The Future of the Book

My Latest Article is a PDF

Important note: This essay is best enjoyed in PDF form. Download here. This is a PDF. It’s one of the new trendy forms of creative expression. It has been around longer than the MiniDisc. The PDF is an early nineties thing. Ergo it’s trendy to use it now. Powerpoint presentations were the last new trendy form of creative expression after they got a pecha kucha restyle and became a respected go-to format for alternative lectures (alt lec?). When my boyfriend told me to read a hot new newspaper article about alt lit (online obviously) by Dan Holloway, it talked about a new literature “making the digital world not just its medium but its subject." The novel was still, though, the transitional traditional object that lent enough validation to this new movement that the newspaper was willing to cover it. The novel is still the idealized portable document format. The novel, Taipei by Tao Lin, was the article’s hook, and the porthole, to alt lit. In a previous article over at futurebook.net, Dan Holloway says alt lit “deals like no other form of writing with life in the 21st century digital West.” HOORAY. This is what I/we/you've been waiting for. Not characters in novels talking in txt spk, but actually what's going on in our heads when there's so much internet in there. Described in words. And so. I expected books whose chapters are broken into bytes, to be scattered across our digital devices like narrative space dust, to be inhaled via touchscreen buttons. There was some of that. One of the most fun places to read alt lit is on The Newer York's Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, where you throw options into a content graph to find poems and prose hidden behind images. The other is Tumblr. You can also look deeper into alt lit via the alt lit players list put together by @altlitgossip on Twitter, and read some great poems about life in the digital age. Many of these alt lit authors have under 100 Twitter followers. I love this. I feel like an adult sneaking into a teenager's bedroom. I know I'm embarrassing it by even writing about it here, but alt lit is what I want to read. It's what I've been waiting to read. Music waits for waves, film waits for movements, literature waits for forms. Has there been a new form of writing since chick lit or the New Puritans? It feels like it's all been about publishing and not what is being published. There are a surprisingly small number of waves in any artform. Wikipedia lists 37 film movements and 39 literary movements. Film was only just invented, we've had words for what feels like forever. Style and content. That's all I want. One of the formats which alt lit comes in is the PDF format. It’s the same format as normal lit. I shouldn’t even be saying “PDF format” because the F in PDF stands for “format.” So I’m being redundant. Like old technology. Even writing this as a Google Doc seems redundant when things like SimpleBooklet are scaleable and shareable (but unable to print or produce a PDF without mangling a careful design (which only looks careful thanks to templates, which know which shades of dark grey are tasteful for body text. In case you’re wondering, it’s #646362.)). (Not an emoticon.) This is not a history of the PDF. The PDF was always the way to solidify your work. Like someone just beginning to make their way in the world and dictating how the tastes of this current moment in time will be remembered by generations future, the PDF is 22 years old. It needed to exist mainly because of the tight border control exhibited by different versions of Microsoft Word and other software, which wouldn’t allow documents through their gates without battering them into a spew of letters and numbers. A long-form haiku. Adobe stepped in like an incompetent quango to administer the saving and opening of PDFs, but like anti-virus software became something of a virus in itself, elbowing in to open as many documents as it could, putting out its little red Acrobat triangle like a driver’s flimsy plastic stop sign. This accident is MINE, step back. Like Microsoft, Adobe Acrobat didn’t have the enabler attitude we’ve come to expect from technology. Our technology. Technology that has subjugated itself to us, and the thanks it gets is our shut up, let me get on, don’t reveal your inner workings, keep your interface on. The PDF, I said, was a way to solidify your work. To rasterize, to merge layers, to save as jpg. Its current popularity could be seen as the paranoid end of the spectrum of our reaction to the multiplicity of devices. In opposition to the free and open new scaleable mediums which, like a diplomatic middle child, squeeze or stretch themselves to suit whatever screen or software you’re using. The PDF is more the controlling parent. It has tight reins on content. It bullies your screen and software into displaying things exactly as it presents them. So, the PDF as one of the chosen formats of the dawners of the new literature. I get it. I thought it would be the app, but I get it. The app is too CD-ROMy. The PDF is democratic (probably more so than that other early nineties format for content, the zine, which required access to a photocopier, and is the existing cultural format I would most closely layer PDF alt lit over.) At the library it’s cheaper to use the computer than the photocopier. One of the first alt lit PDFs I looked at had a long string of nacho crisp emoticons across the page (or, since crisps don’t emote, icons). A whole packet of them on repeat. PDF PDF PP PDF PDF PPF PPr PFr Pr Here’s the interactive bit. While writing this PDF, which I initially did with pen and paper before typing it into a Google Document, printing it to my desktop as a PDF and emailing it to a website, before them uploading it and you opening it on some kind of screen, none of which has yet happened at the time of typing (this bit wasn’t in the pen and paper draft). Back when it was just pen and paper, I noticed a funny thing. When you write the word PDF a lot, it becomes difficult to form the letters. Try it yourself. Write "PDF" on repeat, and you’ll get something like what’s happening above. Words as broken crisps. The PDF as pen-twister. Its letters are all slightly alike, a straight stroke down the left then a double hitch. Get a pen and paper and try it now. Congratulations. You just wrote alt lit. You’re part of a worldwide handwritten PDF poem. I also wrote a song about PDFs, but sound can’t be rasterized yet... Oh no, wait, it can. Adobe truly is an acrobat. You can’t edit a PDF or make one on your smartphone without a trawl through an app store. Yet there’s something in it. From the moment I read about alt lit and cracked open a few PDFs, I wanted to create one. My latest article is a PDF. A congealed bit of technology, something we’re trying while we wait for literature’s savior format, not an app, not a Kindle download, but some new form yet to be discovered, being discovered by alt lit, being hidden by PDFs. A form which affects content. Here’s my stone tablet. Did you get a pen and paper yet?
The Future of the Book

