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Author Chris Bohjalian on "Reading in a Digital Age"

March 27, 2009

Category: Events


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Chris BohjalianAuthor Chris Bohjalian rode into Salisbury, N.C., hoping to connect with readers. He arrived cognizant that they might read his latest novel on Amazon's Kindle or scan only part of his weekly newspaper column online via the Internet. This lover and writer of books was willing to compromise; he would give a nod to a reader regardless of what vehicle they took to the task.

Bohjalian spoke at Catawba College's 23rd annual Brady Author's Symposium at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, but it was only during his 7 p.m. lecture in Hedrick Theatre on campus that he shared his personal take on the state of reading and the vehicles for reading in America.

He jumped into his topic from the platform of a National Endowment for the Arts study which showed that the annual reading of a novel or a collection of short stories by Americans has been eroding by percentage points since the 1980s. In 2009, Bohjalian said that the study only indicated 50% of the public could make that contention, "because reading is changing and the Internet is changing reading behavior."

"We are still reading as many words as we ever read in the past," he said, "but what we read — and, yes, how our mind interprets a linear narrative in an era where multitasking is the norm — is changing."

He cited a February visit to his father in Palm Beach, Fla., and recalled the number of Kindles and the number of books he had counted while viewing people reading around a pool. While on a visit there in November, he said that he had seen no Kindles in use.

He spoke of his book publisher, Random House, that had recently provided every editor, sales representative and marketing manager with a Sony E-reader on which to read manuscripts and books.

"There's something terrifying, dynamic, brilliant, and completely destabilizing happening right now," Bohjalian said.

He recalled the audio book and its transition from audio cassette to audio CD to a downloadable digital audio format. Book sales, meanwhile, are down for those books "made of pulp and ink and glue." "The transition from paper to pixels is happening before our eyes."

The Demise of Newspapers
"I am a newspaper columnist and so I have watched newspapers fold left and right across the country, and still I am as confused about this as anyone," Bohjalian said. "After all, I love technology. I love the web, but democracy needs newspapers!"

He explained the power of the newspapers to obtain information and to legally pursue truth and knowledge on behalf of all Americans. Had newspapers known at the advent of the Internet Age that they would eventually sacrifice their existence in print by providing their news content online for free, Bohjalian suggested they would never have chosen to do so.

"We read newspapers differently online," he continued. "When you read holding a newspaper, you typically read to the end of an article, but when you read online you typically don't finish articles. You read the first page and then skip around. Moreover, you're likely to be multitasking and our attention span is worse for it.

"That's what I mean when I said I wonder if our ability to endure a linear narrative is changing. When I was a kid, TV commercials were 60 seconds long. Now they're 10, 15 and 30. Does anyone read "Moby Dick" on a Kindle? Does anyone read "Henry V" on an e-Reader? Will they? Should they?"

Bookstores Threatened
"There are times when I have wanted to bask in the soul of a bookstore," Bohjalian said. "This afternoon before dinner, I went into your bookstore [Literary Bookpost] downtown to experience it and the sensuality of its books. It is more than the books — it's the people who operate those stores with their totemic memory of the books."

He noted that "the soul of the book itself" is at risk in the digital age.

"What we put on our shelves in our homes is as much a means of defining who we are as the clothing we put on our backs or the music loaded on our iPods. When we recall what we read as children and teenagers, we don't merely remember the plot or the dialogue: We remember who we were, where we were, and perhaps — the state of our families and friends when we first cracked the book's spine."

He said Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep" always recalls for him "the snack bar at Smith College where my wife went to school when we were merely boyfriend and girlfriend and the smell of onions the cooks there placed on the hamburgers" "The Joyous Season," he remembered, was "in the middle of the night a few days before Christmas, and my four-week-old daughter is, finally, asleep in my arms."

"There is no going back and perhaps there is no reason to go back, but certainly there are ways to mitigate it," Bohjalian concluded about American reading behavior. "We have contact lenses, laser surgery and eyeglasses as alternative solutions for vision issues," and he suggested that Kindles, iPods, and books made of pulp might also successfully coexist.


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