The printed ‘book’ – a physical thing made up of paper, type, ink and board – has been around now for over 500 years. It has served literature wonderfully: packaging it in cheap (sometimes beautiful) forms that have helped to sustain mass literacy. Few inventions have lasted longer, or done more good.

The book may, however, have had its day. The tipping point has come very recently, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when e-books – digital things made up of algorithms and pixels – began to outsell the traditional book on Amazon. An e-book, as it’s currently marketed for handheld tablets, looks eerily like a ‘real’ book, just as the early printed books, such as Gutenberg’s, looked just like manuscripts. But, of course, it doesn’t behave like a ‘real’ Gutenbergian book. With an e-book you can alter the type-size, turn the pages with your thumbs (instead of your index finger) at lightning speed, search the text, and extract lumps of it for downloading. In short, you can do a lot more with an e-book, although, as it’s routinely pointed out, you can’t drop it in the bath. And, of course, the e-book is still evolving – readers won’t have to wait 500 years for what comes next. Book apps are already creating new formats and new ways of reading.

Now, for relatively small sums, a couple of screen-strokes can procure you anything newly published and virtually limitless numbers of second-hand books. On the web, a search engine will serve you up any new or ancient poem you want. All you have to do is enter a couple of keywords (wandered + lonely + cloud).

In a single lifetime – mine, for example – shortage has been replaced by an embarrassment of choice. So where, in this electronic Aladdin’s Cave, does one start? More importantly, where should we invest the limited (life-)time at our disposal? It’s calculated that someone at school now will encounter some fifty or so works of literature in their school career, and those studying literature at university around 300 more. Most people will probably consume no more than 1,000 works of literature in their adult lifetime. If that.

Where some literature is concerned (books set for examination, for example) we have no choice. But usually it’s entirely up to us what we choose to read. We are, as readers in the present time, paddlers in a deluge. In Shakespeare’s day there were, it has been estimated, some 2,000 books available to a bookish person like him. You could be, as the phrase was, ‘well read’. That is a description for which no one in the future will qualify. When it comes to literature, says William Gibson we are ‘worms in the cheese’. No worm will consume the whole cheese, and no worm will tunnel through in the same way as any other worm.

The problem of ‘managing surplus’ is further complicated by the fact that what we have in our hand is much more than a functional text-delivery system. It can go beyond words on the page and also provide music, film, opera, TV and – most insidiously – games. How can the pixel-printed word compete? How do we make time to listen to our favourite music and read the latest novel (available, at a relatively painless price, on the same handheld device)?

Whatever else, these days we need to be educated in the intelligent use and investment of time. That, not money, is what we will be short of in the future. How much time does the average working person have for culture, loosely defined, in an average week? Around ten hours, it is estimated. How long does it take to read a new novel by Hilary Mantel or Jonathan Franzen? You’ve guessed it. Around ten hours.

At the moment we are in a transitional or ‘bridge’ moment in our literary world. The electronic ‘faux book’ format which we cling to is an example of what the critic Marshall McLuhan called ‘rear-mirrorism’. What he meant by this is that we always see the new in terms of the old. We hold on to the past because we are nervous about the future or feel unsure how to handle it. Children and comfort blankets come to mind.

What exactly do the moors of Wuthering Heights‘s Yorkshire look like? It would be informative for readers to be able to call them up.”

Fragments of the old can often be found in the new, if we look carefully enough. Why do the pages of books have such large margins – why doesn’t print extend nearer the four edges? Because early manuscript books allowed space for marginal comment and annotation. We still have the margins, though few use them for writing notes in, and libraries get furious if you do. It’s a perfect example of ‘rear-mirrorism’.

Annotation and comment will, however, thrive in the new electronic margins. What, exactly, do the moors of Wuthering Heights‘s Yorkshire look like? It would be informative for readers to be able to call them up. Particularly those readers – now that literature is a global phenomenon – who have never been to the wilder areas of the north of England and probably never will.

Literature has up to now been overridingly textual – essentially words on the page. It is one of the things that, regrettably, can render it unattractive to readers (particularly younger readers) whose culture (via screens and game consoles) is richly audio-visual and increasingly ‘virtual’. Getting your stories from black marks on a white surface is not so exciting. The graphic novel is exciting, as is poetry set to popular music. All those Guy Fawkes masks worn by the young agitators of the Occupy movement were inspired by a graphic novel, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. Graphic fiction, like the comic book to which it is related, eases itself into film readily, creating a large knock-on readership. The economic rise of Japan and China, whose writing systems are traditionally pictographic, will add force to this mutation.

Interactive literature, which requires the reader to co-operate rather than passively consume, is already a presence. In the future we can expect what Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, called ‘feelies’ – that is, narratives, poems and plays that are multi-sensorial: felt, smelled, heard, seen. ‘Readers’, as they formerly were, will be ‘participants’. ‘Bionic literature’ will happen, one may be sure, much sooner than Huxley prophesied. We shall become ‘whole body’ readers.

One of the most interesting things about oral literature is its fluidity. Like conversation it is flexible and changeable; it takes on the personality of whoever is then in charge of it. It flows, like water, over whatever environment it finds itself in. What this means in practice can be shown by one of the oral­narrative forms that has come down to us over the millennia: the conversational joke. If I tell you a joke, and you think it’s a good one, you may well pass it on. But it will not be identical to what I originally told you. You will make it, with any number of small variations, yours – by elaborating some points, or by removing certain details. It may be improved, or it may not. But if you tell the joke, it will carry some of you in it, just as my telling will carry some of me in it. As it passes on to a third person, it will carry some of both of us. We can see something very similar in the phenomenon of ‘fanfic’ (fan fiction), which currently thrives on the web, where whole alternative versions of works such as The Lord of the Rings have been generated. The original fluidities (so to call them) of literature are being recovered. I find that exciting.

Change is inevitable. To play the prophet (always a risky venture), the best thing that could happen to the future world of literature, its practitioners and participants, is that it will recover that quality of ‘togetherness’. Taken in its totality, literature is something communal: a dialogue with minds greater than our own; entertainingly-clothed ideas about how we should live our lives; a debate about our world, where it is going and where it should go. This kind of meeting of minds, enabled by literature, is central to our existence now. If things turn out well that meeting of minds will become more intense, more intimate, more active.

What’s the worst thing that could happen in the future? If readers were to become swamped – buried under a mass of information they could not process into knowledge – that would be very bad. But I remain hopeful, and with good reason. Literature, that wonderfully creative product of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives. I say ours, but I should say yours – and your children’s.

Abridged from the closing chapter of A Little History of Literature, published by Yale University Press. Read more.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature, University College London. A trenchant critic and columnist, he has taught students at every level and is the author or editor of more than 20 books including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Lives of the Novelists.

Yale’s ‘Little Histories’ series explores the the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas through the ages – for all ages. Read more.

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