In accepting her Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing made an eloquent statement on the importance of books and told, in particular, of the hunger for books in Africa. Her speech includes a story of Anna Karenina read by a woman standing in line with her two young children, waiting to get water in a time of drought. It alludes to 'a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans'. It's a wonderful statement.
But it also has, in passing, this lament on how the internet may have contributed to a declining interest in books in the richer countries:
How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?I don't know what the overall effect of the internet has been on book-reading habits. Obviously, time spent on the internet is time not reading books. But the same can be said of time on a country walk, time playing games, time in the movies, time talking to friends. That each activity has an opportunity cost, that doing something that isn't reading a book gets in the way of your reading one, doesn't by itself show what the general causal interactions are between some given non-book-reading activity and the reading of books.
Here are five reasons for thinking that time on the internet can interact benignly with reading books, and not just as a distraction from it.
1) Much of what a person does on the internet is to read.
2) Books are available on the internet: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair... I don't know how it would be actually to read a book on the internet. But there's a wealth of stuff there, and growing.
3) You can find out about books on the internet.
4) You can buy books on the internet.
5) Some of those blogging are blogging about books, some or much of the time: Bookwitch, Dovegreyreader, Elizabeth Baines, Petrona, Keeper of the Snails, The Picador Blog, Bookarazzi, Harriet Devine, Scott Pack, Cornflower, Bluestalking Reader, Stuck in a Book, Random Jottings, The Fidra Blog, Susan Hill, Patternings, Ex Libris... and plenty more.
Not just inanities, therefore.