Digital Barbarism: The Electronic Game

Once a trickle, books about the imminent digital apocalypse are fast becoming a flood. On top of recently published anti Internet books by Nick Carr, Mark Bauerlein, Lee Siegel and Maggie Jackson, we now have a literary heavyweight enter the ring. Mark Helprin, the distinguished American novelist and children's writer, believes that the digital barbarians are at the gate. Here's how Publisher's Weekly announced Helprin's next book -- a polemic defending literary civilization against digital revolution -- to be published in April next year by Adam Bellow, son of Saul, at Collins:

Author of Winter's Tale and Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin's DIGITAL BARBARISM: A Writer's Manifesto, defending, among other things, copyright and our industry, to Adam Bellow at Collins, by Wendy Weil at the Wendy Weil Agency.

Best known as the author of the acclaimed lliterary novels Winters Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin splashed into the Internet debate last year with an incendiary New York Times op-ed piece which argued in favor of extending copyright forever:

Would it not be just and fair for those who try to extract a living from the uncertain arts of writing and composing to be freed from a form of confiscation not visited upon anyone else? The answer is obvious, and transcends even justice. No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property, because no good case can exist for treating with special disfavor the work of the spirit and the mind.

So we know where Helprin's defense of copyright will focus, but what about his defense of "our industry" which, I'm guessing, is the book business. Here things aren't so clear. The problem is that the book business seems to be becoming history. Kids are going digital and the days of chidren books, it would seem, are numbered. Interviews with over 30,000 7-16 year-olds in the UK reveals that while the typical 8 year-old reads sixteen books a year, by the time they are 16, they are only reading two or three books a year. That's because they are reading comics, magazines, newspapers and online articles as well, of course, of playing electronic games. As Jonathan Douglas, the director of the UK National Literacy Trust, told the Independent:

"Reading books does not maintain the strength of its hold on young people as an activity. It begins to diminish from the age of 11. Publishers and the book trade must reinvent the book. They have to produce more graphic novels. Children are much more visually conscious than they were before – and the book trade must reflect this.... Reading is not a static activity. It has always changed from one generation to another, depending on where literacy skills sat within society and what texts were available and why."

If reading isn't a "static activity", where does leave traditional static books like Helprin's Digital Barbarism? What Publisher's Weekly doesn't tell us is whether Digital Barbarism will be a book for adults or kids. In addition to his short stories and novels for adults, Helprin has written three books for children, all illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. My advice to Helprin would be to slam lots of illustrations into Digital Barbarism and sell it to kids. Better still, drop the whole book idea (very 20th century) and turn it into a virtual online world where the digital barbarians could literally immerse themselves in Digital Barbarism.

Digital Barbarism: The Electronic Game. Is this the future of the book?