The Apple Antitrust Case and the Widgetification of Books

For the past year, to the rising horror of publishing-industry insiders, the federal government has been on a campaign to stamp out price fixing in the e-book trade between the last remaining major publishing houses and Apple, which sells e-books for its iPads and other devices. On Wednesday, Denise Cote, a federal judge in Manhattan, ruled that Apple had indeed colluded with publishers to raise prices of e-books -- in the process giving aid and comfort to Amazon, the single strongest monopolistic force in the book business. The case is far from over. Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations, and it is in a knife fight with Amazon and others over the future of digital content, so you can count on it to carry on its appeals as long as it can. But Wednesday’s ruling follows an earlier decision by the major publishers to settle with the government rather than fight the case, so in some ways we are already living in the economic environment Justice Department lawyers believe is best for the book business. It isn’t pretty. Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is on the ropes, and with the recently approved merger of Random House and Penguin Books, the already absurdly conglomerated Big Six publishers have become the Big Five. As a matter of law, it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works, and, more dangerously, to undermine its ability to find and publish books people want to read. The government’s case suggests that it views book publishing as essentially a commodity business. Publishers, this line of reasoning supposes, produce these things called books, consisting of several hundred pages of printed matter and a cover, each of which is more or less interchangeable with any other. A book then is like any other commodity, such as soap or motor oil, and the only legitimate concern for consumers is the unit price of the commodity. Any increase in the unit price beyond the absolute minimum the free market will bear is an injustice to the consumer. But books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them. This is the crucial point the government missed in bringing this lawsuit: book publishing is in essence a vast, bumbling R&D operation -- a sort of pharmaceutical company churning out stories rather than mood-stabilizing drugs. Like pharmaceutical companies, publishers are constantly testing out products of unknown efficacy to find the one in a thousand that works, and, like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation. This was what was at the heart of the publishers’ negotiations with Apple: publishers wanted to be able to set their own prices. Put simply, when it comes to e-books, Amazon sets the price -- for a time, the standard unit price was $9.99 -- and then pays the publisher a royalty per unit sold. Often, Amazon was actually losing money on its per-unit sales, but that was fine with Amazon, because what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle. Apple was offering a wholly different deal, called “the agency model,” in which publishers would set the price for an e-book and then Apple would take a cut -- usually 30 percent of the list price. In other words, Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles that may have literary merit, but won’t sell nearly as well. It is easy to see the Apple antitrust suit as merely a clash between multi-billion-dollar corporations, but at heart the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art? Is it a thing, a commodity like a bar of soap or a can of motor oil to be bought and sold in an unfettered free market, or is it something else, deserving of special allowances? If you see a work of art, in this case a book, as a commodity, then there is no question that Judge Cote’s ruling is correct. As a society, we long ago decided that when people sell things, the consumer is best served when the government allows the free market to work its magic on cost control. But the framers of our Constitution recognized that ideas aren’t things and should occupy a special place in our laws. In enumerating the powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors. I am not suggesting copyright law has any direct bearing on the Apple case. I am merely saying the framers were onto something. Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market. As a matter of law, the Department of Justice might be right that Apple conspired with publishers to raise e-book prices, but as a matter of governance, the DOJ did not have to bring this suit, which everyone understood from the start would hurt publishers and help Amazon. The full effects of Wednesday’s ruling remain to be seen, but this much seems clear: if the government prevails, it may bring down prices of e-books, at least in the short term, but in doing so it will have created a far less genuinely competitive and vibrant book business. Image Credit: Wikipedia
The Future of the Book

Under All This Noise: On Reclusion, Writing, and Social Media

I recently made the mistake of confessing a fantasy to a friend. I told him I dreamed of being a reclusive writer. Tame, I know, given the whole point of a fantasy is to go whole hog. Yet isn’t there something incredibly seductive about those mysterious figures who hide away? We imagine them toiling away in a remote mountain cabin or a Manhattan apartment and only rarely, and with much fanfare, releasing dispatches through an intricate web of agents and lawyers, dispatches that allow an anxiously waiting reading public to make sense of the chaos that has become our world. A guru who bursts forth every thirteen or seventeen years like a cicada. Hermit, Thoreau wrote. I wonder what the world is doing now. My friend cut to the chase. “You’re not famous enough to be reclusive,” he said. “Actually, you’re not famous at all. Maybe you’ll get some traction after you’re dead?” Apart from the obvious -- i.e., there’s always death and the possibility of posthumous resurrection -- my wise friend might also be right that a person might need a certain amount of celebrity in order to be known for having disappeared. And to my discredit, deep down, I admit this is pretty attractive. I want to retreat from the world and think and write in solitude. At the same time I wouldn’t mind a few readers knowing I’m out here being all mysterious. Orner? Wait, didn’t he kick for the Vikings? No, no I’m talking about the writer, you know the dude that vanished… A genuine recluse, of course, wouldn’t give a damn. Lately, I've wondered if this odd fantasy is rooted in my uneasy relationship with how connected we all are with each other these days. Not long ago I was at a Literary Festival (so much for being reclusive) and I attended a panel discussion about the future of the book as the book. The prognosis, I learned, is inconclusive. Might have a few actual physical books in the future, might not. Only one thing didn’t seem in doubt at all, and that is the future of the writer of these inconclusive books. This future, we were told, is directly tied to having a personal online presence. A writer, one panelist declared, who doesn’t personally reach out to readers via social media is DOA. This was alarming for several reasons. One is that I’ve tried it. I’m never quite sure what to say. I’ve shared things my friends are doing. “Teddy Finkel just got back from the trip of a lifetime in Banff!” I’ve also posted a few things I’m up to as well. But each time I’ve done so, there's this dread. The impulse -- now an industry -- to spread good news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat into the garage (where the Wifi can’t find me) with my outmoded books and unfinished manuscripts. Maybe I’m just not that good at being myself. I’ve come to see social media as a skill like anything else. Some are talented at it; others, less so.  