Books demand commitment.
Text is everywhere; splashed on bus stops, T-shirts, the backs of cereal boxes; scrolling across the bottom of CNN, down our Twitter feeds, and popping up on our phones. We live in a world dense with cheap, utilitarian, garish, and irrelevant text, but there remains an aura about the book.
I’m Jewish, and the People of the Book take books very seriously. Simchat Torah is the holiday that celebrates with yearly cycle of reading the Torah; finishing the Torah, unrolling it, reading Genisis 1:1, rolling it back up, and then taking the torahs dancing around the synagog and into the streets. The Shas Pollak were supposed to have memorized all 5000 pages of the Talmud such that a pin could be driven into the book and a page named, and they would be able to say what word the pin penetrated on that page. The Jewish community is built around one book, reread each year. The Shas Pollak burned a photographic version 12 volumes into their memories.
Judaism is a monomaniacal extreme, but lesser books than the Torah demand commitment as well. Many people describe an encounter with a book as life-changing. Even a disposable airport novel takes an hour or three of sustained attention. The respect that we have for books is multifaceted: the content itself, the idea that someone must have had something so burning to tell us that they were willing to spend months or years writing it down-this little project aside. We respect the fact that this book got chosen and published, and not sent back to the slush pile. And finally, there’s respect for the object itself: for the care and craft that goes into binding pages together, for the authoritative account that will, with luck and care, last for centuries.
Commitment, attention: two things that are very scarce in this modern age. Readers are drowning in a sea of text, and books have to compete with everything else in life. I’m not even sure if transmedia books are really books, the disintermediation into movie tie-ins, fan communities, participatory publishing, and all that is about engaging with everything but the book itself.
In the future, people will probably read in dribs and drabs. Five minute breaks snatched in the check-out line or during breakfast. But there will still be some of the old-school who read books properly-marking out hour and day long chunks and delving deep into new worlds and conversations. We are the new People of the Book, and it’s not so much what we read but that we read that matters.