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The future of reading / A reading list

I love read­ing, and I've been think­ing a lot about how tech­nol­o­gy is affect­ing the way that we read now and in the future. I keep think­ing about some­thing Sven Birk­erts said in a 1998 inter­view with Harpers: "If you touch all parts of the globe, you can't do that and then turn around and look at your wife in the same way." [PDF] Of course, one could be turn around and look at one's wife in a more informed, more edu­cat­ed way, but that's not the way he sees it. I share this anx­i­ety: I love read­ing the New York Times on my phone, but I can't help but sense that some­thing will be lost if all print­ed mat­ter moves in this direction. 

My bookcaseThis is the top shelf on one of our book cas­es. It's com­fort­ing to have the books sit­ting there; they're like a ver­sion of myself, sit­ting on a shelf, dis­as­sem­bled and re-arrangeable.

In August 1995, Harpers Mag­a­zine con­duct­ed a round table dis­cus­sion with Wired's Kevin Kel­ly, author Sven Birk­erts, the Well's John Per­ry Bar­low, and Mark Slou­ka. The results were con­densed in the mag­a­zine [PDF], and the con­ver­sa­tion out­lines the two ide­olo­gies that con­tin­ue to con­verse today: Those who believe that the paper incar­na­tion of the book is an irre­place­able are­na for the deliv­ery of its con­tent, and those who don't. Birk­erts dis­cuss­es the for­mer in his 1995 book, The Guten­berg Ele­gies: The Fate of Read­ing in an Elec­tron­ic Age. In 2004, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts sent a shot across the bow in a paper called "Read­ing at Risk," [PDF]. The researchers sur­veyed 17,000 peo­ple, and they con­clud­ed that the future of lit­er­ary read­ing is bleak: "Lit­er­ary read­ing in Amer­i­ca is not only declin­ing rapid­ly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accel­er­at­ed, espe­cial­ly among the young."Still, the total num­ber of books sold con­tin­ues to rise, so is the future real­ly that bleak? The NEA thinks so. It released a fol­low-on to Read­ing at Risk called "To Read or Not To Read." This study focus­es on young read­ers, and links the decline in read­ing to "civic, social and eco­nom­ic" risks.Last spring, Nicholas Carr dis­cussed Google's effect on lit­er­ary read­ing in the Atlantic, provoca­tive­ly titled "Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid." [I dis­cussed this in a blog post at the Coop­er Jour­nal called "Dumb is the new smart"]. In it, he inter­views a blog­ger who con­fess­es the following:

"I can't read War and Peace anymore,†he admit­ted. "I've lost the abil­i­ty to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four para­graphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."

The arti­cle also sparked a dis­cus­sion on, col­lect­ed in a forum called "Your Brain Online." It's got a lot of inter­est­ing stuff from folks like Kevin Kel­ly, Dan­ny Hillis and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Every­body, who thinks that the "unprece­dent­ed abun­dance" of the web will func­tion to break the vise-grip of the "lit­er­ary world" on culture: 

It's not just because of the web — no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so inter­est­ing. This obser­va­tion is no less sac­ri­le­gious for being true. The read­ing pub­lic has increas­ing­ly decid­ed that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actu­al­ly worth the time it takes to read it, but that process start­ed long before the inter­net became main­stream … The threat isn't that peo­ple will stop read­ing War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that peo­ple will stop gen­u­flect­ing to the idea of read­ing War and Peace.

Ursu­la Le Guin dis­putes the notion that peo­ple have ever read War and Peace. (Well, maybe.) 

Self-sat­is­fac­tion with the inabil­i­ty to remain con­scious when faced with print­ed mat­ter seems ques­tion­able. But I also want to ques­tion the assump­tion — whether gloomy or faint­ly gloat­ing — that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many peo­ple ever did read them. Why should we think every­body ought to now?

The title of her recent Harper's essay pret­ty well sums up her posi­tion: "Notes on the alleged decline of read­ing." It roars through the var­i­ous aspects of the state of read­ing and pub­lish­ing, quick­ly turn­ing into a ring­ing indict­ment of cor­po­rate publishers:

The social qual­i­ty of lit­er­a­ture is still vis­i­ble in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of best­sellers. Pub­lish­ers get away with mak­ing bor­ing, baloney-mill nov­els into best­sellers via mere P.R. because peo­ple need best­sellers. It is not a lit­er­ary need. It is a social need. We want books every­body is read­ing (and nobody fin­ish­es) so we can talk about them.

