Jeff Jarvis has a provocative piece on BuzzMachine, titled Post-text?, in which he speculates about the waning of text as it becomes easier for computers to handle audio and video. It reminded me of a comment made recently by my old friend and professor Andrew Lih, that he now listens to the web as much as he reads it.
I love movies. I love This American Life so much that I’ve considered stalking Ira Glass. Last winter we went on a bender and watched all seven seasons of Buffy in three months. But I’m re-reading Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century right now, and no other medium could possibly convey the depth and breadth of ideas Postman achieves in that slim volume. If books were to be relegated to the same Siberia as, say, epic poetry–a quaint form read in school and by a few eccentrics–it would be a great loss. Not just for nostalgic reasons (though I’m as susceptible to those as anyone), but because the richness of information in a book, and the particular flow state possible when in the thrall of a good one, can’t be equaled by other media.
I think Jarvis and the sources he mentions may be on to something: a lot of the pithy nonsense text on the web is being replaced by pithy nonsense audio and video, which is tantamount to replacing twinkies with snowballs.But long-form narrative is still best conveyed textually.
And for that reason I’m not actually too worried about the fate of text, at least not in the form where it matters the most, in books. There, it still does what it does best. And I know too many kids who are as possessed by books as they are by the rest of the media constellation. But if, God forbid, a text-less dystopia does comes to pass, Wordie is going to be like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck in On the Beach: the last holdouts, singing “Waltzing Matilda” while we wait for the world to end.