Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum – Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis – agree that culturally, we are now “people of the screen.” True to Kelly’s technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen’s omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly’s opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, “We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.” Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen’s New Atlantis essay “People of the Screen” admonishes Kelly’s enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information.”What’s most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence – emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There’s no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don’t even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her “restless” eyes that “jumped around,” which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it’s impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE’s reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen’s issue – that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it’s not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.
Rosecrans Baldwin’s first novel, You Lost Me There is coming out soon with Riverhead Books. He’s a founding editor of The Morning News.The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy was one of my favorite books this year. I was living in Paris and it told stories that resembled way too closely my friends’ mishaps, and Dundy wrote it in the fifties. It’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s light on its toes. I’d happily read it again tomorrow if 2666 wasn’t standing between me and the exit.Away by Amy Bloom – fantastic! And I got to Purple Hibiscus, Adichie’s first novel before her insanely good Half of a Yellow Sun, and it’s flat-out terrific, too. Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame kept Bernie Gunther alive for another installment, I’m thankful for that. I discovered Peter Høeg, whom I knew from Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but hadn’t kept up with, and I lucked into The Quiet Girl; now I’ve got to go back and read his oeuvre.Basically I’m hoping Santa brings me a Kindle this year.More from A Year in Reading 2008
What better time than now to bring back the pocket paperback? People have no money to spend on hardcovers, and even the full-sized trade paperbacks are a pricey, given the economic times. There are also strong trends in our society that encourage less waste and the downsizing of our myriad possessions. A return of those classic 6 3/4 inch by 4 1/2 inch volumes, now all but extinct, save for in a few genres and in used book stores, could save paper and space and entice younger readers for whom $25 for a hardcover and $14 for a paperback is too much money to risk.I’ve written in the past that books are too big — not too long, but too bulky and heavy and expensive — and pined for a return of the pocket paperback, so that carrying a book with you didn’t feel like such a chore. A combination of factors led to the demise of the pocket paperbacks that were prevalent in the middle part of the 20th century. These pocket paperbacks had been sold at newsstands and drugstores rather than bookstores, but as these venues stopped selling books, the pocket paperback market shrunk. Around the same time, a wave of consolidation hit the alternative book distribution network that had sprung up around these pocket editions, shrinking the number of books available, and consolidation among publishers folded the purveyors of the pocket editions into larger publishing conglomerates built on a different business model. Finally, the introduction of the trade paperback — the larger paperbacks prevalent today — squeezed the pocket edition out of the publishing equation except in a few genres — romances and mysteries — that still cling to the similarly-sized mass market format (which you can still see at grocery stores and in airports).But perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards pocket editions again. HarperPerennial recently introduced the Olive Editions collection. According to the marketing material, “they fit in your back pocket and only cost ten bucks each.” (And eight bucks on Amazon). So far the line includes three titles, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. At 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches, they are a touch larger than the pocket paperbacks you see in used bookstores, and while their cover design is smart looking, they are not as inviting as the pulpy art that used to emblazon even the classics. Nonetheless, they represent a smart move by HarperCollins, and one hopes that they will announce more titles in this format and that other publishers will follow suit.A full-fledged return of pocket paperbacks would be surprising, however, as ultimately it seems likely that an even smaller format will take center stage, a format that is indeed infinitesimal. With hardware innovations driven by Amazon’s Kindle and perhaps Apple and Sony as well, reading on these devices will become more palatable for a larger percentage of readers. Selection of titles will improve and developments like Google’s recent deal with publishers will further expand the availability of titles in digital formats.Like many other sectors of the economy, the publishing industry is likely to face serious challenges over the coming year. The silver lining of course, is that this may drive innovation. New formats (digital and tangible) created now may entice a new generation of readers down the road.
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?
