Can Books Go Viral?

Oct 24 2011 @ 3:27pm

Evgeny Morozov and Jeff Jarvis have been duking it out over Jarvis's new book on Internet culture. Megan Garber gleans a larger lesson:

The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. The precise thing that makes them lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to contain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — limits their ability to act as vessels of virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

She uses the author as celebrity and technology as book tour to examine the options. Jarvis responded:

Start with Kevin Kelly’s 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance — and John Updike’s appalled reaction to this “pretty grisly scenario.” I’m not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done. I’m suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts… — discussion with smart people in any form — should come before the book. The process becomes the product; the book (if there is one) is a byproduct.

That is how I came to write Virtually Normal. It began as a two-page essay, then, after dozens of talks at colleges, it became an 8,000 word piece, then, after more discussion and back and forth, it became a book. And then the book became the basis for a national education campaign on same-sex marriage, which I then built on with an anthology. Ditto The Conservative Soul, which was nourished by countless threads and arguments on this blog. And my prep for a forthcoming book on Christianity is being partly informed by some of the debates we have had on this blog.

I think of a book as that moment in a conversation, when we stop, regroup and lay out an argument in a single sitting. It puts down a marker. And it's viral across generations, whereas blog posts are designed to evaporate into the intellectual ether.