A while before I originally wrote this article, I was waiting for my computer to finish a disk check. So, to pass the time, I ended up re-reading a couple of chapters of Warren Ellis’ surreal noir detective novel “Crooked Little Vein”.
Although it had been a little under a decade since I last read this book, it still retained the power to make me laugh out loud at regular intervals, to make me want to keep reading more of it and to make me wish that I had the boldness to write something even half as good.
After flicking through a couple of random chapters, I ended up reading an author interview that was printed at the back of the book. In the interview, Ellis stated that one of his main sources of inspiration was finding… strange… websites on the internet.
However, he also mentions that most of the sites that inspired him no longer exist. Yet, his novel serves as a permanent record of them.
This, of course, made me start to compare books and the internet….
The first obvious difference is that there is less censorship in books. Whilst the US has always had the first amendment, the concept of literary freedom only really began to appear in Britain after the “Lady Chatterley” trial during the 1960s. This gives books a real advantage over the internet in some ways.
For example, I read a lot of books when I was a teenager because books were a lot less restrictive compared to other forms of media (eg: age restrictions on films, stricter censorship standards in videogames, system requirements for computer games, dial-up internet etc..). For financial reasons, I mostly ended up reading second-hand books that were mostly written before the internet was really a popular thing.
But, whether it was the unflinchingly macabre imaginations of horror writers like Shaun Hutson or Clive Barker, the eccentric journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, the retro dystopias of Orwell and Ballard, the sheer weirdness of tattered old sci-fi novels from the 1950s/60s etc.. a lot of the second-hand literature of my teenage years would probably wouldn’t survive for long if it was freshly posted on the internet these days. It’d probably break some content policy or another.
Yet, at the same time, books lack the sense of connectedness that the internet has. If an old book uses some obscure jargon or makes an old cultural reference, then you either have to work out what it means from the context, ignore it, remember to research it later or just use your own imagination to “fill the gap”. If you see something that you don’t understand on the internet, then it’s just a simple case of doing a quick ten-second web search in another browser tab.
Whilst this will probably make you a more knowledgeable person, it also reduces the amount of individuality that everything on the internet has. After all, suddenly seeing something that you don’t understand in a book tells you that you are looking at another person’s imagination. You are seeing something by someone with different experiences and a different frame of reference to you. It reminds you that both you and the writer are different people with different minds and different lives.
Likewise, because books rely entirely on written descriptions, no two readers will have exactly the same experience of reading the same book. Every reader will imagine the characters, locations etc… in a very slightly different way. Yet with, say, a video on the internet or an online article that contains images – everyone sees exactly the same thing as everyone else does.
Yet, at the same time, the internet has the advantage that it is open to all. If it had never existed, then the sharing of ideas would be restricted to whoever the publishers happened to like. Cultural works would only get out into the world if people thought that they had “commercial potential”. Although there is the argument that the old methods of publication served as a “quality filter”, it has also been an unnecessary limitation and/or a source of discrimination of various types.
But, more interestingly, there are also a lot of things that books and the internet have in common. In particular, the feeling of being engrossed in a fascinating novel and reading a fascinating website are pretty much the same. That kind of beautiful trance-like state where you almost feel like you’re somewhere else, like your mind has somehow temporarily taken flight from your body. Like how, in old cyberpunk novels, the main characters would spend hours lost in fascinating virtual worlds.
Yet, even this differs between the two mediums. With books, it is a lot more focused and intense – since you are only reading one book by one person. But, with the internet, there’s more of a sense of exploration. If a topic fascinates you, you can flit between multiple browser tabs, run multiple searches,watch multiple Youtube videoes etc….
So, yes, books and the internet certainly have their differences. And their similarities. It’d be foolish to say that one was better than the other though – after all, this article was inspired by reading a book, it was written on a computer and it was posted on the internet.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