If you visit a book-focused startup online these days, chances are Amazon owns a part of it. On August 1st, the online bookselling behemoth snapped up yet another, the online used book marketplace AbeBooks, perhaps the service most widely used by online booksellers putting their wares online, also bringing into the fold two smaller and very visible book-related sites that AbeBooks owns.It’s a very smart move by Amazon, whose profit margins are higher for its Marketplace third-party sales as compared to its traditional business. While it may seem counter-intuitive that Amazon happily lets used book sellers “compete” with it by offering cheaper copies of almost every book it sells, it’s actually an amazing business. Whenever a used book sells on the site, Amazon gets 15% of the selling price plus additional fees amounting to a bit more than two dollars (and less if you sell a lot). The only thing Amazon has to do is kick back a “shipping credit” to the seller, $3.99 for standard domestic shipping. (Incidentally, this is how people get away with selling used books for a penny on Amazon; what profit there is in that case comes from the shipping credit.) What this means is that Amazon uses its existing infrastructure to let people sell books on the site. All that extra revenue comes at very minimal cost – in fact, less cost (and thus more profit) than if Amazon sold you the book itself. The purchase of AbeBooks brings as many as 110 million books from AbeBooks into Amazon (though in practice, probably a fair amount fewer, since many used booksellers listed their inventories on both sites.) All in all, a very shrewd buy for Amazon.But Amazon doesn’t just get AbeBooks. AbeBooks also owns bookfinder.com, easily the most comprehensive used book search out there, aggregating results from dozens of used book listing services. Perhaps even more interesting, AbeBooks was also a minority investor in LibraryThing, the very successful book cataloging community, and that stake will pass on to Amazon. Like many in the online world of books, LibraryThing, its founder, and its users have aften looked somewhat warily at the bookselling giant, and so it will be interesting to see how LibraryThing adjusts to its new big investor (if it adjusts at all).One of the big selling points of LibraryThing is its impressive recommendation system, which plumbs the community’s vast array of individual libraries to come up with book suggestions. The unique element of LibraryThing’s recommendations has been that they are based on what you own versus Amazon’s, which are based on what you buy, which can be very different things. I would imagine that Amazon would be very curious to dig into those recommendations, and it will be very interesting to see if it ever has the opportunity to do so. For the time being, it won’t, and it may never. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote on the LibraryThing blog, ” Abe gets only anonymized and aggregate data, like recommendations, and they can only use it on Abebooks sites. Nothing has changed here.”Amazon’s reach doesn’t stop there, it is also an investor in LibraryThing rival Shelfari.Finally, while we’re on the topic of Amazon, there has been much speculation on how many Kindles the company has sold, blog TechCrunch did some digging and was able to come up with a number, 240,000.Doing a little back of the envelope math, that brings total sales of the device so far to between $86 million and $96 million (the price of the device was reduced to $360 from $400 last May). Then add the amounts spent on digital books, newspapers, and blogs purchased to read on the device, and you get a business that has easily brought in above $100 million so far. (Each $25 worth of digital reading material purchased per Kindle, add $6 million in total revenues).
I don’t know that anything has changed the way I consume information more than the discovery of online feed readers about four years ago. I went from skipping through a handful of sites or relying on someone else’s ability to aggregate information to my own personalized and furiously flowing river of news. For an information glutton like myself, it is a feast that never ends (and that at times threatens to become overwhelming).There’s plenty to be said about the ways in which the internet, and feed readers in particular, continue to change the way we select and consume information, but a recent shift in my habits had me thinking about a particular element of this.Until very recently, I was a user of Bloglines, which could be considered the grand-daddy of web-based feed readers. I started using it because it was more or less the only game in town when I was first looking for a feed reader. But now, as of a few days ago, I have switched to Google Reader. Basically, because of navigational peculiarities between the two tools, after the switch I am now consuming news, blogs, and other information in a subtly different way.With Bloglines, I would go feed by feed. So I might read all the new posts up at Conversational Reading, move on to the new articles in the New York Times book section, and then catch up on the new posts at my favorite Baltimore Orioles blog. With Google Reader, on the other hand, the articles and posts are all thrown together. So, upon firing it up, I might see 30 new items waiting for me, all stacked up one after another, a blog post about the Orioles, a restaurant review in the Philly Inquirer, a post at Comics Curmudgeon, and then another blog post about the Orioles.Something about this change struck me. It’s like kicking the information overload that already threatens to overwhelm me up a notch. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to take it. It’s one thing to zip through 500 new items when they are organized by feed, quite another to have them all thrown in together. It’s like reading a seemingly endless stream of non sequiturs.In acclimating myself to the new format, I couldn’t help but think that this is a trend that is only intensifying. The free-for-all, free-associative nature of the internet has been with us from its inception, but this way of consuming has spread to other forms of media as well. I don’t know if I coined this term or not, but I look at us as the “iPod Shuffle generation,” a group that values juxtapositions, randomness, and subjective experience more than paying any heed to externally defined genres. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross says it better in an essay from 2004, “It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks. They are no longer so invested in a single genre, one that promises to mold their being or save the world.” The radio industry has even formalized this idea with the “Jack FM” format, which Wikipedia says “promote themselves as having a larger and more varied playlist than other commercial radio stations,” and tends to offer up an array of genres back to back in a way that goes against the straitjacketed philosophy of commercial radio.The trend extends to TV as well, in the form of channels like current which plays short “pods,” often viewer-created, about different topics that have little but the channel’s overarching aesthetic to tie them together. With Tivos and DVRs, meanwhile, we create our own mish-moshed television playlists of shows that together, no television exec would dare propose as a primetime lineup. As bandwidth increases, so will the capabilities of our cable boxes, and TV will become ever more personalized and untethered from the channels and networks.This, of course, sounds a lot like a feed reader, a totally user-controlled experience. It feels like the future, but nonetheless it is jarring, and every step in this direction takes some getting used to – or maybe I’m just getting older. Books, meanwhile – the tricks up the Kindle’s sleeve and Kevin Kelly’s controversial “futurism” of a couple years ago aside – seem immune from this mashing up. As such, they will continue to be marginalized as they have been for some time now by the onslaught of TV and the internet, but they will also provide a respite and a more peaceful experience that contrasts the madness of the hyper-aggregated world of information.
Much linked elsewhere, Triple Canopy has published the first complete English translation of the Roberto Bolano’s 1999 speech accepting the Romulo Gallegos Prize.Keith Gessen of n+1 and All the Sad Young Literary Men has started a blog. People who like to make grand pronouncements about such things and/or snark about them are all aflutter. (via)Onward in snark, Tao Lin describes the “Levels of Greatness” for the American novelist. Spoiler alert: Philip Roth wins again. (via)Robert McCrum chronicles his ten years as The Observer’s literary editor in ten chapters, from “Chapter 1: New Blood: Zadie Smith” to “Chapter 10: The Kindle.”
Who knew. More than ten years after Amazon revolutionized retailing and became a dot-com-boom-and-bust poster child, online bookstores are once again a hot topic. Part of the reason is that corporate book retailing is experiencing a particularly tumultuous period. As we discussed over the weekend, Borders is in dire straits and may be bought out by Barnes and Noble within months. (Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble isn’t exactly hale – its stock price is down 32% in the last twelve months.)Borders, as we’ve noted, has been grasping at new strategies to keep it afloat. The latest is to ditch its long-standing relationship with Amazon to open its own online bookstore. Can Borders possibly gain ground on Amazon? I tend to agree with this sentiment: “‘Amazon just dominates,’ said Fred Crawford, managing director at turnaround consultant AlixPartners who has studied consumer attitudes toward major booksellers. ‘Amazon is nearly unassailable.'”Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to reinvent book retailing once again with the Kindle. The Kindle has been both praised and reviled – guest contributor Buzz penned a worthwhile take on the initial mania that surrounded the reading device’s release last year. A few months on, rhetoric from Amazon continues to suggest that the company sees the device as a game changer and positive reviews are trickling in. Perhaps more importantly, Kindles are back in stock after a long hiatus, and they are now sporting a slimmer price, slashed 10% to $359.What happens next? It would be foolish to predict, but don’t be surprised if a few months from now we have one fewer big bookstore chain. And don’t be surprised if, a few years from now, Amazon is still rolling out new mays to sell books.