On that social note

I was just look­ing at my beat-up copy of "The Dhar­ma Bums," and I felt a sort Chris Matthews-esque tin­gle. I bought it dur­ing high school at Rainy Day Books in Fair­way, Kansas, and it sparked my fas­ci­na­tion with the West Coast, years before I ever trav­eled here. Would I ever read it again? Prob­a­bly not. In fact, just now, I could bare­ly read even a cou­ple of pages with­out feel­ing like Ker­ouac was on auto-pilot. But I like the idea that my book­shelf is a kind of exter­nal­iza­tion of myself, a col­lec­tion of impor­tant influ­ences and expres­sions. The future of my books appears to be not so dif­fer­ent than the present: A com­bi­na­tion of tal­is­mans, objects of beau­ty, and points of reference.On the sub­ject of ref­er­ence, in (wait for it) a Harper's essay called ""A Defense of the Book," William Gass talks about the plea­sures of not hav­ing the world at your fin­ger­tips:

I have rarely paged through one of my dic­tio­nar­ies (a decent house­hold will have a dozen) with­out my eye light­ing, along the way, on words more beau­ti­ful than a found fall leaf, on def­i­n­i­tions odd­er than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releas­ing hor­mone or, bare­ly, above it — what? — gombeen — which turns out to be Irish for usury.

And holy crap, there's a whole lot more Gass at Tun­nel­ing. Arti­cles, links, thoughts. I love the Internet.

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Futures / Literary books, small presses, & technology

Last week­end, I had an unlike­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty: I was invit­ed to sit on a pan­el that dis­cussed the future of small lit­er­ary press­es, non-prof­it pub­lish­ing, and — in gen­er­al — books that took place at Cof­fee House Press in Min­neapo­lis. I love books, read­ing, and non-cor­po­rate media, so I jumped at the chance to talk about this stuff in pub­lic. You may ask: Why me? I have a per­son on the inside who knows that I like to talk.1 My fel­low pan­elists were a murderer's row of pub­lish­ing insight. Rick Simon­son is the co-founder of Cop­per Canyon Press and a book buy­er at the Elliott Bay Book Com­pa­ny in Seat­tle; Richard Nash is the pub­lish­er of Soft Skull Press; Patri­cia Waki­da runs Wasabi Press; and, Michael Cof­fey is the Man­ag­ing Edi­tor at Publisher's Week­ly (and the author of an excel­lent base­ball book, 27 Men Out).When we got start­ed, I sus­pect­ed I'd been tossed in a shark tank wear­ing a meat neck­lace. I found myself rat­tling on about things in my frame of ref­er­ence — tech­nol­o­gy, social media, iPhones, Kin­dles, stuff want­i­ng to be free — and I wor­ried that all of it was sim­ply chum­ming the waters for my fel­low pan­elists who (a) know a lot about pub­lish­ing, and (b) clear­ly rec­og­nized that their busi­ness mod­els are being erod­ed by tech­nolo­gies that offer new ways to read (i.e., every­thing with a screen) and sup­ply chain dis­in­ter­me­di­a­tion, i.e. Ama­zon.

Side note: The weather was beautiful

Flickr photoWhen­ev­er I take a pic­ture of him, Fish (i.e., Chris Fis­chbach of Cof­fee House) tells me: "I bet­ter not see this on the Inter­net." But I just had to take this one while he and Katie (of Gray­wolf and New York Times fame) took me on an excel­lent walk along the Mis­sis­sip­pi just before win­ter arrived.

As it turned out, we had a series of pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions. My col­leagues and the audi­ence were keen to know about how com­pa­nies go about deter­min­ing the right way to con­ceive tech­no­log­i­cal prod­ucts, and to imple­ment them appro­pri­ate­ly. Mean­while, I learned a lot about small press­es, pub­lish­ing, and the ways that edi­tors at lit­er­ary press­es think about their work. Allan Korn­blum, the founder of Cof­fee House Press, saw him­self as "the inher­i­tor of the Maxwell Perkins tra­di­tion" in cre­at­ing deep and last­ing rela­tion­ships with artists, sup­port­ing them and pro­vid­ing a con­sis­tent venue for pub­li­ca­tion. Fish said that he want­ed "to cre­ate art objects that last." Both of those goals make a lot of sense to me, and they seem like a firm foun­da­tion for a busi­ness in transition.

So, what is the future of reading, anyway?

I'm going to put togeth­er anoth­er post about my thoughts on this top­ic, and in the mean­time I'm going to be digest­ing some of the work that my fel­low pan­elists ref­er­enced dur­ing our dis­cus­sions; this list includes Ursu­la Le Guin's "Notes on the alleged decline of read­ing" that I saw in Patricia's pile of notes; Michael men­tioned Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Econ­o­my in mak­ing a com­par­i­son between region­al lit­er­a­ture and a larg­er move­ment toward region­al and local economies; Richard spoke a cou­ple of times about lit­er­ary sub­scrip­tion pro­grams, such as Soft Skull's annu­al edi­tion, and Powell's indiespens­able list. 1 I was there because my friend Fish (the senior edi­tor at Cof­fee House Press) thought that my expe­ri­ence with tech­nol­o­gy and online prod­uct strat­e­gy would com­ple­ment the deep exper­tise of the small press lumi­nar­ies on the pan­el. Or per­haps he just want­ed to see what hap­pened when I said the words "Kin­dle" and "free" around Michael Cof­fey. In the end, there would be no way of know­ing.