, and Electric Harmonies. Aghast, Michel decries the dominance of “science and industry here, just as at school, and nothing for art!” Representing an artless future in which none of the books dear to Verne have endured, Paris in the Twentieth Century evoked a writer’s trepidation with respect to longevity: Will future societies appreciate the value of the classics?
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 made more grandiose claims about society’s hostility to literature. Books in this novel’s universe are illegal and burned on site. Why? “A book is a loaded gun,” explains Captain Beatty, overseer of government-sanctioned book burnings. Yet, as Bradbury would later add, “you don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Intellectual thought in this culture is anathema, prized only by a cadre of “book people” who memorize historic texts. A cursory glance at the authors that the book people preserve—Plato, Aristophanes, Gandhi, Gautama Buddha, Confucius—suggests that Bradbury agreed with Verne: he believed in the edifying power of the classics and feared for a society that fails to heed them.
Gary Shteyngart, author of last year’s Super Sad True Love Story, had a more fundamental worry: in the future, people will not be able to read, period. In the novel’s super sad universe, books are only glossed over and scanned for information—never savored during periods of extended concentration. Lenny Abramov, a crusty remnant of a literate era, is the only member of this society who can read and think critically. Yet one day, when Lenny realizes that Eunice, his much younger girlfriend, can’t understand anything he reads to her, he vows to stop reading. “We don’t have to read anymore. We don’t have to read ever again. I promise,” Lenny says. “It’s a luxury. A stupid luxury.” For Eunice and her peers, books are redolent of “wet socks” and nothing more. But for Shteyngart, books are our only hope against anti-intellectualism.
Writing in three different centuries, these authors, taken together, remind us that debates over the future of reading are nothing new. They remind us of the value of the liberal arts, the art of thinking deeply. Perhaps they may have indulged in some hyperbole—Verne’s scientific texts like Poetic Parallelogram have not taken over the bestseller lists—but by documenting their fears, these writers capture the intellectual concerns of different eras. After all, as Bradbury once said, “I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”
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