I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, change the oil, or dance. And yet if I don’t I’m DOA? There is, though, a larger issue at stake. For me, the whole point of fiction has always been to forget about me. To paraphrase Eudora Welty, the most elemental aspect of the art of fiction is the challenge of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. I spend much of my life trying to live up to Welty’s gauntlet. There is something about the increased demand that fiction writers speak as themselves that feels like a violation of what I used to hold so sacred, the tenet that it is not about me but about the characters I create. I’ve always considered inventing people and introducing them into an already crowded, indifferent world to be an act of faith. The only faith I’ve got. It’s my way of saying that I love this planet and its people in spite of everything we do every day to kill it -- and each other. Obviously, social media itself isn’t the trouble. The crux, as I see it, is that lately the substance of what we create is often considered almost incidental to the way that we writers, personally, market our product. We now must sell our books like we sell ourselves. During the panel discussion on the future of the book, for instance, what goes inside the books in question received passing, almost grudging mention. It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this trend. Just yesterday I read a piece about pricing in self-published e-books. Apparently $3.99 is the sweet spot? Sweet spot? Am I a dinosaur to wonder what this $3.99-dollar book is actually about? And yet, paradoxically, I find that this almost fanatical focus on sales over content might provide the alternate route of escape. No need to flee to the cabin in the Bitteroot just yet, as appealing as this sounds. Maybe I can live out my reclusive dream by hiding in plain sight, by choosing not to engage personally on-line, to declare myself, on my own terms, DOA. Don’t do it, the experts cry. Besides being a recluse has been out since Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah. Forget it, you want to be read, you got to sell baby sell. But do we? Really? When for so many of us out here have a hard enough time inventing lives that aren’t our own? It may say too much about me that I take my life not only from Eudora Welty, but also from the beautifully goofy movie Say Anything. I’m a child of the 80s, what can I say? You remember Lloyd Dobler? I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed... I take solace in the example of writers who, in spite of all trends, have gone another direction. On my desk, right now, I have a book of poetry by a man named Herbert Morris. Aside from his six books, the fact that he attended Brooklyn College, and the date of his birth (1928) and death (2001), almost nothing, as far as I can tell, is publicly known about him. The man clearly wanted it this way. On the jacket of What Was Lost, his last book, published in 2000, there is no author photo, no biographical information, and no acknowledgements. Richard Howard deepens the mystery with a quote: “Always the dark stranger at Poetry’s feast of lights, Herbert Morris has returned to haunt the banquet with these fifteen notional ekphrases, surely the most generous creations American culture has produced since Morris’s own Little Voices of the Pears.” It took me three dictionaries to track down the word ekphrases. A gorgeous word, it means a concentrated description of an object, often artwork. Apt as it applies to Morris whose poems are all about paying attention – truly seeing. I may have found my recluse, minus any fame, in this dark stranger. I only have his poems, not his personality, but they are exactly what I need. For me it takes great concentration to read What Was Lost, and thus, I slow way, way down as I follow the tangled, meandering thoughts of his intensely lonely characters. Morris may be a poet, but he is also, to my mind, among the most hypnotic fiction writers in contemporary literature. I fall into a Morris poem the way I do into a Sebald novel. It is a whole immersion into the intensity of a moment. Morris writes of other people, sometimes well-known people, such as Henry James or James Joyce, in moments of profound isolation. One utterly breathtaking poem “History, Weather, Loss, the Children, Georgia” is about a photograph taken of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as they sit in a car before a group of schoolchildren. The photo was snapped just before the children began to serenade the president. The poem begins slowly, exquisitely, as Morris constructs the scene through the smallest of details about the children. They’ve been rehearsing all week for this occasion. Their mouths are poised, frozen forever in little O’s. Even the threads of their clothes receive attention. As does the hand printed banner, Welcome Mister President. Only toward the very last lines does the poem zero in on Franklin and Eleanor themselves. These two icons may be long dead, as is this haunted moment in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938. And yet, and this is where the poem aches, Franklin and Eleanor are not historical props but rather two vulnerable human beings sitting together -- apart -- in the back of an open car. The poem delicately, yet vehemently, chastises Franklin for “his wholly crucial failure” to do something pretty simple and that’s touch his wife. or once, once, whisper to her intimacies any man might well whisper on the brink of the heartbreak of the Thirties (the voiceless poised to sing, air strangled, sultry, the music teacher’s cue not yet quite given… I imagine Morris, whoever he was, staring at this photograph so long and with such absorption that Frankin and Eleanor began to sweat in the humid air. And still Franklin’s fingers don’t reach for her. The poem mourns the loss of so many things, including this touch that never happened. Ultimately this is not only what I crave as a writer, but as a reader of fiction. I want living, breathing, flawed characters on the page. Now more than ever I want to know about private failures not publically shared triumphs. Herbert Morris gives us the miracle of other people in their intimate, unguarded moments. He may not have trumpeted himself when he was alive. He kept himself apart, and the details of his own life out of the equation. Perhaps as a consequence he may not have sold many books, but even so he found his way to my desk. I dug him out of the free bin outside Dog Ear Books in San Francisco. How can I express my gratitude to a man who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator? And think about it, how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, telling us things we need to hear? Photo courtesy of the author.
The Future of the Book

