We’ve been told over and over. Times are changing. The world is getting faster. The novel, once a roaring impetus for cultural change, is now but a whisper. The book is dead, and most of us, including those who still have the gall to write these things, have mourned and moved on. We’re over it, and the stubborn, rat-like squeaks from tardy fatalists and the lamentations over the book’s demise from the hopelessly nostalgic, one extolling society for letting it go and the other warning us of the dire future without it, are, frankly, boring as all hell.
It’s through the alchemy of a master storyteller that Porter Shreve’s The End of the Book can join this conversation and not only avoid boring readers but enrapture them with what truly feels like a new perspective on the evolving literary world. With the century-old Sherwood Anderson novel Winesburg, Ohio at its structural, contextual, and emotional cores, The End of the Book is an iron cauldron where old news goes in and brilliance emerges. Both characters and readers find that in death—the end of a career, a loved one’s passing, a relationship’s final gasps, and even the gradual demise of the printed text —new life can spring forth.
Much of this vibrancy emerges from Shreve’s nimble waltz with time and narrative. Each new chapter effortlessly oscillates between the perspectives of narrator Adam Clary, employee of Google-stand-in Imego in contemporary Chicago, and the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard, an out-of-touch ad-man in the Chicago of a century ago, just after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s remarkable how quickly the stories of Shreve’s leading men, and the women that love and vex them, begin to intertwine without a trace of contrivance. Both George and Adam struggle with nagging literary aspirations as employees of gargantuan corporations in the midst of paradigm shifts. For storyteller George, his ad agency is transitioning away from creative copy, leaving him in the dust while calculating, blandly efficient, pseudo-scientific advocates of the Prove They Need It philosophy take charge. For Clary, who works in Imego’s book digitization project, the decline of his penniless father, a former professor and Sherwood Anderson scholar, is a constant reminder of how writer and failure are nearly synonymous.
The two stories’ parallels evolve through the novel, creating a wonderfully complex simultaneity that speaks to the ways in which the history of the printed novel persists in and defines its digital future. Shreve hints that Clary, a re-imagined Willard for the 21st century, is the actual author of the Willard chapters of the book, which is something of a sequel to Winesburg, Ohio. For perceptive readers, intertwined threads and echoes abound. For someone who, regrettably, had never heard of Sherwood Anderson before this book, I’m moved now to read that modern classic and then revisit Shreve’s text for what’s sure to be a completely different experience filled with newfound intricacies and juicy fusions of past, present, and future.
For aficionados of the printed page, The End of the Book is a love letter to a medium that may be dying but more likely is just enduring yet another change in its role in society—one change of many during its long history. But this novel does not allow sentimentality to blind it to print’s shortcomings or the bright spots of its many successors. Much like turning the final page of a riveting story, or deciding that a great love has run its course, The End of the Book’s outlook for the future is bittersweet. It understands that declarations of finality are tedious and false, and that every end is always a beginning, a middle, and everything in between.