There’s been a lot of speculation about the future of books within the literary community as of late with the seeming meteoric rise of the Kindle and other handheld computer-based reading platforms. According to an article linked in ArtsJournal today from the online edition of the U.K.-based Prospect magazine, the celebrated American author Don DeLillo, upon receiving the 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow award in September, claimed that advances in technology will irrevocably change prose fiction:
Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write and read.
The implication, of course, is that this is not really a particularly good future for literature. However, with the exception of some very visible hand wringing within the music community, the digital dissemination of music, which is pretty much the same thing as the digital dissemination of literary content, is largely viewed as a fait accompli. So many of us have been seduced by the ease of access that the internet offers us, but few have paid close enough attention to the resultant value and attention we give to what we’re accessing.
Last week, as readers of these pages already know, I visited several different cities in Germany, culminating in attending the 2010 Donaueschingen Music Days. I had very little time to wander on my own, but, no surprise, when I did I was on the lookout for record shops. Happily there are quite a few still there. And between what I bought in the shops and the exhibition tables at Donaueschingen, plus what I was given by my new friends at the German Music Council, I lugged home over 100 CDs. I actually had to buy an additional suitcase to get it all back. And in the six days that I’ve been back home, between attending two concerts, writing two freelance articles, and working here at the American Music Center during the day on weekdays, I’ve already managed to listen to 14 of those recordings and hopefully I’ll get through them all by the end of the year. There’s a piece on one of the discs that I’ve even listened to twice—le contredésir, an amazing microtonal trio for the unlikely and extremely full-sounding combination of clarinet, French horn, and cello composed in 2004 by Jordanian-born German-based Saed Haddad. There’s something about having a pile of recordings in front of you that serves as a constant reminder that attention must be paid to them.
Sadly I did not bring back any vinyl this time around, even though I actually prefer LPs to CDs and still actively seek them out. There just wasn’t enough time for me to track them down, but usually if something is available on both formats, most of the time I’ll choose the vinyl. Part of it is that to my ears vinyl still sounds better. I’ve had many arguments with people over the years about this—there are staunch partisans on both sides of the analog-digital divide—and I’m not sure I want to use this forum to reignite that particular debate. But on Friday I read a provocative post on Daniel J. Kushner’s blog called The True Value of Vinyl which advocates for LPs for reasons other than fidelity. According to Kushner:
The physical act of putting on a record, listening to Side A for 20-30 minutes, and then having to turn it over for Side B […] reinforces the act of listening. […] When I listen to an actual record, there is a purposefulness present that is (more often than not) absent when listening to music on a CD player, iPod, Zune, Pandora, or whatever else the kids are into these days. I put on the record, and because of the “primitive” nature of the medium (not in spite of it), I am obligated to treat the sounds I hear not as background music, not as ambient noise. […] Listening to music on vinyl records demands that I be a more active listener.
The same case, of course, can and is being made for books where there still might be time left to save the medium. The apologists for all things tech will think it is hopelessly old-fashioned and quaint to long for the good old days of books and records, but why must it always be an either/or? Why can’t it be possible to love harpsichords as well as synthesizers? The internet has given us an unprecedented and remarkable means to communicate with each other and to disseminate information far and wide. But books and records are precious things that afford us the ability to focus undistractedly in ways that no other medium has been able to successfully replicate. So in the 21st century, where we’re supposedly able to have it all, why can’t we actually have it all?