Thoughts from the Reading Pile: Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason

Over the weekend, I started reading Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book The Age of American Unreason. It identifies and traces the resistance to science-based, rational decision-making in the American public from the perspective of a historian. Thus far it’s an engaging read, though it’s run into a few hiccups reading it from a 2014 perspective. 

I’m still early in the book, but one thing that has jumped out at me is Jacoby’s lament that reading is no longer valued as it once was:

What kind of reading has exploded on the Internet? Certainly not the reading of serious books, whether fiction or nonfiction. The failure of e-books to appeal to more than a niche market is one of the worst kept secrets in publishing, in spite of the reluctance of publishers to issue specific sales figures. Even a popular mass-market novelist like Stephen King has flopped on the Web. In 2001, King attempted to serialize one of his supernatural thrillers online, with the proviso that readers pay $1 for the first three installments and $2 for the subsequent portions. Those who downloaded the installments were to pay on an honor system, and King pledged to continue serialization as long as 75 percent of readers paid for the downloads. By the fourth installment, the proportion of paid-up readers dropped to 46 percent, and King cancelled the series at the end of the year. King’s idea of serialization had of course been tried before, and it was a huge success–in the nineteenth century. London readers used to get up early and wait in lines for the newest installment of a novel by Charles Dickens; in New York, Dickens fans would meet the boats known to be carrying copies of the tantalizing chapters. The Web, however, is all about the quickest possible gratification; it may well be that people most disposed to read online are least disposed to wait any length of time for a new chapter of a work by their favorite writer.

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008): 16-17.

Leaving aside the issue of what counts as a ‘serious book’ (it is at least as old as the first lurid broadsheet off the printing press), this whole line of argument dates the book in fascinating ways. It’s only been six years since this was published, and yet the technological changes in between have opened an enormous gulf.

Our relationship to reading and the internet has shifted in the last few years, in no small part due to improvements in microprocessor technology. It has made smartphones widely affordable, and paved the way for the release of Apple’s iPad in 2010, as the first practical, consumer-level tablet computer. Furthermore, in late 2007 when this book would likely have just wrapped up edits and been in preparation for final publication, Amazon released the first generation Kindle ebook reader.

These three technologies, dedicated ebook readers, smartphones and tablets, have had an enormous impact on ebook sales. While the debate on the comparative merits of print versus ebooks is still going strong, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 report on ereading shows ebooks are growing in popularity in the United States, and have become a significant part of the market. This same report shows that about 76% Americans have read at least one book in any format in the last year, and that ebook reading in particular has increased from 17% to 28% between 2011 and 2014. I contest that, rather than destroying reading by encouraging instant gratification, the internet has become a means of satisfying that desire where reading is concerned. 

I can’t hold Jacoby’s assessment of the internet and ebooks against her, though I’m curious whether she’s revised her view since this was published. I can, however, take issue with her comparison of Charles Dickens and Stephen King. 

Dickens and King come from two entirely different publishing environments. It’s easy to forget, I think, just how revolutionary and important mass printing technology was to culture prior to the advent of radio and moving pictures, never mind television and the internet. At the time Dickens was publishing, magazines and penny dreadfuls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful) (cheaply produced, sensational fiction publications) were an enormously popular form of mass entertainment. Consider, for example, the public uproar when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dared to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Serial fiction inspired the kind of passion we now direct at television, movies and video game franchises (see Firefly, Veronica Mars, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Halo, Mass Effect and so forth).

Stephen King is popular, no doubt about it, but it’s hard to see how comparing his 2001 experiment in web serializing, The Plant , is any more than superficially similar. At the time, ebooks were still primarily appealing to a niche market, not an established force in popular culture. The Green Mile, which was published originally as a set of six short mass-market paperbacks spaced a month apart, is the better analogue though it lacked simultaneous ebook editions. In contrast with The Plant, which King abandoned after only six parts due to disappointing sales, The Green Mile was a best seller. It also won the 1996 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, received nominations for both the British Fantasy and the Locus Awards in 1997, and was adapted into a successful and critically well-received film a few years later – clear metrics of success.

Rather, I think that King’s web serial was the right idea at the wrong time. The notion has recently been revived to better success, though it remains to be seen what will come of it. In 2012, science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor announced that they would be publishing John Scalzi’s next novel, The Human Division, as an ebook serial on a subscription model. I couldn’t find sales figures in the short time I have to devote to a blog post, but it was a successful experiment in Scalzi’s assessment, and Tor announced a second ‘season’ to continue the story shortly after the final episode was released. 

I’m interested to see where the ebook market goes in the next several years; the shifts in technology typified here formed a cornerstone of my Masters thesis. I am particularly interested to find out what things we ‘know’ now will be proven laughably wrong in hindsight. It’s entirely possible there is something, or several somethings, that I’ve written future readers will find as peculiar as Jacoby’s views on reading in 21st century America.

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