Steven Johnson just wrote an article about how the e-book will change the way we read. He reports that he started to read an e-book about business and technology on a Kindle, then got bored and started to read Zadie Smith's On Beauty as an e-book instead. Apparently, this means there has been a massive sociocultural paradigm shift, and that the era of paying attention is over, yada yada yada. "I fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, of the author's ideas -- will be compromised."
This makes no sense. The reason Steven Johnson stopped reading the business and technology e-book was precisely that he wasn't totally immersed in it. Whoever's fault that is, it's not the Kindle's fault.
From a letter Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Anne Stevenson -- "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration." Perhaps this capacity for concentration evolved because our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and subsequently became useful or useless for other tasks, as in W.H. Auden's paean
"to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,"
"the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate."
We've inherited this capacity -- not from the sea-shell collector, but from the other guy! -- and we won't lose it just because of some new gadgetry. That I was completely immersed in On Beauty when I read it had something to do with the text and something to do with my brain, but very little to do with the ink and paper involved. Wouldn't a more logical conclusion to draw from Steven Johnson's experience be that e-books will facilitate getting away from texts that don't suck us in, and facilitate finding texts that do suck us in? Why not deduce that e-books will make it easier to achieve the state of total literary immersion, helping people to achieve such states more frequently?
Steven Johnson goes on to raise the horrifying possibility that "entire books will be written with search engines in mind." I can't see this happening, since anyone could figure out that such books would be unreadable. And anyway, changes as to which search engine phrases are popular occur too quickly.
A best-selling author did tell me recently that word of mouth nowadays boils down to "which books your book is next to electronically," i.e. on Amazon's "customers who bought this item also bought" feature, but that's another topic.