The Year They Stopped Reading -- Umberto Tosi

A week ago, I woke in pitch dark from of a whirl of troubled dreams, spawned no doubt by my dread of 2024, a year swaddled in doomsday prognostications. Freezing rain pelted my bedroom window. The glowing deco clock on my night-stand blinked 5:30. I'm accustomed to wee-hour awakenings. Might as well forget about going back to sleep. 

An hour later, after my ablutions, when I switched on the TV over coffee, it dawned on me, quite literally, that it was evening not dawn. I had overslept from an afternoon nap. No wonder all the wrong newscasters were on and it wasn't getting light outside.

T'was a scifi-moment, not a senior one, I reassured myself. I've been wrestling with time paradoxes in a story I'm writing. I had jumped to the next morning for a few hours. Ho ho ho. That, I'd wandered into the fog of winter solstice blues.

Time travel speculation is an exercise in what-ifs. So is New Years Eve when we celebrate change knowing that the coming year probably will be much the same as the old one, we can only hope a little better.

My inamorata, the noted artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, says that each creative work teaches us about the next. Composition is as much a learning experience as it is a creative act. 

Time, scientists say, is a measure of change. No time, no change and vice versa. A scientist in my story wants to change the present by sending information into the past that can be acted upon to alter the course of history. This isn't time travel per se, only information transmission allowed by the principles of quantum mechanics. I discovered only recently that physicist Gregory Benford played with a similar idea in his 1980 novel Timescape,  

My novel's info-time-transmission theme differs from Benford's but like his, raises ethical issues such as those in the popular "baby Hitler" paradox. (i.e. Would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby? In other words, would you do evil to avert greater evil? And how would you know if it mattered? Maybe the time line would simply continue in a parallel universe. Or maybe another Hitler - Let's say an "Adolf Gruber" would rise and take baby Adolf's genocidal place.) 

Time is change, or change is measured in time -- inevitable whichever way you view it, but not immutable. The moving finger, having writ, moves on, as Omar Khayyam wrote. Naught can change it. But like a river, it can follow many courses to arrive at its ultimate destination. Or is it as 19th-century French novelist and Le Figaro editor Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Ray Bradbury, sporting medal, 2002- Flkr
Time can also be the stories we tell one another. Over the ages each medium we used to tell stories accelerated them - orally, then in writing, symbols, images, drama. then in print eventually proliferated by high-speed presses and cheap book, newspapers, pamphlets, then film, radio, television, animations, computers, then our smart phones all digitized  and compressed near light-speed.  Can we go backward, as in our dystopic scifi novels and movies? Yes. Totalitarian mobs led by demagogues  threaten to take us there shortly. 

We don't need people from the future to send us messages to warn us against such human plagues. We have had prophets, Casandras and insightful authors doing that nicely for centuries now if people bother to pay heed. 

The late Ray Bradbury was one of them -- and one of my personal heroes as I came of age in the 1950s. He burned the vital role of literacy into modern culture with Fahrenheit 451, which I read as a callow teenager. Later I got to know him personally while I was a junior editor for West, the Los Angeles Times' Sunday magazine for which he wrote regularly. He was a cheerful, bright light who brimmed over with fun, and slyly disguised wisdom. 

I'm borrowing from him in spirit with a idea that's come up in my current attempts at cautionary dystopian scifi, cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk -- a culture not where they burn books, but worse yet, one in which people don't read them, or anything longer longer than social and promotional graphic blurbs? 

What would a world look like in which reading books was even a rarer human activity than now, where reading is an arcane skill practised only by researchers, eccentrics and scholars? I'm picturing a dumbed down society like the one portrayed in Mike Judge's ascerbic comedy Idiocracy. You can image this as the end result for the "MAGA" crowd already burning books with holier-than-thou glee. But regular folks, even the smart ones with their posturing and perfectionism aren't slowing the idiot train down either. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity," Yeats penned in 1914, before Hitlers 1 and 2.

There is some debate over whether we are headed that way now. A quick survey of people I know says maybe. Fewer than half folks I know have read a book in the past year -- the measure of surveys. But that's always been the case and is a high percentage, probably too high. 

The most recent Gallup poll I could find on the subject showed a downward trend -fewer Americans reading books -- including print and digital from 1990 to 2022.  Other polls seem to concur, with but a few bright exceptions. 

Who needs books, one might ask. Other media can deliver much of what comes between the covers of books. But not all. Videos, TV and even social media to some extent, can deliver ideas, commentary, insights, creative leaps, legend, stories, et al, but not in the distinctive ways of books. Other media need more people, more production, more investment to produce. That means fewer and fewer elite gatekeepers, fewer voices in the public square, a tendency to minimize risk in favour of market, return on investment.  

We've already travelled too far down this banal corporate road with the shrink-wrapping and consolidation of traditional publishing. Independent e-book publishers and authors rush to fill the widening gap. Both provide the familiar book-reading experience, but by different means. But we all depend upon legions of book readers growing not shrinking. 

The coming year will provide clues. Which way will the current flow? Meanwhile, I'm curling up with a good novel, thank you.

Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous. His epic historical novel Ophelia Rising continues to earn kudos as does his holiday novella, Milagro on 34th Street. His nonfiction books include High Treason (Ballentine/Putnam), and Sports Psyching.  His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His stories, essays and articles have been published widely in print and online since the 1960s.


HOLIDAY SPECIAL: "Milagro on 34th Street" is on special through January 31 for only $4.80US (4.62£ UK) softcover; $2.99US Kindle. 

I spun my wry holiday novella from "Miracle on 34th Street" the Christmas classic film about an eccentric old man who plays Santa and just might be St. Nick himself. It's a flight of holiday fancy that makes a distinctive stocking stuffer. I'm donating the Season's royalties to refugee defence, in keeping with the novella's theme.


Enjoy my Hollywood noir, Frank Ritz detective thrillers: The Phantom Eye  and Oddly Dead. "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Dog of the North, The Portable Veblen and managing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review



I'm still reading books :-) However, I have noticed attention spans are much shorter than they used to be. I blame smartphones, constantly interrupting humans and demanding we all operate at AI speeds. Also Wi-fi, for interfering with our brain activity. A perfect storm, really, if you think about it.
Peter Leyland said…
That was a good piece Umberto which I read through two or three times before responding. Well, yes Fahrenheit 451 I read as a boy and also watched the film entranced. It is not too far away from our current times with the burning of Salman Rushdie's books, and the banning of books like To Kill Mockingbird in parts of the USA. Our AE colleague, Dianne, has mentioned something along those lines.

The nature of Time has a continuing fascination for me and a recent essay I published in an adult education journal dealt with how it can contract or expand depending on where we are and what was happening around us. Fiction as you rightly say can help us with this. I recently read an amazing novel by Emily St. John Mandel called Sea of Tranquility which was an engrossing study of the effects of time on its main characters.
I'm just ready to start another one by her called Station Eleven, a library copy which I'd been waiting on for months. From the blurb it looks like another one about time travelling...

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