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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Question Five: And so now ... ?

The habit of both learning and amusing oneself by reading books came into existence during a historical period. It could go out of existence during a historical period too. This may be one of those periods.

There have been such periods in the past, for a variety of reasons. More people read during the Roman Empire (ended about 400 AD) than during the later centuries of the Dark Ages in Europe (ended about 1100 AD)—when, at one point apparently, most of the key manuscripts were hidden on an island off of Ireland. (That's why Ireland was call the "land of saints and scholars.")

Today's challenges are the opposite of the challenges we faced during the Dark Ages: Information and entertainment proliferate almost faster than the advertising can be booked for them. When consumers can download feature films to cell phones or play elaborate story-based games based on those films, will books seem simply too static to attract any significant number of people?

Perhaps.

What worries me more is that ours has become a culture of simple answers and instant gratification. And the opportunities to bypass the book—and the prolonged concentration it requires—proliferate.

So, ours is a market— small or great—for people willing to sit and think, and be challenged.

Good fiction, for example, reveals complex personalities, and good non-fiction unpacks complex topics.

Complex, by the way, doesn't mean boring or hard to understand. It means material that cannot just be turned into wrapping paper themes without losing something in translation.

It means ideas that you didn't grow up with, that are not second nature, that don't seem "obvious." So you must pay attention in order to understand.

Put simply: If your book can be turned into wrapping paper without losing anything in translation, the card and party industry offers an exciting career for you.

So yes, I do believe that we face, for the present, a difficult and shrinking market, and I am not here to try to tell you otherwise. However, there are some reasonable grounds for hope.

First, complexity is usually an acquired taste.

The four year old who thinks that candy floss is the most wonderful food product ever invented may mature into a gardener who seeks just the right balsamic vinegar to complement her heritage tomatoes. We learn to appreciate complexity as we mature.

With diligence, a good writer can still find and cultivate readers and hearers. But it is going to be a lot of work, and the writer must face challenges that didn't exist in the past—and acquire skills that were not necessary in the past.

Next: Question Six: What is the biggest problem we Canadian writers face today?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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