A Cheat Sheet for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books. Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a third of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year, it was one in four, and now this year one in three books bought by Millions readers were ebooks. So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going. For starters, here are the top-12 most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2012. You'll notice that these aren't all that different from the overall Millions favorites. Of course, this list also favors ebook originals, some of which appear in the "Kindle Single" format and are bite-size books available for lower prices. Meanwhile, publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett ($2.51) A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava ($5.13) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace ($3.99) Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan ($9.99) Train Dreams by Denis Johnson ($9.99) The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99) This How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz ($12.99) Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max ($14.99) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn ($12.99) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon ($9.99) The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt ($9.43) An Arrangement of Light by Nicole Krauss ($1.99) Other potentially useful ebook links: Editors' Picks Best of 2012 Top 100 Paid and Free Kindle Singles And in this fractured ebook landscape, you've also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don't forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years. Happy Reading!
Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

Are eReaders Really Green?

1. In 2009, the Book Industry Environmental Council set a couple of environmental goals for the U.S. book industry. Using a calculation of the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 as its baseline, the BIEC and its members pledged to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 20% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. When the pledge was made, the Kindle had existed for only a year and a half, and the Nook was still eight months away. (Kobo eReaders and iPads didn’t emerge until 2010.) eBooks, still in their infancy, accounted for a measly 5% of books sold in America. Today, it seems like many publishing houses are on their ways toward achieving the BIEC goals. Thanks to the proliferation of FTP software, most major publishing houses have slashed the amount of printing done in-office. At John Wiley & Sons, my production group had a paperless workflow: Adobe was our editing tool of choice, and to be one of our freelancers, you had to pass an exhaustive MS Word screening test. Later on, at Oxford University Press, a common email signature asked readers to “save paper and print only what’s necessary.” Organizing stacks of paper on your desk was out; navigating sub-folders on a shared drive was in. Meanwhile eBooks were becoming ever more popular. By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week, and Apple said it had sold over 40 million iPads. Consequently, eBooks accounted for 31% of U.S. book sales by 2012. According to a Pew Internet study, as many as one in four American adults now own an eReader or tablet (one in three if they went to college). The trend toward digitization is undeniable, and there are many reasons to be optimistic: big publishers are making more money off of more products than ever before; it’s easier than ever to publish a book; and the number of books available to anyone with an internet connection is unprecedented. Some analysts even predict that soon print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files. But is all of this really cutting the industry’s carbon footprint? Is total eBook adoption — that is: elimination of the print book — really an ecologically responsible goal? 2. Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. This is mostly due to an increasing global population. While America, Australia, India and the UK are the most rapid adopters of digital reading devices — at least for the time being — eBooks presently account for only a small fraction of the world book market. (This is due to factors such as availability of technology, reliable internet connections, and disposable income.) Necessarily, the increased consumption of print and digital books has led to an ever-increasing demand for the materials required to create, transport, and store them. In the case of eBooks, though, vast amounts of materials are also necessary for the eReaders themselves, and this is something typically overlooked by proponents of digitization: the material costs are either ignored, or, more misleadingly, they’re classified as the byproduct of the tech industry instead of the book industry. National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis recently posted a brief note of encouragement to owners of eReaders, and it illustrates exactly the type of oversight I just mentioned. “The steady rise of eBooks,” Tellis wrote, “should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits.” He went on to note how certain study groups have determined “that the carbon released from eBooks is offset after people read more than 14 eBooks” on a single eReader. But Tellis ignores the fact that global print book consumption is rising concurrently with eBook consumption. In other words: the carbon footprint of the digital book industry is mostly growing in addition to, not to the detriment of, the growing carbon footprint of the print book industry. I couldn’t locate the source of Tellis’ information about those 14 eBooks offsetting the ecological cost of their owner’s eReader. Instead, I found this New York Times op-ed which painted a starkly different picture: “the impact of one e-reader … equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” Still more damning, Ted Genoways’ excellent VQR article about the raw materials needed for the production of eReaders (and other gizmos), found that: At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books — not used or rare editions, 250 million new books — each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light. 3. Usage figures are an important element in the estimation of a book’s environmental impact. According to Apple, an iPad is responsible for 2.5 grams of CO2e per hour of use. A single print book, on the other hand, is responsible for “a net 8.85 pounds” (PDF) of carbon emissions over the course of its life (e.g. production, transportation, and retail). Note that the former figure, however, is open-ended; the latter figure is finite. If you ignore the environmental cost of an eReader, that means you would need to read the iBookstore version of War and Peace for 1,605.39 hours (~67 days) to damage the environment as badly as that paperback copy of Tolstoy’s tome on your bookshelf. That certainly sounds like a point for eBooks, but it’s a totally misleading evaluation. For a demonstration of just how misleading that comparison is, I used basic arithmetic and some minimal Googling to calculate the carbon footprint of the average American reading an average number of average novels at an average speed both in print and on an iPad. (I picked iPads because Amazon doesn’t release Kindle data. I picked America because we’re the most voracious consumers of digital books.) Here’s what I found: I. One Year of Reading: First I calculated the average rate of consumption for the average reader. I found average reading speed, average book length, and average number of books consumed, and then I calculated the carbon emissions caused by one year of reading. The average adult reads 200-250 words per minute. (Source) The average novel is 64,500 words. (Source) That means the average adult spends 4.3 hours reading an average novel. [(64,500 words / 250 wpm) / 60 minutes] The average adult reads 6.5 books per year. (Source; PDF) The average adult spends 27.95 hours reading each year. [6.5 books * 4.3 hours]   Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e [6.5 books * 8.85 pounds of emissions * 453.5 g. per lb.] eBook Footprint: 69.875 grams of CO2e [6.5 books * 4.3 hours * 2.5 g. of emissions per hr.] This is the comparison eBook proponents typically cite. Unfortunately, it’s at best lousy mathematics and at worst a manipulative comparison. II. One Year of Reading (Device Footprints Included): Next I found the lifetime carbon emissions from one iPad and one iPad 2, and I plugged those into my one year of reading calculations. iPad lifetime emissions: 130,000 grams of CO2e (Source; PDF) iPad 2 lifetime emissions: 105,000 grams of CO2e (Source; PDF) Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,069.875 grams of CO2e eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,069.875 grams of CO2e As you can plainly see, factoring in the carbon footprint of an eReader drastically changes the comparison. One year of reading eBooks accounts for a carbon footprint five times greater than a year’s worth of print books. Fans of eReaders will of course refute this data by claiming that their devices level out with — and could even become “greener” than — print books on a long enough timeline. This claim is indeed theoretically true after five years, and I’ll show you how. III. Five Years of Reading on One Device (Device Footprints Included): I extrapolated the data to account for five years of use at the same rate of consumption as above. (And on the same device for all five years — more on that in a minute.) Paperback Footprint: 130,437.95 grams of CO2e eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,349.375 grams of CO2e eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,349.375 grams of CO2e I determined that it takes five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way. This number is smack in between Tellis’ (14 books) and The New York Times’ (50 books) calculations. However it, too, is misleading because it doesn’t correctly account for device replacement. As Ted Genoways was saying, most eReaders are used for only two years before being discarded, replaced, lost or broken. More than 20% of all Kindles sit unused after Christmas. So, that in mind, let’s look at the numbers when we factor in average eReader use — and account for device replacement every two years. IV. Five Years of Reading (Device Replacement Included): Assuming a device is replaced every two years (years 0, 2, and 4), this is the most accurate depiction of how an eReader compares to a pile of print books. That eReader, then, accounts for an initial carbon footprint 200-250% greater than your typical household library, and it increases every time you get a new eReader for Christmas, or every time the latest Apple Keynote lights a fire in your wallet. Also, these figures simply calculate the impact one person’s consumption has on the environment. If you live in a household with multiple eReaders — say, one for your husband and one for your daughter, too — your family’s carbon emissions are more than 600-750% higher per year than they would be if you invested in a bunch of bookshelves or, better yet, a library card. 4. Things are trickier than they seem, too. The truth is that the dedicated eReader died almost as soon as it arrived, and it’s since been replaced by items even worse for the environment than its ancestors. What we presently refer to as eReaders are more like all-purpose tablets equipped with email clients, web browsers, games, movie players, and more. (Even one of the earliest generations of Kindles offered a prototype web browser — buried in subfolders within the device’s navigation system, though clearly a hint of what was coming.) As these devices become more sophisticated, they invite more prolonged usage, so those 2.5 g of emissions per hour of use continue to add up. Likewise, as these devices become more sophisticated, their manufacture demands more precious materials — often from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. Still more problematic is the fact that outdated devices are too often discarded inappropriately. You don’t need to investigate very hard to find evidence of the toll this mineral mining and e-waste dumping takes on fragile ecosystems. The emissions and e-waste numbers could be stretched even further if I went down the resource rabbit hole to factor in: electricity needed at the Amazon and Apple data centers; communication infrastructure needed to transmit digital files across vast distances; the incessant need to recharge or replace the batteries of eReaders; the resources needed to recycle a digital device (compared to how easy it is to pulp or recycle a book); the packaging and physical mailing of digital devices; the need to replace a device when it breaks (instead of replacing a book when it’s lost); the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own eReading device (whereas print books can be loaned out as needed from a library); the fact that most digital devices are manufactured abroad (and therefore transported across oceans); and etc… This is the ultimate result of our culture’s fetishization of technology — a problem which will assuredly worsen before it improves. It wasn’t long ago that sophisticated electronics were few and far between. I grew up in a house with one desktop computer, and it was located in the kitchen. That was eleven years ago, and when I remember all the times I argued with my brother over who got to play StarCraft, my memory seems as quaint and outdated as a scene from Mad Men. Today, my thirteen-year-old sister has her own laptop, smartphone, and television to supplement the two desktop computers, additional television set, and Kindle Fire located in my mother’s home. There’s an Apple store in Grand Central Station that I pass each day on my way to work; every morning I watch hundreds of commuters browse iPads as though they were magazines or candy. In the end, this conspicuous (and often unnecessary) tech consumption — eReaders included — contributes to an inflating carbon footprint far beyond anything ever caused by traditional book production. 5. Of course, it’s slippery ethics to rationalize the book industry’s carbon footprint by focusing, instead, on the larger problem of the tech industry’s carbon footprint. Both are problems that need to be addressed. But for right now, if we’re forced to choose, the traditional paper route is the better one. If you worry for the future of our rainforests, and if you worry for the future of our planet, the responsible decision is to purchase or borrow books printed on recycled paper and from ecologically conscious vendors. (You can find a handy list of such places and printers here.) While this tactic alone will not solve the problem, it will certainly make a difference if enough people choose library cards instead of Kindle Singles. And while it's true that, now that digital has arrived, digital is here to stay, the book reading community needs to ask itself which is more important: developing a greener way to produce print books while we halt the growth of eBooks’ market share, committing fully to the creation of “greener” eReading devices — or some combination of both. Doing neither is not an option. Raz Godelnik, CEO of Eco-Libris, estimates that 80% of a paperback book’s carbon footprint is caused by the earliest stages in its production process: paper harvesting, forest clearing, and material shipping. The BIEC recognized this, and one of its chief aims was to work on a more eco-friendly means of producing books. As consumers, though, we also have the power to fix this by demanding an even more responsible method of production from the largest publishing houses and their contractors. (This means we’d have to pay more for the end product, of course.) We must also demand better accountability from the technology companies that create eReaders, and that begins with demanding Amazon release better information about the Kindle. Consumer outcry works: a few months ago, because everyone flipped out about the mistreatment of Foxconn workers, Apple instituted major changes to the pay structure for their subcontractors. If we can do this with labor, we can do this with resources. We must also resist the urge to purchase the next hot technology when it comes out. If you have an eReader, use your eReader until it no longer works, and then recycle it responsibly. Do not purchase a new one before the old one has stopped working. If you own an eReader that you do not use, sell it to someone who will actually use it so that they don’t have to buy a fresh one. In simple terms: you wouldn’t buy a new edition of a book if nothing was wrong with the edition you already owned, so why would you do it with something ecologically equal to fifty of those books put together? Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Future of the Book

