Thursday, October 29, 2009

Books, computers, and alcohol

In a much discussed interview, Philip Roth predicts that novel-reading will be a "cultic" activity within 25 years. Ron Charles, of the Washington Post tweeted (how appropriate) in response: "Let me counter Roth's daring prediction by predicting that cars will soon replace horses."

The demise of novels and literature and books has been predicted as often during this past century as the Second Coming--and with about as much accuracy and evidence. In a blog post, JK Evanczuk responds to the gist of Roth's prophecy ("5 Reasons Why the Novel is Not a Dying Medium"), arguing that the digital age provides opportunities for, rather than threats to, the future of literature.

Yet, other than anecdote and projection and an obvious generation gap, is there any truth to what the infamously reclusive Roth is telling us? Does he have his finger on the zeitgeist or does he just need to get out more (or, better yet, do some research about "kids today")?

I do wish someone would undertake a study that attempts to answer these questions. Yes, it's incontrovertible that consumers spend more time on computers (although, on average, the American consumer spends less leisure time than many folks might think: ranging from 45 minutes per day for teens to 30 minutes for retirees--still far less time than is spent watching television.) Has increased computer activity resulted in less book-reading over the last few decades? Or is the leisure time spent on the computer "coming" from somewhere else?

What about (to take one of many possible examples) alcohol consumption and socializing in bars? Let's examine alcohol consumption since 1969, the year "Portnoy's Complaint" was published. In 1969, 9.1 liters were consumed annually per U.S. consumer, rising to a peak of 10.7 in the early 1980s, and falling dramatically to 8.6 in 2003 (the most recent year available). That is, for those keeping tabs, a rather astonishing 20% drop in alcohol consumption since the arrival of the personal computer on the market.

Compare, however, the number of books checked out by the average American library user. The number served per library user has increased from 5.8 in 1969 to 7.0 in 2003, while attendance has nearly doubled. (It should be noted, however, that excluding juveniles, the books-per-user figure has declined somewhat.)

Both the figures for alcohol consumption and for library readership should be taken with some skepticism; reporting such behavior depends on sample sizes, methodologies, and populations trends. But that's the point: it might be true that increasing reliance on computers is resulting in the demise of book-reading, but in the absence of reliable data, it would be just as accurate to say that the increasing reliance on computers is resulting in a decrease in alcohol consumption and barhopping (with its collateral morning-after damage).

And, in the end, who's to say who's better off: the reader or the author who spends 10 hours a week scanning bite-sized word morsels on the Internet, or famous drinkers Hart Crane and Jack Kerouac, who both still, somehow, found time and energy during their abbreviated, inebriated lives to read canonical books--and to write equally canonical works.