Do We Need Books?

Speculative fiction has moved to visual media in a big way. And not just stories devoid of spiritual truth.

News and Announcements:

Glad to be posting again today since last week, as you may have noticed, I was absent. Unfortunately, I spent a portion of the day with my Internet provider trying to find out why I wasn’t able to access the web. Nothing solved until late Tuesday, and then I’m still not sure what the issue was. The level-two technician I last talked with said I’d be contacted by someone else within seventy-two hours. Seventy-two hours! Unbeknownst to me, the problem was fixed, however, and I never heard back from them.

In other news, you may have realized that our regular Tuesday columnist, Christopher Miller has left us. He and his brother have gone into a new business, and Christopher found that his time too stretched to continue here at Spec Faith. We hope to unveil his replacement soon. And now, to the topic of the day.

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pr2_robot_reads_the_mythical_man-month_2For a long time–maybe up to the present–Christians who wrote speculative fiction did so because they couldn’t find the kind of stories they enjoyed most. Not in the science fiction and fantasy sections of general market bookstores. Not on the fiction shelves of Christian stores.

The general market selection of science fiction and fantasy, it seemed, didn’t include stories that delved into spiritual truths handled from a Christian perspectives. Christian stores, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the fact that more and more Christian worldview science fiction and fantasy novels existed.

Times, they done changed already. The number of Christian speculative novels has mushroomed, in part because of the revolution in the publishing industry brought about by e-readers and by print-on-demand technology which makes self-publishing affordable.

Add to this fascinating mix the fact that speculative fiction has moved to visual media in a big way. And not just stories devoid of spiritual truth. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings broke into the public eye in a dramatic and financially successful way. Three of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books followed less successfully, but the three-part version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit has kept those passionate for Christian speculative fiction hopeful.

Superhero stories expanded the list, if not intentionally, at least by accidental imitation of the greatest Hero of all.

watching-tvTV and video games have joined the foray, adding many more stories centered on the confrontation of good and evil, though that “good,” as in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, might be “good witches”–a concept mirroring that used by J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books.

Speaking of Rowling, it would seem she is diving back into the wizardry world she created, but not through the means of a novel. Rather, she is writing the screenplay at the behest of Warner Bros. for a Potter spin-off. The story will follow the adventures of the fictional author, Newt Scamander, who wrote one of the Hogwarts textbooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

The movie is not a prequel or a sequel of the Potter books, Rowling explains. And Harry, Hermione, and Ron don’t make an appearance. Rather, the movie will be an expansion of the magical world in which the books took place.

So the question: do we need books? Isn’t it possible that visual storytelling will replace books?

According to Christian young adult fantasy writer Ashlee Willis Leakey, books are essential:

Anyone who does not love books is, in my opinion, missing one of the greatest joys in life. God gave us words. He gave us minds to use them, voices to speak them, hands to write them down, and imaginations to let their creativity fly free. Books are community – they are the way we remember things, and speak to one another. They are portals between worlds, keys to time’s endless path.

Books. We need them. Don’t try to argue with me. We need them.

I’m not arguing, I can assure you. I write fiction, after all. But is it true? In this day and age, with the development of visual technology that can recreate literally anything a person can imagine, do we need books?

Will Rowling’s new movie be as beloved as her Harry Potter ones were? Will the visual way of telling stories supersede books, much the way books superseded the bard and oral narratives? Does the media matter, or is the question really about what we tell, not how we tell it?

We had a good discussion on this topic last May. (See “Books Versus The Screen.”) I think it’s worth revisiting, however, because I believe we’re in the middle of a storytelling revolution. I used to say, a publishing revolution, but the fact is, visual media is changing with lightning speed, as is the method of delivery.

studying_star_warsPeople can view stories on any number of mobile devices. Might not viewing become preferred to reading, especially if we’re reading on devices rather than from books?

So what’s your projection? What will storytelling look like in ten years? Twenty? Fifty?

Should readers work hard to pass on the love of books? Should we cling to our hard copies like soon-to-become antiques? Should we accept that storytelling will forever be altered and work toward incorporating the best aspect of books with the best of visual media? Are text-enhanced movies a possibility? Or movie-illustrated books?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. notleia says:

    This is a bit apples to oranges. They’re entirely different mediums. Physical copy or e-reader, books are in the form of text, which is different than visual media like movies or even graphic novels/comics. You can show some things much more easily than you can describe them, and internal commentary/general first-personness is much better in text than in voiceover.
    Of course, graphic novels and comics use both picture and text, though static picture is different again from moving picture. I want to call it medium promiscuity, after what my professor called genre promiscuity, which is apparently not a thing that Wikipedia has heard of. Anyway, that’s what he called a book that mixed genre forms like poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in distinct sections.

  2. bainespal says:

    So what’s your projection? What will storytelling look like in ten years? Twenty? Fifty?

