Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
On Facebook's website, the company advertises Timeline as a tool to "Tell your life story with a new kind of profile," and informs users, "This is where you can tell your story from beginning, to middle, to now." It's been just over two years since Facebook first replaced walls with timelines (the redesign was unveiled September 22, 2011), and the anniversary begs reflection. Might it truly be Facebook, and not the e-book, that threatens the paperback? What are the implications of conflating a Facebook account with an account of one's life? Has Facebook made us all storytellers? The simple answer to the last question is “no.” We've always been storytellers. From a young age, we demand and create imaginative representations of experience — careful prose describing characters, settings, plots. The best storytellers give us art, and a Facebook profile is nothing if not artifice, the long word for art. There can be craftiness in crafting one's Facebook image. “Selfless Portraits” (http://selflessportraits.com), for example, is a project that is explicit and playful about this fact. As far as the implications of taking each Facebook timeline as a story, literary criticism offers some illumination. A story is, according to M.H. Abrams's classic reference work A Glossary of Literary Terms, “a mere sequence of events in time.” There is no doubt that Facebook facilitates the telling of stories, strictly defined as such. Coders even provide tools to help you break through writers' block. You can share a “Status,” “Photo,” “Place,” and/or “Life Event.” Instead of using your own words, you can borrow theirs. Stuck for a “Status”? Choose one from the drop-down list of verbs and suggested nouns — you can be “Eating” “lunch,” “Feeling” “sad,” and “Listening To” (according to some ungodly algorithm) “Savage Garden.” If you are experiencing something more momentous than a sad, 90s-themed lunch, select from “Life Events,” neatly accessible by categories like “Work and Education” (most storytellers need day jobs) and “Family and Relationships.” Timeline provides an empty, homogeneous time into which these events can be deposited. These are the elements of a basic story. But are we really storytellers when we use Facebook? Among many account holders, there is undeniable artistry in descriptions of events, but in terms of time, we lose control. The chronological frame for this living anthology of stories is not as neutral as it seems. J.M. Coetzee once said, "For the reader, the experience of time bunching and becoming dense at points of significant action in the story, or thinning out and skipping or glancing through nonsignificant periods of clock time or calendar time can be exhilarating...As for writing...there is a definite thrill of mastery — perhaps even omnipotence — that comes with making time bend and buckle." The omnipotence Coetzee describes here becomes eerie when the writer is a hugely influential corporation with ever-changing privacy policies. Regarding the events Facebook stores, the site's Data Use Policy tells us, “Your trust is important to us,” while it warns, “We try to keep Facebook up, bug-free and safe, but can't make guarantees about any part of our services or products.” In other words, any omnipotence or mastery users experience is illusory. Also troubling is the fact that Facebook's temporal orientation puts undue pressure on its users to conform to its system. At the broadest level, Facebook offers no official options for describing the moment we are in beyond the Western, secular designations we use in America. Algorithms may do their best to approximate emotional rhythms, and users may try to make time appear, in Coetzee's words, dense and bunchy at highly active points, but Timeline is always indifferent to the multiplicity of lived experiences of time. Timeline-keepers may choose to represent dips and bunchings of time by posting more frequently or in greater volume, but they are always operating in the given framework of linear progress. The video ad for Timeline zooms, in a couple of minutes, from one Andy Sparks' birth, to his fatherhood. The power of this arrow-straight framework is visible in the fact that each individual Timeline has an index, like a traditional autobiography. But instead of indexing topically, the points of reference are chronological. What happens, though, to the identities we take on in moments of freedom from the sort of temporality Facebook advocates — the first two weeks of college; a short affair with someone regrettable while traveling; isolated months spent thinking about a dissertation? What does ennui look like? Nostalgia? Deja vu? Unreflected by our timelines, these circumstances do not appear to the public as part of one's story. Mark Zuckerberg and his team live in a world defined by innovation, and the temporality of Facebook reflects the pressure to “make it new” to the exclusion of facts of who we are. Facebook, then, becomes our co-storyteller into perpetuity. There is an unspoken power dynamic to which we submit as soon as we turn past a title-page or acknowledge a by-line, or even as we listen to a story over coffee or around a campfire — these storytellers will control our experience of time, but only for a little while. Part of what is so appealing about stories that we conscientiously read or listen to — even serials that leave us hanging off cliffs — is that we know they will end eventually. Not so, Facebook. Timelines are neverending cliffhangers. Print newspapers and magazines (the traditional venues for serials), books, the spoken word, and even long-form internet writing are finite; the