The Bathrobe Era: What the Death of Print Newspapers Means for Writers

Today, April 30, marks the twentieth anniversary of my last day in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. In truth, my newspaper career was neither long nor particularly illustrious. For about four years in my early twenties I worked at two small newspapers: the Mill Valley Record, the decades-old weekly newspaper in my hometown that died a few years after I left; and the Aspen Daily News, which, miraculously, remains in business today. Still, I loved the newspaper business. I have never worked with better people than I did in that crazy little newsroom in Aspen, and I probably never will. I quit because it dawned on me that, while I was a good reporter, I had neither the skills nor the intestinal fortitude to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and David Halberstam. What I couldn’t know the day I left the Daily News and began the long trek that led first to graduate school and then to college teaching was the sheer destructive power of the bullet I was dodging. The Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2012” report offers a sobering portrait of what has happened to print journalism in the twenty years since I left. After a small bump during the Clinton Boom of the 1990s, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers has fallen off a cliff in the past decade, dropping by more than half from a peak of $48.7 billion in 2000 to $23.9 billion in 2011. Thus far at least, online advertising isn’t saving the business as some hoped it might. Online advertising for newspapers was up $207 million between 2010 and 2011, but in that same period, print advertising was down $2.1 billion, meaning print losses outnumbered online gains by a factor of 10-1. But as troubling as the death of print journalism may be for our collective civic and political lives, it may have an even more lasting impact on our literary culture. For more than a century, newspaper jobs provided vital early paychecks, and even more vital training grounds, for generations of American writers as different as Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tony Earley. Just as importantly, reporting jobs taught nonfiction writers from Rachel Carson to Michael Pollan how to ferret out hidden information and present it to readers in a compelling narrative. Now, though, the infrastructure that helped finance all those literary apprenticeships is fast slipping away. The vacuum left behind by dying print publications has been largely filled by blogs, a few of them, like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, connected to huge corporations, many others written by bathrobe-clad auteurs like yours truly. This is great for readers who need only fire up their laptop – or increasingly, their tablet or smartphone – and have instant access to nearly all the information produced in the known world, for free. But the system’s very efficiency is also its Achilles' heel. When I worked in newspapers, a good part of my paycheck came from sales of classified ads. That’s all gone now, thanks to Craigslist and eBay. We also were a delivery system for circulars from grocery stores and real estate firms advertising their best deals. Buh-bye. Display ads still exist online, but advertisers are increasingly directing their ad dollars to Google and Facebook, which do a much better job of matching ads to their users’ needs. Add to this the longer-term trend of locally owned grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing shops being replaced by national chains, which draw more business from nationwide TV ad campaigns, and the economic model that supported independent reporting for more than a hundred years has vanished. Without a way to make a living from their work, most bloggers are hobbyists, and most hobbyists come at their hobby with an angle. So, you have realtor blogs that tout local real estate and inveigh against property taxes. Or you have historical preservation blogs that rail against any new construction. Or you have plain old cranks of the kind who used to hog the open discussion time at the beginning of local city council meetings, but now direct their rants, along with pictures, smart-phone videos, and links to other cranks in other cities, onto the Internet. What you don’t have is a lot of guys like I used to be, who couldn't care less about the outcome of the events they’re covering, but are being paid a living wage to present them accurately to readers. The debate over the downsides of the Internet tends to focus on the consumer end, arguing, as Nicholas Carr does in his bestseller, The Shallows, that the Internet is making us dumber. That may or may not be true – I have my doubts – but as we near the close of the second decade of the Internet Era, we may be facing a far greater problem on the producer end: the atrophying of a central skill set necessary to great literature, that of taking off the bathrobe and going out to meet the people you are writing about. I mean to cast no generational aspersions toward the web-savvy writers coming up behind me, but having done both, I can tell you that blogging is nothing like reporting. Just about any fact you can find, or argument you can make, is available online, and with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can sound like an expert on virtually any subject. And, because so far the blogosphere is, for the great majority of bloggers, quite nearly a pay-free zone, most bloggers are so busy earning a living at their real job, they have no time for old-fashioned shoe leather reporting even if they had the skill set. But in the main, today’s younger bloggers don’t have those skills, because shoe-leather reporting isn’t all that useful in the Internet age. Reporting is slow. It’s analog. You call people up and talk to them for half an hour. Or you arrange a time to meet and talk for an hour and a half. It can take all day to report a simple human-interest story. To win eyeballs online, you have to be quick and you have to be linked. Read Gawker some time. Or Jezebel. Or even a site like Talking Points Memo. There’s some original reporting there, but more common are riffs on news stories or memes created by somebody else, often as not from television or the so-called “dead-tree media.” When there is an original piece online, often it comes from an author flacking for another, paying gig – a book, a business venture, a weight-loss program, a political career. Clay Shirky, the NYU media studies professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, has suggested the crumbling of economic support for traditional print media and the original reporting it engendered is a temporary stage in the healthy process of creative destruction that goes along with the advent of any new game-changing technology. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place,” Shirky is quoted as saying in The Pew Center’s “State of the News Media 2010” report. Maybe Shirky is right and online news sites will discover an economic model to replace the classified pages and grocery-store ads, but as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not A Gadget, we’ve been waiting a long time for the destruction to start getting creative. Lanier, who is more interested in music than writing, argues that for all the digi-vangelism about the waves of creativity that would follow the advent of musical file-sharing, what has happened so far is that music has gotten stuck in a self-reinforcing loop of sampling and imitation that has led to cultural stasis. “Where is the new music?” he asks. “Everything is retro, retro, retro.” Lanier writes: I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines:  Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the track for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance. I am certainly not the go-to guy on contemporary music, but, like Lanier, I fear we are creating a generation of riff artists, who see their job not as creating wholly new original projects but as commenting upon cultural artifacts that already exist. Whether you’re talking about rappers endlessly “sampling” the musical hooks of their forebears, or bloggers snarking about the YouTube video of Miami Heat star Shaquille O’Neal holding his nose on the bench after one of his teammates farted during the first quarter of a game against the Chicago Bulls, you are seeing a culture, as Lanier puts it, “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Thus far this cultural Möbius strip hasn’t affected books to the same degree that it has the news media and music because, well, authors of printed books still get paid for having original ideas. (If you wonder why cyber evangelists like Clay Shirky keep writing books and magazine articles printed on dead trees, there’s your answer. Writing a book is a paid gig. Blogging is effectively a charitable donation to the cultural conversation, made in the hope that one’s donation will pay off in some other sphere, like, say, getting a book contract.) The recent U.S. government suit against Apple and book publishers over alleged price-fixing in the e-book market, which would allow Amazon to keep deeply discounting books to drive Kindle sales, suggests that authors can’t necessarily count on making a living from writing books forever. But even if by some miracle, books continue to hold their economic value as they move into the digital realm, the people who write them will still need a way to make a living – and just as importantly, learn how to observe and describe the world beyond their laptop screen – in the decade or so it takes a writer to arrive at a mature and original vision. Try to imagine what would have become of Hemingway, that shell-shocked World War I vet, if he hadn’t found work on the Kansas City Star, and later, the job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star that allowed him to move to Paris and raise a family. The same goes for a writer as radically different as Hunter S. Thompson, who was saved from a life of dissipation by an early job as a sportswriter for a local paper, which led to newspaper gigs in New York and Puerto Rico. All of his best books began as paid reporting assignments, and his genius, short-lived as it was, was to be able to report objectively on the madness going on inside his drug-addled head. In 2012, we live in a bit of a false economy in that novelists and nonfiction writers in their thirties and forties are still just old enough to have begun their careers before content began to migrate online. Thus, we can thank magazines for training and paying John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose book of essays, Pulphead, consists largely of pieces written on assignment for GQ and Harper’s. We should also be thankful for Gourmet magazine, which, until it went under in 2009, sent novelist Ann Patchett on lavish, all-expenses-paid trips around the world, including one to Italy, where she did the research on opera singers that fueled her bestselling novel, Bel Canto. In a quirkier, but no less important way, we can thank glossy magazines for The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who supported himself by writing for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Details during his long, dark night of the literary soul in the late 1990s before his breakout novel was published. Those venues – most of them, anyway – still exist, but they are the top of the publishing heap, and the smaller, entry-level publications of the kind I worked for twenty years ago, are either dying or going online. Increasingly, my decision to leave journalism to enter an MFA program twenty years ago seems less a personal life choice than an act guided by very subtle, yet very powerful economic incentives. As paying gigs for apprentice writers continue to dwindle, apprentice writers are making the obvious economic choice and entering grad school, which, whatever its merits as a writing training program, at least has the benefit of possibly leading to a real, paying job – as a teacher of creative writing, which, as you may have noticed, is what most working literary writers do for a living these days. Perhaps that is what people are really saying when they talk about the “MFA aesthetic,” that insular, navel-gazing style that has more to do with a response to previous works of fiction than to the world most non-writers live in. Perhaps the problem isn’t with MFA programs at all, but with the fact that, for most graduates of MFA programs, it’s the only training in writing they have. They haven’t done what any rookie reporter at any local newspaper has done, which is observed a scene – a city council meeting, a high school football game, a small-plane crash – and then written about it on the front page of a paper that everybody involved in that scene will read the next day. They haven’t had to sift through a complex, shifting set of facts – was that plane crash a result of equipment malfunction or pilot error? – and not only get the story right, but make it compelling to readers, all under deadline as the editor and a row of surly press guys are standing around waiting to fill that last hole on page one. They haven’t, in short, had to write, quickly, under pressure, for an audience, with their livelihood on the line. It is, of course, pointless to rage against the Internet Era. For one thing, it is already here, and for another, the Web is, on balance, a pretty darn good thing. I love email and online news. I use Wikipedia every day. But we need to listen to what the Jaron Laniers of the world are saying, which is that we can choose what the Web of the future will look like. The Internet is not like the weather. It isn’t something that just happens to us. The Internet is merely a very powerful tool, one we can shape to our collective will, and the first step along that path is deciding what we value and being willing to pay for it. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Future of the Book

