Who Needs Books?

By Lynn Coady

There’s no bigger issue in the publishing world today than the economic and cultural impact being had by the Internet, with sides clearly drawn between cybertopians and Luddites, digital optimists and pessimists respectively.

There is, however, a third ground that takes a step to one side. This is the approach adopted by Giller Prize-winning novelist Lynn Coady in this slim but engaging book containing a lecture given at the University of Alberta on reading in the digital age.

Coady’s response is to shrug at our fears. The Internet is no big thing. There have always been people wringing their hands over the decline of Western civilization, from Plato down to the present day. But decline is something that’s hard to measure, and it may well be that we are no less bookish today than we were a hundred, or five hundred years ago.

I’m a little more concerned about where we’re heading, but what ultimately makes the conversation so stimulating is the fact it’s addressed to that most unknowable country, the future.
Coady’s main target is the defence, made by a self-appointed elite, of “serious” literature’s “cultural primacy,” especially as measured against the leveling forces of the Internet. As a counterpoint, Coady sees the Internet as reflecting a robust and durable human nature that isn’t threatened by digital barbarians because, when you get down to it, “they” are really just “us.”

“Fear not,” Coady assures. “Technology does not have the power to alter our most profound human yearnings and experiences. How do I know that? Because in all of human history, it never has.”

Still, doubts remain. One could argue that technology has altered the most profound human yearnings and experiences (like work, love, and family) a great deal. Meanwhile, a more topical concern is that the threat the Internet poses to literary culture will be felt less by an elite than it will be by an already squeezed middle class.

It’s true that throughout most of human history people didn’t read books, but that’s because they couldn’t read. In an era of near universal education and literacy, and with all the best that has been thought and said literally at the fingertips of anyone with a cellphone, we might expect better than a return to conditions that obtained in the early Roman Empire, with a small tribe of hedonists who read for pleasure and the Internet providing the spectacle of bread and circuses for aliterate masses.

With all the digital revolution has wrought, are we experiencing progress? If nothing has changed, isn’t that a sign of failure?

Review first published online September 29, 2016.