miscellany of Timelines that is our Facebook news feed is unremitting. There is something comforting and life-affirming about the neverending story. The simultaneous escapism and connection Facebook affords is seductive, and the awareness of always living at the edge of history is thrilling. But when that thrill is ever-present, it can add up to anxiety, and anxiety about keeping up with Facebook can replace anxiety about contributing to posterity in other ways. The preoccupation inherent to the activities of reading and writing is ever-present in the world of Facebook, and too often, slacktivism takes the place of activism as a result. As long as Facebook's clean, steady, and decisive linearity discloses important experiences of time, its users will never be storytellers in the fullest sense of the term. What if we took other visualizations of time as templates for our stories? Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton present lots of alternatives in their book, Cartographies of Time. And Ralph Waldo Emerson mused in his essay “Circles,” If the world would only wait one moment, if a day could now and then be intercalated, which should be no time, but pause and landing-place, a vacation during which sun and star, old age and decay, debts and interest of money, claims and duties, should all intermit and be suspended for the halcyon trance, so that poor man and woman could throw off the harness and take a long breath and consider what was to be done, without being fretted by the knowledge that new duties are gathering for them in the moment when they are considering the too much accumulated old duties! Moments after I found out my uncle died, I sat in numb, helpless shock as Buzzfeed articles and photos of dessert filled my screen — there was no way to record or make communal the pause I felt. Facebook offers many suspenseful plots, but all of them inculcate in us a linear personal timeline that is simultaneously compartmentalized and continuous. The website's template for how time works is not the only possibility for structuring events. It's one that works for the coders and marketers of Silicon Valley, but our hurried, abrupt, languid, lunar, cyclical, sentimental, rooted, broken, repetitive lives deserve better storytelling.
I learned about the Amazon de-ranking debacle on Twitter (follow me @EdanL, y'all). People love to argue that Twitter is a time-wasting site for people to announce what they're doing: They're doing their taxes, or they're drinking the best beer ever, man, or they're on the toilet. And it's that, certainly, but it's also an incredible way to spread information and start a dialogue. Most of the people I know on Twitter are other writers, or editors, critics, or publishers. I've learned a lot about the book world since signing up.But I digress.I was by turns upset and confused by the Amazon story (known on Twitter as #amazonfail) and I still am. What am I to believe, and what will it mean, in the long run, even after the "glitch" has been fixed? Am I simply being paranoid? Is mine simply the blanket distate-for-Amazon of an independent bookseller? Maybe. I don't know. I do know there's been a lot of valuable dialogue on this "ham-fisted cataloging error," and I thought I'd highlight some of it here.Mark Probst's Live Journal post started it all, and Carolyn Kellogg's reporting at the Los Angeles Times book blog Jacket Copy helped me track the story as it evolved.There's this thought-provoking post from Richard Nash, who argues that we can't give Amazon the benefit of the doubt because, ...in a world where whiteness and straightness are 'norms' and males benefit from our patriarchal history, it is always the GLBTQ books, the queer books, the non-normative books that get caught in the glitches, the ham-fisted errors. As a contrast, here is Sara Nelson's (of The Daily Beast) interpretation of the reaction on Twitter and the blogosphere: That book lovers seized on this recent de-listing scandal as a vehicle through which to vent their frustration and rage at big bad Amazon makes perfect sense; to have a politically correct hook on which to hang one's argument makes whatever revenge one might wreak all the sweeter. Meanwhile, Clay Shirky had another angle about the Amazon fury: Whatever stupidities Amazon is guilty of, none of them are hanging offenses. The problems they have with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began.At the Vromans Bookstore Blog Patrick used #amazonfail to talk about the danger of putting our faith (and dollars) into one company, and drew a connection to our shift to monoculture farming: It's taken us some thirty years (since the passage of Earl Butz's "Get Big or Get Out" Farm Bill in the 1970s) to realize that having a few corporations control our food supply was a really bad idea. (This post, actually, reminded me of these posts Patrick penned for the Millions almost two years ago.)There are many other posts and reports on #amazonfail, including this one from the New York Times. And there is a petition to boycott Amazon, which, at the time of this writing, has collected over 26,000 signatures.It feels funny reporting all this on The Millions, which links to Amazon. This is not my choice, but one I understand and accept. We also have our Collaborative Atlas of Bookstores and Literary Places, and an upcoming walking tour of indie bookstores in NYC (Can we do one for LA next year? Maybe by bus/metro?). It's this diversity, and our excellent content, that I admire, and why I'm proud to write for this blog, links or not.And, before I go... In the spirit of Twitter/Blog culture, I would love to hear your responses to #amazonfail in the comments.