Confessions of a Reluctant Fetishist: Keep Books Adulterated

In just a dozen or so paragraphs, Tim Parks's short piece in praise of ebooks -- titled "E-Books Can't Burn"  -- on the NYRB blog is one of the more eloquent defenses I've read of digital reading from the side of literature, rather than, say, convenience or democracy. Some of his more offhand remarks don't hold up to much scrutiny (ebooks are indestructible? Their version of permanence is different than that of printed books, but no less vulnerable.), but the idea at the core of his piece is a fascinating one, and relatively underplayed in the ongoing conversation about our new ways of reading: that the ebook, by clearing away the physical and even fetishistic trappings of the printed book, strips reading down to its essence, "the words themselves and the order they appear in:" The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups. Now, I don't find that idea fascinating only because it was my own first reaction to the Kindle when I got to test drive one a few days before it debuted back in 2007 (second reaction, actually; my first was, "Gee, a book in 20 seconds!"). There is also a great deal of truth in it, and I still think the ebook is an ideal medium for evaluating literature: a neutral playing field like the orchestra auditions that now take place behind a curtain. Ideally, prize juries should read blind (both of authors' names as well as the works' physical attributes). But we don't only read to evaluate. We read to experience, to know, and to remember, and printed books are an aid, not a hindrance, toward those ends. One commenter on Parks's piece, before he goes off the deep end and ropes digital reading in with the soulless sexual promiscuity that's destroying our civilization, likens a relationship with a book to love: If this 'logic' is indeed true, then by extension, why commit to any woman or man? After all, strip away the aesthetic, the 'fetishistic', and leave us 'to more austere, direct engagement' with, well, any and every being. I'm not sure this "extension" entirely works (I'm certainly not a monogamist when it comes to reading.) but the comparison to an object of love is useful. However we might try to purify our love for someone down to its abstract essentials, that love is irretrievably (and wonderfully) contaminated by more quotidian, physical associations: a timbre of voice, a smell, an ear or a toe, a piece of clothing. Even a book your beloved once read. Those details might be said to merely evoke the love, but they also come to embody it, flesh it out. Your love has a body. Parks argues that it's a "core characteristic" of literature as an art form that it can exist as "pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page." But if a memorized poem is the purest manifestation of literature, memory itself has a rather impure relationship to the wantonly associative materials that decorate our lives and thoughts. How do we best remember poems (and why are poems easier to memorize than prose, and song lyrics easier to remember than either)? Through details like rhythm and rhyme that bear only an apparently tangential relationship to the "pure mental material" that the words express. These sorts of secondary features of language, like alliteration and puns, sometimes feel like vestigial embarrassments to the austere quest for meaning, but they are the warp and woof of language, reminders that meaning is never separate from physical embodiment. And memory doesn't restrict its associative hunger to language. Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists -- Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them--- have known for centuries, to spaces, to "memory palaces" that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them. And so does reading. We make sensory associations -- arbitrary but meaningful -- to our reading that house the mental images it creates. This would hardly be a respectable literary essay if I didn't declare here that literature without its fetishes is like Proust without his memory-triggering madeleine -- a passage, by the way, that I first read in the 1989 Vintage International edition of Swann's Way, a book, by the way, that I associate with the warm springtime of my senior year in college, with standing in my kitchen, a place I'm sure I didn't actually read the book, but rather held on to it as an inward symbol of my control over my reading now that my last finals were done, and as an outward badge of what I thought of as the casual sophistication of my post-college self-education (yes, it's true that readers' "fetishistic gratifications" are often as shamefully self-serving and impure as Parks says -- that's part of what makes them so memorable). A physical book makes a house for its content, with pages like rooms we can pass through -- and return to -- in sequence, or jump among, taking shortcuts we can easily retrace because we hold the whole structure in our hands. It's true that a vivid piece of writing, read physically or digitally, creates its own mental spaces -- I have, for instance, a pretty extensive and durable image in my mind of Copper Canyon, the mine town ripe for the picking in Richard Stark's The Score, which I read last year on my phone -- but, perhaps because of its very tendency toward abstraction and austerity, reading thrives in the paper houses we build for it. These houses don't have to be lovely, by the way, although it helps. This isn't really an argument about beauty, about "quality paper" or "handsome masterpieces," in Parks's words. A beautiful, well-designed book is a good thing, and I am sure the pleasure of holding my smooth and nearly weightless little Avon paperback edition of The Moviegoer enhanced my headlong love affair with that novel when I read it a couple of decades ago, just as it still enhances my memory of it (at this point, I remember the cover better than the book; or, rather, my pleasure in the cover, easily recalled, has now become the repository for all the pleasure I took in the book, the specifics of which await a more thorough rereading). But I first read and loved Moby-Dick in an ugly Norton Critical Edition, and The Confidence-Man in an even uglier Meridian paperback, each of which has nevertheless proved an equally sturdy physical structure for my memories of reading. That's not to say that the works don't survive and transcend their material substrate. I could have read Melville anywhere -- even a Kindle -- and it would still have been Melville, though I'm not sure with quite as full a character in my mind as it has now. I've owned one of my favorite books, Housekeeping, in at least three editions (as well as on audio), and read it closely in all of them -- and it was, more or less, the same book each time, but the various editions gave it, and still give it, a place in my mind. When I recall Sylvie and Ruth burning their house -- and how breathtaking it was to read the first time -- I have an image in my mind of their wet, cluttered yard and the flaming curtains, but alongside I have an image of a page, and of an elongated, almost sprightly font that carried the good humor of the book even through its darker scenes. Can you get that from an ebook? I think in some ways you can, though not in the austere, neutral form that Parks celebrates. I don't mean to make a fetish out of printed books, and I'm not asking to burn (or delete) ebooks, or their devices. Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love. Any way, really, that keeps your books from being entirely pure, gets them a little dirty and adulterated. And as for physical books: I'd just like them to survive, or at least be remembered, and not just as the playthings of a child. Image Credit: Flickr/Kodomut
The Future of the Book

The Beautiful Afterlife of Dead Books

1. A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically? In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing. I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives. 2. So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?) What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone: However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious...In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as "whining" -- the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do. In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human. This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead? 3. Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile. These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers. He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail. 4. I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”) A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey. By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love. 5. I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead. As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained. I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.   Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
The Future of the Book

Frankenstein’s Crowdsourced Monster: hitRECord’s Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