    Fifty years from now, printed books will still exist, and still be respected. In fiction, only the best of the best will make it into print. The rest will exist in digital formats that have yet to be conceived, and even some excellent novels will be unable to be reproduced in print form due to the use of interactive techniques.

    Indie computer games will merge with digitized novels, creating a spectrum. On the novel end of the spectrum will be traditional e-books. On the opposite end will be narrative-driven computer games. In between will be a vast cosmos of many kinds of interactive fiction, choice-based novels, and narrative-generating programs.

    The mainstream, big-budget videogame industry will remain completely separate from the interactive fiction spectrum. Today’s 3d, first-person-perspective videogames will be rendered obsolete by full-imersion simulation environments (requiring the user to wear a visor), or by visual holograms. Actually, I think the full-simulation environments will replace first-person shooters, while holograms will replace third-person adventure and strategy games.

    I don’t think much about the media of cinema will change, except of course that the concept of “film” and the distinction between film and video will be obsolete. (It already pretty much is.) Movies will still be recognizable as what they are today. I think 3d is a fad that will continue to come and go over the years, but it will never change the definition of the movie, and even 50 years from now, entirely 2-dimensional movies will be produced. However, the movie industry will change dramatically, become less centralized and more indie. The revolution we are currently seeing in the book industry will finally catch up to the movie industry.

    Holographic theater will be a completely separate art form that will arise, independent of movies and more closely related to stage drama.

    Are text-enhanced movies a possibility? Or movie-illustrated books?

    I think we already have that with the modern web. I can’t imagine film and prose working together in a unified production, though.

    • notleia says:

      I once saw an animated graphic novel that also had a soundtrack. That was novel in at least two senses of the word. It was great at creating mood, but I found the cycling of the takes-up-most-of-the-page .gif and the music track to be distracting. I hope they get to the point where they can accommodate individual reading speeds better, for a more seamless experience. Eye-tracking cameras, probably, or neural interface. *insert techno music here*
      Interactive stuff is probably going to be the biggest new frontier. The Nostalgia Critic had a big discussion about the artistic merit of video games and the possibility of interactive storytelling: (He swears. Mostly casually, and not every other word unless it’s for effect.) I think the biggest challenge would be keeping the interaction from feeling canned.

  3. Say what you will about the parity between text and moving pictures (and much can be said), one crucial distinction remains: books require consumers to use their visual imaginations, while visual media, by definition, doesn’t. Books make you work to achieve a mental picture. But when you watch a film or play a video game, someone else has already done your imagining on your behalf. No imaginative effort is necessary.

    Is this important? In a hundred years, when humanity’s collective visual imagination has atrophied into a feeble husk, will we care? Only time will tell.

    • notleia says:

      Dude, what? Are you saying that visuals can’t be provocative or stimulating? You’re inadvertently dismissing all the long, long history of visual media like paintings, statues, mosaics, and even tapestries. Not to mention movies like Citizen Kane, (wow, I’m terrible at thinking of high-art movies on the spot), Schindler’s List, apparently most of Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre (I really need to watch those), and Metropolis. I would even throw in some things like Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, which stabbed me viciously in the feels.

      • I didn’t say anything about anything being or not being “provocative or stimulating.” What I said was that, while it requires visual imagination to read a book, it doesn’t require any visual imagination to watch a film. This should be self-evident.

        • notleia says:

          But it seems that requiring visual imagination is what you think makes a work superior or worthy or whatever, and that’s why I point to all the awesome that has been presented in visual form. What you said smacks of unwarranted medium snobbery.

          • dmdutcher says:

            There’s a bit of “bias by awesome” here though. Visual media is vulnerable to being dated far worse than imaginative media, and it’s really only the best of the best that transcends it. A lot of past visual media only becomes watchable due to camp; I think Jack Kirby’s art is a great example of this. Or even better, the sixties Spiderman cartoons that are used for memes.

            It’s not something most people notice though because very few people consume large amounts of non-classic media outside of their timeframe. We’re used to old stuff being as classics because it’s easy to get the classics and harder to get the other, more normal stuff.You get Citizen Kane, but you don’t get the East Side Kids or Mantan Moreland unless you look for it.

          • Sorry to deny your desperate craving for contaversy, but my analysis explicitly avoided value judgements. I’ve said absolutely nothing about any medium being “superior or worthy or whatever.” What I said, which I’ll repeat again for the sake of redundancy, is that visual media doesn’t require viewers to employ visual imagination. Do you think that’s an important distinction? All I’m doing is posing the question. When technology has finally allowed humanity to “outgrow” the necessity for visual imagination, do you think we’ll be better or worse off?

            • notleia says:

              But the thing that you’re saying assumes that text to picture is a natural progression, and that’s what I find objectionable because I come from the position that they’re too different to render either obsolete. Less popular, maybe, but not obsolete. I guess I just don’t understand the context in which you mean to frame the juxtaposition of the two.