Over at the Vroman's Bookstore blog, Millions contributor emeritus Patrick Brownweighs in on Oprah's endorsement of the Kindle, saying, "I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is -- a corporate shill." Vroman's president Allison Hill (a beloved and admired figure in the bookselling industry) also shares her thoughts:Oprah, if you're reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what's really important:A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person's hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people's stories are valued and honored.Your endorsement of a "gadget" has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.When you endorse this new "gadget", what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?What do you think of the Kindle? Is it the future of reading, or will it go the way of the oxygen bar?
When I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year's resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much. It didn't work, of course--what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it? This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter. I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even--I admit it--enamored with my reflection there. And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another. J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates. So I prepared my friends, my "friends," and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you'd think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me. The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle. I suddenly had no access to the two sites I'd grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day. You see, I'm not internet savvy. I don't have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing. Not that I want to. I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there's something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there's just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe. The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I've realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full. There is always another piece of candy to claw at. One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay, five...it's not long before you've made yourself sick. The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I'd depended on those sites for community. Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home. Alone. Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat. One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor. Now I'm convinced there's a patch of dead grass in my brain--it simply cannot be brought to life! I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so's novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date. That might have been funny, but wasn't the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience? I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site. In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well): Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic "marketing tool" or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts. The pain of missing "all the best parts" has been the hardest aspect of my detox. I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft. I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or--wait--Chloe Sevigny in Kids! Or wait...! It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park. I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter. I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I'd much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could. A month into my detox, I was clueless--not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance. I'd felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of cable, and effectively, television-watching. The level of my family's discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, "People in hell want ice water.") In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding. During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too. All conversations seemed to begin with, "Did you see on Facebook..." I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful. And also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world. He writes: Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return. Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way. Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes. But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site. You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence. But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends. I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative. Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct. If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine. I'd rather "The Man" try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters. But Lanier makes a good point when he says, "Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality." I'm not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates. And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world. At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression. Spend time developing your narrative voice online. (Check.) Don't post anonymously. (Check--well, most of the time.) And, in a doozy of a sentence, he suggests that Twitter-users stop describing "trivial external events... to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine." Amen to that. The problem of the internet--its power, and the way it's changing how we live our lives--is a big topic these days. There's The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The internet age is so young that we're worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us--we simply have no idea. The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it. Almost everyone I spoke to said, "I wish I could do that!" Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren't convinced. Or they said, "Okay, yes, next month. I'll try it." And then they wouldn't. It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering photos of themselves, "liking" a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It's a never-ending race to remind others that we're here, that we exist. It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom. "Look!" I'd yell every few seconds. "You're NOT watching! Look!" It gets exhausting. And it's not really living. So here we are. It's now past April 1st, and I haven't ended the detox. The truth is, I don't miss the two sites much. These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there. In my mind, it's a crowded elevator where everyone's talking over one another. They're all saying interesting things, but who can keep track? Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to? I want to return, and I want to show restraint. And if I can't, I will have to detach once again. That might be fine. Since January, I've enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world. I don't need to broadcast my life on a daily basis. If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, "How are you?" will be genuine, and that will feel good. [Image credit: Marcos Zerene]
Is there a "crisis in reading?" Last quarter's Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as "so tough" or "a hard sell") would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter - email, Facebook feeds, blogs - on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don't even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. "Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature," the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the "Death of Reading" metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper's Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin's argument was that readers weren't the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York's most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, "Why don't you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?"But responses to Le Guin's piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world's formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper's April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin's essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin "right on." After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, "leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires," Schiffrin declares, "Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations.... One solution to this problem," he suggests, "is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press."On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin's essay "so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start." Le Guin's heroic readers of yore, he argues, "were part of a mass market, created by 'moneymaking entities' in the business of selling books." Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of 'our own people.' Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. "Readers will always be here," she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin's propositions. "That's how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books."And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing - which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein's notion that writers under the current dispensation aren't already people who more or less "write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory." (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the "Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.")Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when "our own people," the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, "This is a business I believe in passionately." And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.