I have been immersed in the history of Nostromo lately. The character has just sailed to an island off a fictional South American republic to trick his pursuers into burying a horde of money. After that, he quietly scuttled his boat and slipped out to sea to swim back to port.
Joseph Conrad’s novel was published in 1904, but has eerie echoes of today in its battles over precious metals in a troubled postcolonial country. It’s also a gripping adventure, the kind that takes time to unfold but whose characters and plot gradually tighten their grip on the reader (this one made it to page 254).
Novels can cast a spell in a way that no other form of entertainment quite matches. It was clear this week at Bloomsbury, publisher of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as well as the fantasy series Crescent City by Sarah J Maas and The Song of Achilles, the reworking of the Iliad by Madeline Miller. Its revenue rose 24% last year, he said.
Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury’s chief executive, calls the titles a “wonderful escape from a brutal time”. Publishers have been rewarded during pandemic shutdowns as people who couldn’t visit movie theaters and restaurants have bought books to read instead, and they’re still benefiting from new ways of living and working.
Their industry is very old, dating back to Johannes Gutenberg’s printed Bible in the 15th century, and it is used to fearing the future. Ten years ago, it faced an existential threat from e-books and self-publishing, so it’s hard for publishers to get rid of insecurity. Newton’s optimism that even a recession won’t hurt too much is not shared by all.
But good books will thrive, come what may in Bloomsbury. It’s no surprise that David Zaslav, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery since its $43 billion merger last year, made meeting JK Rowling a top priority. Sales of Harry Potter the books are still growing 25 years after the first was published, and she’s earned billions at Warner.
Readers are familiar with the feeling that their imagination is drawn into a story and the awareness of the real world slips away, albeit just words on a page. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term “flow” for “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
It was referring to forms of work and artistic endeavor, rather than just reading a book, but there are similarities. Long-duration reading takes a bit of effort, especially in a world with plenty of distractions, whether it’s watching TV or mindlessly browsing social media.
Some stories are more accessible than others. Maas writes that his wildly popular novels all contain “elements of epic adventure and thrilling romance, though they vary in setting and steam.” There are heroines like Celaena Sardothien, an assassin who tortures a few enemies but who has “a heart and a morality”. What’s not to like?
This makes Maas elated on BookTok, the literary corner of TikTok, where most young readers post music videos, talking about the books they are passionate about. It has racked up nearly 56 billion views over the past four years and can be extremely powerful: The Song of Achilles was first published in 2011 but became a bestseller again last year by BookTok fans.
One of the surprising things about BookTok is the fetishization of printed books: there are clips of readers lovingly arranging shelves, and even build them. This reflects the fact that print still accounts for 76% of consumer book sales in the US, while audiobooks are driving out the smaller e-book segment.
There are good reasons to read the real thing, aside from the fact that printed books look better on BookTok. Disconnecting attention and having to turn pages stimulates flow (although I read Nostromo on a Kindle). As a study language lessons found, while digital textbooks are good for quick learning, print is “superior for deep reading”.
The new era of reading is not entirely beneficial for publishers and writers. More than half of Bloomsbury’s sales came from its list of well-known titles and authors. BookTok might play a role in bringing attention to less popular ones, but many of its music videos endorse bestsellers; it hasn’t been a good time to break through as a new talent.
But far from destroying books, digital technology has made them more popular. Newton thinks the newfound reading habit will survive the pandemic because people have reset their lives after commuting to offices five days a week. This provides more time for immersion and self-improvement: books can not only entertain but also educate.
The book also offers something rare and valuable: a break with economic concerns and media fragmentation. The experience of following a narrative so closely that nothing else intrudes is so precious that every generation craves it. Achilles’ journey to Nostromo in Celaena Sardothien took millennia, but some things don’t change.