              • I’m juxtaposing the two mediums (well, I’m really referring to two umbrella categories instead of specific mediums, with exclusively auditory and text-based communication in one category and all visual media — movies, TV shows, video games, photos, digital graphics, illustrations, paintings, sculptures, graphic novels, etc. — in another) in the context of storytelling, since that’s the context provided by Becky in her post. I’m presenting them as sequential rather than concurrent because of the tectonic, technology-driven cultural changes humanity has undergone over the past century. Much of that change has been driven by the exponential expansion of visual media. All other variables aside, each and every moment spent watching a movie or playing a video game today is a moment that would’ve likely been spent in a book a mere century ago. I’m not saying that’s either good or bad. What I’m saying is that it’s big. It has consequences. What those are, we don’t yet know. But we will. We’ll run into them whether we want to or not.

  4. Galadriel says:

    I don’t see movies replacing books any time soon because books are books are books when stored under any conditions (except wet) and require nothing more than light to use. While technology is moving on, I plan to hold on to my paper books as long as possible, and I know of at least one author (Anne Elisabeth Stengl) who wants to make sure her works are available in both formats.

  5. There will be written media, and there will be visual media. If we become completely reliant on visual media, we’ve lost our ability to understand written media–Brave New World, anyone?

    I think both sets will have their place. I’m somewhat scornful of these attempts to “add pictures to my book”. I don’t need pictures in my novels, and I’m not fond of author soundtracks. (This is what I was listening to when I wrote this scene!) Otherwise we’d have to read Twilight while listening to Muse on repeat.

    Graphic novels as a thing are fine. All kinds of animation are fine. But they’re different from reading written words.

    Also, all these games/videos/movies have to take shape in the mind of a writer first and foremost. Big game companies like Blizzard will only hire game writers who are published authors with several books to their name.

    • notleia says:

      Question: Do you like reading blogs that have pictures or .gifs as an integral part of the post? Not like on this site, where it’s pretty much just clipart to break up the text, but like, where at least half the story is in pictures.
      I ask because I’m trying to analyze where exactly other peoples’ comfort zones for medium are. I don’t like reading comics or graphic novels because I don’t intuit how the text flows on the page. I can do that for a few panels in a cartoon strip, but a novel is a bit much. But pretty much all blogs I’ve seen that do the pic-and-gif thing are at least laid out linearly, where I don’t have to go back and figure out proper sequence.

  6. dmdutcher says:

    For Christian speculative fiction, no. There are almost no movies that are such. You have the three Narnia films and Peretti/Decker’s House for live action, and a handful of animated ones like Angel Wars. There aren’t that many comics or webcomics either; mostly a few abortive attempts that seem to die quickly, like Zondervan’s Tomo or Realbuzz’s Serenity or Goofyfoot Gurl. For us, it’s books or nothing.

    Christian videogames aren’t even a blip on the radar. For the most part they are restricted to PC these days, and if you think our novels are bad, you should really try to hunt down the Wisdom Tree or Left Behind games.

    I think the one media form that Christians have used well is audio drama, mostly because it can be done at low cost and still have a quality product. The real reason why we don’t see much of the above is that the cost for spec-fic movies or games in general is often too high for many Christian artists. Audio drama seems to be a little better that way.

  7. Literaturelady says:

    Good to have you back, Becky! This is a very thought-provoking post.

    Honestly, I can’t predict where the future of books and visual media is. I’ve never been good at predicting, probably because pessimism makes prophecy very one-sided. 🙂 But I certainly hope that neither overshadows the other because each medium has different strengths.

    About books, I agree with Austin: books require more imagination to fill in those visual details. And the mental picture is yours alone. A classic coming to life on the big screen is thrilling, but in many cases, it’s not *your* picture. So your personal mental picture of characters, events, etc. is a special “world” as it were that films simply can’t capture. Books also better communicate inner dialogues, internal struggling, dreams, memories, and flashbacks. Books take you inside the heart and mind of a character, while movies are usually limited to the externals. (Movies can–and have–handled inner thoughts successfully, but there are only so many methods, I think). And you can’t dog-ear or underline passages in movies. 🙂

    That said, it can be amazing to see a story played out on the big screen. I’m re-reading The Ale Boy’s Feast and thinking how stunning a film adaptation would be (assuming, of course, the crew actually stuck to the book.) And I personally love adaptations of Bible accounts–only if they are first Biblically and next historically accurate. Since the Bible doesn’t include details the way a historical fiction writer would, we are sometimes bewildered by the customs, significance of a phrase or action, etc., and films–if they are accurate–can display that history in a marvelous way (Joseph and Abraham from The Bible film series were especially good).

    On the other hand, I think Ray Bradbury hit one major downside of film: “…then you’re…sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ it is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It *must* be right. It *seems* so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'” (Fahrenheit 451)

    Again, great post, Becky! Though books and movies each have strengths, I prefer books, and I hope they never go out of style.


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