Joking and hand-wringing about the future of books aside, is it really possible that a book could be written and illustrated collaboratively on some kind of social media platform and then edited by hundreds or thousands of online contributors? Even if it were possible, is it desirable? Common sense and a decent respect for the creative process suggest that a novel or short story, even a book-length work of nonfiction produced by such means would be a ghastly thing -- a Frankenstein's monster that, though animated, could not be given life; it might resemble a book, but it would not live and breathe. So much for common sense. Now comes hitRECord.org, an online, experimental, collaborative production company founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to prove that at least one kind of book can be produced precisely in this way and that it can claim some artistic merit. In December, HarperCollins published The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1, the first of the site's collaboratively-produced works to be mass-distributed by a major publisher. It's essentially a children's book for adults, with each story consisting of nothing more than a few lines of text and an accompanying illustration. One story, for example, features a drawing of a boy carrying an armload of books and the lines, "His hands were weak and shaking from carrying far too many books from the bookshop. It was the best feeling." Like the Six-Word Memoirs project at Smith Magazine, these stories are short fiction taken to the extreme, meant to evoke something poignant or humorous but necessarily limited. For its slogan, the collection takes Muriel Rukeyser's famous line and tweaks it: "The universe is not made of atoms; it's made of tiny stories." Like much of what hitRECord has produced, Tiny Stories is a whimsical mixture of earnest emotion, good humor, and hipster snark, which is as much an observation about the tastes of the site's directors (Gordon-Levitt, et al.) as a reflection of the anonymous artists who created the book. The reason Tiny Stories is compelling, both as a concept and as a finished work, is because it has been curated, like everything hitRECord releases, and curated rather well. Every story that was uploaded, edited, re-uploaded, illustrated, and selected for the book was evaluated on its own merits, with only the very best making the final cut. This sifting process, though undoubtedly tedious for the site's directors, was absolutely necessary. In the end, only 67 stories were included in the published version of the book, culled from submissions and edits numbering more than 8,500. Aesthetically, Tiny Stories is a victory for the enduring power and allure of physical, bound books. Although produced collaboratively and online, the epitome of futurism in book publishing, the slim volume is exceedingly handsome and altogether nostalgic in its design, meant to evoke memories in the reader of a time when all we had were bound books, and the best-made of them were a pleasure both to handle and to see on one's shelf. It's not the kind of thing you can fully appreciate electronically; if ever there were a Kindle-proof book, this is it. That said, this month hitRECord released Tiny Stories as an e-book on iTunes that includes video versions of six stories. Nevertheless, the print version is far more compelling and will likely prove more popular in the long run. Beyond the obvious merits of its great design and the debatable merits of the stories themselves (it should be noted that these tiny stories, being somewhat twee, will not appeal to everyone), the most remarkable thing about Tiny Stories is the experimental, collaborative process behind its creation and the high quality of work that's resulted from it. This is not what one would expect from a site where anyone can upload whatever they want and everyone can remix everyone else's work and use it to make whatever. That sounds like a recipe for a bunch of crap, for the crowdsourced Frankenstein's monster novel of the future, for bad writing and bad storytelling. But the opposite has somehow happened. The site has in fact attracted extremely talented writers, illustrators, musicians, animators, photographers, and video editors, all of whom are collaborating online -- and getting paid for it. In the case of hitRECord, incredibly, the cream really is rising to the top. No doubt some of the site's visibility and momentum thus far is due to the fame of its founder, but if the works themselves --- whether music, short films, music videos, comics, or tiny stories -- were not of a considerably high quality then no one would care that a celebrity actor came up with the idea for the site. Gordon-Levitt launched a primitive version of hitRECord back in 2005 but re-launched it as a professional online production company in 2010 that allows users to upload their writings, drawings, photos, and videos, and to download the work of others to serve as raw material for various ongoing projects. The idea is to collaborate, remix, refine, make something better or different, and in the end produce a final version, or several different final versions, to publish or screen or press to vinyl or CD, all of which hitRECord has done in the past two years. [For full disclosure, and to illustrate how hitRECord works, or sometimes works, my on-again-off-again indie rock band participated in hitRECord's SXSW 2010 screening in Austin, Texas. We wrote and recorded a song on very short notice and sent it to the hitRECord team, who then went around SXSW with a video camera recording people making percussive sounds and edited them all together to replicate our drum track. That night at the screening, we played our song live while the drum track/video played behind us on a giant screen and people from the audience came up on stage to sing along and record everything. It was an experimental, ramshackle affair that probably sounds better in writing than it did live.] That was in March, 2010. Since then, hitRECord has gotten better at collaborating. Tiny Stories is the first of three volumes to be published by HarperCollins, all of which were written and illustrated entirely by hitRECord users. One reason for the high quality of work in Tiny Stories, and on hitRECord overall, is that a comparatively small number of users exert a huge amount of artistic influence on the site and set an aesthetic tone for most hitRECord projects. The Tiny Stories collaboration, for example, was begun by a particularly prominent yet anonymous hitRECord user who goes by the moniker Wirrow and whose simple but evocative illustrations, music, and writings appear in collaborations throughout the site. Over time, the Tiny Stories project organically grew into a massive collaboration that has now produced thousands of stories, a growing number of which have been made into short videos that will likely be screened at Sundance this year as part of hitRECord's showcase there. If this is all surprising, it's only because the Internet has not quite lived up to its promise. We have more news and information and many more outlets for artists, musicians, and writers than before, but the Internet has not brought about a radical realignment of how we produce news and writing and art. Most of what is shared online, whether on Facebook or Twitter or some other social media outlet, are articles that were produced the old way, by a news organization or a magazine. In contrast, hitRECord's collaborative experiment seems thus far to be working, albeit with some important caveats, mostly around the question of copyright. The site eschews, even forbids, the uploading of copyrighted material, and asks contributing artists to relinquish copyright claims to any work they upload, which becomes the de facto property of hitRECord. Whatever profits are made, whether from live shows or sales of books or other merchandise, are split 50-50 between hitRECord and the contributing artists; half the profits go back to hitRECord and the other half is divvied up between artists based on how much each one contributed to the final version.  The newly-published Tiny Stories volume contains, as all HarperCollins books do, a copyright page that reads like any other. One question that arises, then, is whether hitRECord's re-use/remix ethos extends to its own offerings. If a freelance writer wanted to adapt a tiny story into a short story, or a novel, would hitRECord try to stop them? Would it be able to? Should it? And what are the limits of hitRECord's method? Some art forms are of course more amenable to collaboration than others, and hitRECord has naturally gravitated toward these: short films, live and recorded music, tiny stories. It's difficult, however, to imagine how a site like this could produce works of art that require the sustained and focused vision of a single artist. One is hard-pressed, for example, to imagine hitRECord producing a novel of any coherence or quality. One is hard-pressed even to imagine how it could produce a screenplay or a feature film without side-stepping its own principles, although Gordon-Levitt has said this is one of his ambitions for hitRECord. One could imagine, on the other hand, Gordon-Levitt leveraging the resources of this vast online community in producing a feature film, perhaps even in writing or editing a screenplay, by simply employing select hitRECord users for certain tasks. In this lies the promise not so much of the Internet as a democratizing force where everyone can be heard or published, but of the Internet as a means of connecting talented people that might not otherwise know about each other. This of course has happened already, although perhaps not in so dramatic and explicitly art-focused way as on hitRECord. But insofar as it must be discriminating in what it chooses to screen or publish, simply because of the sheer volume of submissions and collaborations, hitRECord is partially cast in the old media model, despite its efforts to break away. Relying on the time and talents of artists and writers willing to work on spec is, after all, nothing new, and in this respect hitRECord is perhaps not quite as progressive as its founders believe it to be. That said, with the publication of its first book, hitRECord has accomplished something remarkable and important for writers and artists of the internet age. Here is a highly developed platform for online collaboration, in which unknown writers and musicians can get involved in as many projects as they like, prove their talent, network with other users, and maybe get their own story or song edited or remixed and eventually published or released. The site affords creative and ambitious people a chance not only for exposure but also for monetary compensation; here in fact is the original promise of the Internet, only qualified and modified and limited -- and therefore within reach. It seems clear now, after a decade and a half of maturation, that the Internet will not in fact change everything about how we produce news and fiction and art. But it might change some things, and ambitious undertakings like hitRECord are giving us the first glimpses of how things might change and how we might be able to harness at least some of the Internet's immense reach and power, and at last put them to good use.
Lists, The Future of the Book

A Cheat Sheet for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

The New York Times highlighted the trend last year and it will no doubt be even bigger this year: when it comes to ebooks, what was once a day of rest from shopping is now a booming day for ebook sales. That's because when all those Kindles (selling a million a week), Nooks (sales up 85%), iPads, and other tablets get unwrapped, the first thing to do is to fire up and download a few books. Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a quarter of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. One in four books, incredible. So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going. For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2011. You'll notice that these aren't all that different from the overall Millions favorites. The big change this year is the emergence of the "Kindle Single" format, which offers long-form journalism and short stories at a bite-sized price point. Three of those lead our list. Interestingly, while those Singles are expanding what's available at lower price points, publishers are pushing the high end of the price range higher, focusing especially on some of the year's highest profile books, four of which land on our list despite going for (as of this writing) more than the magic $9.99 number. The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens ($1.99) The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett ($2.99) The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99) The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman ($9.99) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.99) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami ($14.99) The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides ($12.99) The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson ($12.99) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ($4.69) The Pale King by David Foster Wallace ($14.99) The Late American Novel edited by yours truly and Jeff Martin ($8.99) Other potentially useful ebook links: Editors' Picks Best of 2011 Top 100 Paid and Free Kindle Singles And in this fractured ebook landscape, you've also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the new IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don't forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years. Happy Reading!