The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading
(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, March 2012)
The current debates circling the possible effacement of the book by digital media, especially e-books, reflect a significant transitional moment in the worlds of literary production, dissemination and reception. American writer Jonathan Franzen, author of bestselling novels including Freedom, recently referred to the onslaught of the e-book as surely a threat to civic discourse, the permanence of the book object and to our stable conceptions of pleasure and leisure. However, Franzen’s concerns, while timely and relevant, should be taken with a grain of salt and a dose of history. Film and television did not replace radio or print culture either. What simply happened in the history of communication technology was that each medium transformed and adapted its practices to accommodate and respond to new and innovative ways to engage real and fictional worlds.
However, the evidence of disappearing bookstore chains and the increasing ubiquity of e-readers prove that the waning life and livelihood of print culture should be taken seriously. In the United States, chains like Borders have been hollowed out of the popular paperbacks and bustling cafés that once epitomized middlebrow culture. Now, the Barnes & Noble chain features their Nook brand e-reader at all stores with front entrance displays laden with every possible digital accessory. The device lures in customers, while reminding them everywhere else in the store that novels, magazines and the café reading scene are very much still alive and welcome. Barnes & Noble seems to be currently walking a tightrope, balancing the old and the new: the result could go either way.
Most of the conversations about the fate of the book have centered on the publishing industry and from the point of view of writers, who either see it as a benefit or impediment to their craft. Also, metropolitan spaces have monopolized this conversation for the obvious reason – the immense size of their market. However, those of us concerned about smaller, regional markets like the Caribbean should think strongly about what the new medium means now and can mean for the future of literature, writing, and most importantly reading. With their functionality, convenience, portability and low price, tablets and e-readers have become the electronic device of choice for consumers across the islands. Particularly, smartphones, especially the explosive Blackberry device, have made it possible to read, work and play with a simple telephone data plan. As a result, Caribbean consumers have more access to literature in any format and from anywhere around the world than ever before.
The colonial history of the Caribbean has made literacy and formal education means through which select groups acquire upward mobility, while others without access to those resources become marginalized from cultural citizenship, leisurely reading embodying the achievement of that aspiration. The high costs of printing and publishing texts have throughout the twentieth century made the Caribbean’s market predominantly academic in nature, leaving small publishing houses and self-publishing authors to remind residents of the islands that there are people who live here who still write. The last ten years have given rise to a pleasant and welcome shift in the paucity of leisurely reading by Caribbean people of Caribbean books written by Caribbean people.
Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival should be given credit as a pioneer in making visible strides to bring together an active creative and academic community of readers and writers in the North America and Europe with “home-grown” writers, artists and cultural critics. This year, more and more islands are embarking on their own festivals, Bim Literary Festival in Barbados, Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad & Tobago, and the Nature Island Literary Festival in Dominica are only a sample of the successfully planned and executed events that have re-energized the culture of reading for all people on the islands, and not just those who can afford to get buy books at the once-overpriced rates of island booksellers.
This delightful development in attitudes towards reading should be embraced. The renewed energies in literature through the ascension of digital reading formats present strengths and opportunities for an expanded market in the region that emphasizes its literary products at home and in the diaspora. How can Caribbean-based publishers, big and small, capitalize on the e-book to globalize Caribbean authors who are shut out of mainstream metropolitan publishing houses? How can local entrepreneurs meet the increasing instantaneous demands for reading through book sales and innovation of e-readers while creating a stronger market and network of support for their “home-grown” authors? How can this vibrant moment in the business of reading, writing and publishing be used to effect positive social change? Attention to bridging the gaps between those with access to literacy and literariness and those who remain denied of such cultural fluency should continue to be a priority for those interested in the culture and the business of reading.
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