WILL UNWOUND #86: “Do Books Have a Future” by Will ManleyApril 19, 2010
Let’s establish a context for this post right away: I do not like machines.
I do not have the “gadget” gene in my DNA, and I have no affection for anything that has a motor or that you have to plug in. I also have no mechanical ability. The only classes I flunked in my entire educational career were mechanical drawing and wood and metal shop. In junior high we were required to take a standardized aptitude test. I had the lowest score for mechanical ability of anyone in the entire 7th and 8th grade.
It’s not surprising that I am very resistant to new gadgets like the iPad (see Will Unwound #76 ). The reason I don’t like machines is that it is very hard for me to master them. It’s much easier, for instance, for me to play golf than to try to noodle through a game of video golf. It’s much easier for me to read a book than to program a VCR, record something, and play it back. The thing I love about books is their utter mechanical simplicity.
Back in 1970, librarianship was the perfect career for me because it combined my two favorite things: people and books. Within a decade, I began to struggle mightily with the mechanization of our profession. This wasn’t all bad for my career because I think I had a better understanding than most librarians for the people on the “wrong” side of the digital divide. I had a deep understanding of their inner fears and insecurities about computers.
More than anything else professionally I wanted to write books, and I found my niche writing about humor in libraries. It’s been a fun niche to be in with one serious problem: I never got the sense that anyone ever read any of my nine books, not a single one. Oh, I knew people were reading my American Libraries and Booklist monthly columns because my readers would send me lots of e-mails, but I never heard anything about my books. I got so desperate that in one of my books I gave my address and phone number if people wanted to chat about the book. No one contacted me. I greatly feared that everything I was writing was ending up in some weird black hole. I tried not to think about that.
My black hole nightmares aside, when I retired I had big plans to write more books, but then one day in my local library 3 months ago I realized that there were 4 types of people using the library: 1) people sitting at the study tables working with a laptop, 2) children, parents, grandparents, and nannies doing a whole bunch of stuff in the children’s room including reading books, 3) teens talking loudly in the coffee shop, and 4) adults crowding into the computer center to wait their turn to get to use a computer. I didn’t see any adult actually reading a book.
That’s when a four letter light bulb went off in my head – blog. With the help of my son, Dave, I got this blog started. It’s been a revelation. Much of the material I was going to put into a book is now going into this blog.
The difference between writing a book and writing a blog is night and day. You slave over a book for at least a year and it goes into that scary black hole never to be seen or heard from again. You blog and people read your stuff every single day. How do you know? There’s a little counter function with this blog that registers a click every time someone goes to the blog. Last Wednesday alone 2,000 librarians visited this site. For someone like me that’s absolutely mind boggling. I don’t think I’ll ever have the desire to write another book. Why should I? My audience is here in the blogosphere.
To a guy who spent a fair part of the early part of his library career cranking a ditto machine, you have to understand what a miracle this blogging thing is. I type something on a keyboard, it appears on a screen in front of me, and librarians all over the world read it at the same time I’m still proofreading it. Dude, am I living in a science fiction novel or what? And I don’t have to worry about getting ditto ink on my shirt sleeve.
But it gets better. You guys don’t just read the blog; you comment on it…in big numbers. Last week there were over 300 comments. I’m amazed at how perceptive, funny, and intense the comments can be. Often times the comments are better than my posts, but this makes me feel good because I can at least take credit for being a catalyst.
I want this blog to be a place where librarians can let their hair down a little and laugh, vent, or even rant. This is going to be a fun ride…so let’s put the top down on the convertible and enjoy the breeze.
The question of the day is this: if a confirmed Luddite like me has become a confirmed blogger, what is the future for books, magazines, and newspapers?