"What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."
I'm an unrepentant book addict. I have more of the lovely things than places to put them, and I'm always finding and getting more. Being a book lover, however, I'm familiar with the widely held belief, held by both print enthusiasts and others, that my favorite method of transmitting knowledge is kind of a dying breed. I don't believe it personally*, but it's out there.
Recently, as a friend and I discussed the return of Futurama and various series each of us should check out ("You really need to see The Sopranos, a fascinating character study"), it occurred to me that not only are books not dying, their method has infected other media. Television, one of the primary media that was supposed to replace books as better suited to the needs of a smaller attention span starved public is now more like its old-fashioned rival than ever.
Television has increasingly embraced longer plotlines, deeper characterization, more literary themes and definite, planned endings than ever before. The best, most-talked-about shows (like The Wire) are compared to novels. Series are perceived as more permanent things, not to be forgotten about after they're cancelled, but worth watching and savoring (sometimes, as with Futurama and Family Guy, this even leads to an eventual resurrection). Meanwhile, the sitcom is being slowly garroted in the closet.
Hell, there's even a booming industry in going back and overhauling old school TV stalwarts (Battlestar Galactica, V) to make them more like literature and less like, well, old school television.
The changes haven't just affected the elements of television programming, but how it's received as well. It's less common to see people gather around for a particular episode, unless they're particularly avid or the episode a landmark of some sort. Instead people seek out series, either online or on DVD, and watch them, often several episodes at a pop. Like chapters of a damn book.
Nor is television alone, over the last decade and a half, comic books have scrambled, with varying degrees of success, to embrace literary methods. Writers have received increasing prominence while people read whole story arcs in a sitting more frequently than before and older work is sought in collected editions instead of individual issues. The very name of the medium's even considered slightly disreputable. No, no, these are now graphic novels (the term dates back to the '70s, but it's become much more common in recent years).
There's a lot of factors behind these changes, of course, but one reason for television and comics increasingly mirroring books in format and consumption is that literature is a really old medium, and so there's been far more time to find some common ways to hold people's interest, methods that continue to have staying power. As they come of age, television and comic producers seem to be learning that crafted surprises, interesting plots, realized characters and immersive worlds never go out of style as long as the human brain continues to function. Perhaps, even, audiences don't mind some bleakness and ambiguity.
Something Sagan nailed about books is their endurance. Perhaps those dark, magical little lines will have the last laugh, after all.
* Exhibit A in reasons books ain't dead is the fact that one of the most massive media phenomenons in memory was the Harry Potter series, something that should dispel any notions that coming generations aren't willing to read long, complicated things on old-fashioned dead tree sheets, as long as they find them interesting.