Science writer Steven Johnson isn’t just optimistic about the future of books: he’s positively excited. But, then, he keeps things in perspective. Johnson, who explores the history of objects and trends through the centuries in his ninth book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, says that this isn’t the first time that seemingly negative developments emerging from new technologies have turned out to be highly beneficial in unpredictable ways. After all, he points out, the invention of the printing press led to the realization by literate Europeans that they were too farsighted to read the books that were being published. There was thus a demand for reading spectacles to correct a problem exposed because of the availability of books. Consequently, the printing press was directly responsible for the scientific revolution, both by introducing the technologies by which scientists could easily share their ideas, and by spurring the production of glass lenses, which led to the invention of the telescope and microscope, according to Johnson.
Recalling that 25 years ago pundits thought that “television and movies and that kind of visual escapism was eating away at literary culture,” Johnson, whose PBS/BBC series on the history of innovation led him to write his latest book, argues that “we should feel good about the primacy of the book and the written word and the long-form narrative.” The rise of the Internet and the ease of social networks have given people new ways to buy, read, and talk about books. With bloggers and other literary tastemakers reviewing and recommending books online, Johnson notes, “the community of readers is louder now than it ever was. The word has come roaring back.”
Booksellers, Johnson says, should take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the Internet to find virtual communities of book lovers that they can then pull into their bookstores and refashion into real communities. “More and more people are hanging out in coffee shops, creating workspaces,” he says. “Bookstores have an opportunity to become part of that trend.” Johnson recommends that booksellers create comfortable spaces where customers can “get together and talk about what they’re reading” while surrounded by books. “That’s a wonderful combination,” he says, recalling his own teenage years, when he lived in Washington, D.C., and spent hours reading books while sipping tea at the cafe inside Kramerbooks. “After all, people still like to get together in person.”
See Johnson’s breakfast keynote on Monday, February 9, 8:15–9:40 a.m., in the Grand Ballroom.