mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Contrary to rumors, books are not history

Bring a bunch of writers together, like last week’s Litquake festival
did in San Francisco, and you’ll hear plenty of gloomy prognostications
about the future of the book. We live in an age of endless electronic
distractions and shrinking attention spans, goes the argument.
Meanwhile, the addictive powers of e-mail and the Internet are diverting
more and more people from the sustained concentration required by
long-form reading.

But Dave Eggers is having none of it. The author and children’s literacy
advocate recently told an audience at the San Francisco Day School that
the conventional wisdom is wrong. “I’m optimistic about the future of
books, both as an author and a publisher,” said Eggers, whose latest
work, a non-fiction account of life in New Orleans after Hurricane
Katrina, Zeitoun, has been chosen by the San Francisco Public Library
for this fall’s One City, One Book program.

Ah, you might say, it’s easy to be optimistic about books when yours are
mega-best sellers that attract tons of media attention. But Eggers
insists that his optimism actually stems from “empirically provable”
trends that hold true across the entire book business as well as
anecdotal evidence gleaned from observing children at 826 Valencia, the
nonprofit literacy organization Eggers founded under the motto, “We
believe in the power of the written word.”

First, the empirical argument. Eggers pointed out that, overall, book
sales are holding steady – they’ve been at about $16 billion for 10
years straight (and that’s not even counting Amazon), and any industry
that’s making $16 billion a year is pretty healthy. McSweeney’s, the
publishing house Eggers runs, is especially bullish on books for young
people.

“There is a perception in the publishing industry that today’s kids
aren’t that interested in books, or that they’ll be reading only
electronically,” Eggers told the San Francisco Day School audience. “But
most kids under 18 have already read five to six thousand pages of book
text between Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Twilight. Youth reading,
in many ways, is at an all-time high.”

Eggers, who collaborated with Maurice Sendak on a film version of
Sendak’s children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” said that next
year McSweeney’s will begin publishing picture books, both original
titles and reissues of out-of-print classics. During a recent visit to
Sendak’s house in Connecticut, Eggers and Sendak hatched a plan to
re-issue the work of the turn-of-the-century German pop-up book master
Lothar Meggendorfer.

At 826 Valencia, Eggers noted, “We have four or five computer terminals
at the back of the room, but the kids don’t use them much. If given a
choice, they’d much rather interact with an actual person and hold a
real book in their hands. Kids like the tactile experience of turning
pages and holding a physical object.”

Adults might be projecting from their own behavior when they worry that
kids will forsake reading in favor of Twitter, Eggers said, as some
adults in the audience nodded in apparent self-recognition. “We’re
blaming the kids, but we’re the ones who can’t stop checking our e-mail
and adding the latest Google apps.”

“I’m the most distractible guy in the world,” Eggers admitted with a
grin. “I can’t have Internet in my house, or I’d be on it all the time.
Now I pull into the parking lot outside this carpet store near my house
and poach on their WiFi to do my e-mail.”

So let’s not give up on books yet. E-mail and the Internet are marvelous
tools, but it would be dangerous and sad if they came to monopolize all
public discourse. Books provide an irreplaceable service in a democracy
— ventilating new ideas, acknowledging complexity expanding not just
information but knowledge and even wisdom.

Want proof? Head down to the library and peruse the shelves. And check
out the One City, One Book program. You can start tonight (Oct 14,
2010)
, when Eggers will be interviewed about Zeitoun at the Main
Library at 6 p.m. Happy reading.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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