If we accept the premise that the medium is not as important as the ideas presented in a book, we must then examine how these "books" fit into our society. The modern world is a world in a hurry. The average American spends most of his or her time in the car. The desire to read may be present, but it is clearly not a safe activity while driving 70 mph on the interstate. The automobile has been and will continue to be an integral part of our technological society. The coming together of the car and the audio book was a natural occurrence. Peoples whose lives demand they spend long hours in their cars are responsible for the burgeoning of the audio book genre. Hours of anesthetizing driving can be enlivened with intellectual nourishment. As the media use increased, better quality and larger selections were demanded.
Audio books have become a large business. Technology makes production inexpensive and accessible. Established actors have been recruited to read the books. Some actors have asked to read their favorite books. In fact, the revolutionary world of audio books has developed into an arena where there is a distinct preference for some "readers." Where a choice exists, favorite readers are chosen. Interestingly, some publishers have inserted special effects into their products in an attempt to increase their appeal. This often backfires, since listeners prefer the power of the words and shun the frills.
As audio books become more and more popular, the side issue of what impact this will have on reading skills must be confronted. Donald R. Katz points out that:
Radical technologists argue that just as the written word was popularized by the force of Guttenberg's press five hundred years ago, other, more powerful machines now exist which offer new ways of knowing the world. Our widespread 'aliteracy'--not reading even though we know how--is the harbinger of a future in which books will be collected by lovers of antiquities.
What a horrible thought! As in all areas where there is progress, care must be taken to not lose sight of the basics. Reading and literacy skills ought not be returned to the "aristocracy." With the technology of movable type, we lost the art of rhetoric. Learning from history, we must be careful not to lose the art of reading. While the spoken word has power, the visual word has authority also. The sensual pleasure of seeing words, imagining the images portrayed must be retained. As a student of the liberal arts I fear that appreciation of the art form will be subjugated by technology.
This is a sad thought, but not a far fetched one. Recently a dinner conversation turned to education. A chemical engineer proffered that after teaching children the basics of reading he saw no need to teach world literature, American literature, etc. His technological world view saw this type of education as a waste of time.
This raises my anxiety level. I also become anxious when I see so many librarians embracing technology and cyber-space to the exclusion of the written word. How will the World Wide Web continue to impact society and the library profession? A question discussed next week.
Have you read the first portion of this series? When is a Book Not a Book?