It’s good to see James Wood covering Richard Price in The New Yorker; and even better to hear Price himself on Fresh Air.And also from The New Yorker, may we recommend Dan Chiasson’s wonderful essay on Frank O’Hara?Luc Sante’s blog pretty much has to be good.Derek, the guy who got both Max and Garth started blogging in the first place, is taking part in a big group blog at the Washington Post covering the Nationals baseball team and its new stadium.With features like this reconsideration of The Gnostic Gospels, the New York Sun is quietly building what may be the country’s best books section.”Growing Up Radical: An Interview with Peter Carey” (via scott)”On Magic Feelism” – n+1 considers Kevin Brockmeier’s The View from the Seventh LayerBoris Kachka profiles Jhumpa Lahiri in New YorkSurreal: “Garfield” minus Garfield. Alternatively, “Garfield” without Garfield’s thought bubbles.Nobody knows if the Kindle is a hit, AP says, but something is happening.A book graveyard in Russia.Languagehat’s specialty: a thoroughly edifying investigation of a phrase pulled out of thin air.American Book Review has developed their own lists of 100 Best Last Lines from Novels (PDF) and 100 Best First Lines from NovelsThe Boston Globe argues that Bringing Down the House, the basis for the new movie 21, is not a work of nonfiction.
The media is aglow with the heatless light of Kindle, Amazon’s just launched reading device that is essentially an iPod for books, magazines and blogs. The online demo video trumpets the wonders of this text vessel. You can drop the thing, read it in direct sunlight and, most notably, use it and acquire new reading materials without a computer. Much of the mainstream print media is on board, as are the big publishing houses.I watched a portion of Charlie Rose’s interview with Jeff Bezos last night, unimpressed by Bezos’s forced-laugh self-satisfaction about this new product that, in his words, will “out book the book.” Fact is, plenty of folks have been tinkering with this concept for years (see my piece about The Institute for the Future of the Book), but with Amazon’s resources behind this endeavor, it seems clear that Kindle will attempt the same sort of market saturation that the iPod has achieved – and here lies the real essence of this development.Now, the shift won’t be complete, at least not at first, as Kindle cannot handle color images or illustrations, yet. When you receive your daily newspaper, or the latest issue of a magazine, you will be getting only the text. On Charlie Rose, Bezos claimed that the technology to handle images is currently in the lab and hearing him say this, for me, smacked of the planned obsolescence of the gadgetry we have embraced.The same as the ideas behind furthering the book with multi-media, open-source applications possess a great deal of exciting potential, the notion of enslaving ourselves to yet another always-improving device is something that needs to be considered and not just ballyhooed blindly, for it seems that the issue of reading is at stake in how it relates to the readers. At one point during the interview, Bezos used the term “Amazonians,” referring to the beta group of Kindle users. The term conjures the idea of tribes (something that Marshall McLuhan and Michel Houellebecq evoke in their work when considering the human relationship with technology). Like the iPod, Kindle, if Amazon succeeds in the way they seem hell-bent on, becomes a lifestyle networked into a corporate hub.As Bezos explained Kindle to Rose he got most excited about what happens when Kindle reaches its new owner: “You turn it on and it already knows you.” You need an Amazon account to buy this thing, and once you do, all of your preferences and browsing history are waiting for you. Filtered through Kindle, it seems fair to say that it is not just about text imparting information to its readers, so much as the text tracking its readers. If you resist the idea of libraries handing over their cardholders’ borrowing histories, isn’t this the same, but on some exponential algorithmic level?This is not a Luddite’s lament, but it is a call to not let the traditional book be demoted in its status as an invaluable tool. I stopped watching Charlie Rose last night after he asked Bezos about the future of books. Bezos nodded, expecting the question. He answered by saying there would always be that “cabinet of curiosities” but that he saw Kindle as the beginning of the future. The curios, in his mind, are codex books, and this is the wrong attitude because it creates a hierarchy that is a disservice to the exchange of ideas. It also seems to displace the ideas, channeling, in an admittedly off-the-cuff leap by yours truly, Plato’s Myth of the Cave. The word “kindle” denotes the starting of a fire. Light from fire, according to Plato, cast shadows that people mistook for the actual world. The challenge of reconciling the object and the image is as ancient as human thought. Kindle, when talking about books and their content, furthers the metaphor, in a way destined to make the culture, or at least the market, forget about traditional books.The book, as I seem to always write in these offerings, will never die (especially illustrated books). I believe this. Rethinking the book vis-a-vis the available technology is a natural human tendency. But forsaking the printed on paper words that have documented human history for the convenience of Kindle seems, as one comment on the NYT Paper Cuts blog posits, more like burning them, as opposed to improving them.Bonus Links: The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts), With blogs available via the Kindle, Ed looks at how they ended up there and who’s getting paid.This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.