Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Future of the "Book"

There's a great video on the If:Book blog about from France on the future of reading, mainly about the next steps of digital readers. Click here and then click on the YouTube video Possible ou Probable. The dialogue is in French but it's not necessary to understand what's going on.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sherman Alexie on eReaders

It has been reported that Sherman Alexie made negative comments about the Kindle at the recent BookExpo but perhaps they were simply the asking of questions about the social and political nature of "book-like things" and the delivery systems technologists from the monks who invented the codex to Gutenberg to E Ink have wrought. Read his follow-up comments here. What's interesting is that you can't stop the movement of technology but that fear and anxiety emerge from the darkness ahead. Read Trithemius's In Praise of Scribes (1492). There have indeed been significant changes in the aesthetics of "delivery systems" and book culture over the past thousand years, which have always had an effect on the way books are read.

The question of why a $249 iPod is more acceptable than a $249 Kindle is an interesting one. It lies, to some extent, in financial priorities and issues of time and pastime. It also may lie in the difference between a book and a record/CD, which are currently old technologies. In the old days, when you bought a record, a cassette or CD, you then needed a player, so we got used to that. With an iPod, you simply have another player. With a book, when you bought the book, you had the capacity for an immediate experience, with no intermediate need. With an eReader (Kindle, Sony Reader, etc.), you do. What Alexie is showing us, clearly and directly, is that intermediacy has its consequences.

Monday, June 1, 2009

e-Rock, e-Paper, e-Scissors

E Ink, the people who brought you the electronic displays behind the Sony Reader and the Kindle, has been purchased by Prime View, the people who brought you e-paper. Click here for their predictions on the future market for electronic reading. To read more about e-paper, click here. Proving that C.P. Snow's two cultures retains validity, I can't make head or tails out of the explanation of e-paper on the Prime View site.

Here Comes the Book

Logos magazine continues to publish provocative and intelligent articles about the history of publishing the book. Click here for an article by Miha Kovak that discusses a history and projects a future for the codex-style book. It's a companion, in many ways, to Ruediger Wischenbart's article I posted last week.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ripping the Covers Off the Book

Dr. Luediger Wischenbart is in New York from Vienna for BookExpo, which gives me the opportunity to post a link to his interesting article on what constitutes a book. Click here for the .pdf.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Slow Reader

One of the pitfalls of working in the literary profession is that one is often required to read very quickly, even when the work itself requires slow reading. One of my remedies (and I have chosen that word specifically) to demon speed has been to read Proust, whose clauses need to be read slowly if one is to make any sense of the sentences. Reading needfully slow literature fast is a bad habit, but such "speed-reading" may also end up as a boon to the reading of new types of short-form literature.

Now along comes the digital Evelyn Wood. Those of you under the age of 50 may not know that Evelyn Wood's speed-reading course was made popular in the early 1960s because John F. Kennedy, Jr. boasted of reading at 1,200 words a minute after taking the course. If memory serves, after Evelyn Wood training, one read down the middle of the page, accumulating an understanding of key words and phrases. The claim was that comprehension did not suffer. Woody Allen once said, "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia."

Researchers writing for the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have developed a method of highlighting thematically in digital texts so that one can skim, since, they say, that is how people "read" now anyway, cherry-picking only the ripe key words and phrases. Click here for a link to the PARC reference and the abstract. The article, by the way, is "controlled", meaning that you either need to take out a membership or purchase it.

P.S. By the way, this year is the centennial of Evelyn Wood's birth.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Elisabeth Sifton on The Book

Elisabeth Sifton's thoughtful memoir/essay on the future of the book in The Nation.


Monday, May 4, 2009

New Reading

Spent part of the weekend looking at various (fairly) new types of publications. New Directions is bringing out the works of B.S. Johnson and The Unfortunates is quite an interesting experiment, a sort of boxed-set of sequence-able book pieces. It seems to have led to some of the electronic work that easily allows for fiction without fixed sequence, such as Caitlin Fisher's These Waves of Girls, "published" in 2001, which is fun but I would love to see more mature work in electronic format. This stuff will work well on e-readers and I would even love to see an iPod-like "shuffle" so that the work itself will change with each reading, while the reader has no control over the sequence. A few of the other finalists in the Electronic Literature Organization's 2001 prize program are also interesting. For conservative newbies like me writers like Michael Joyce and Shelley Jackson are revelations.

Monday, April 27, 2009

“…done for, there was no way back, the end was here, the absolute end…”

--Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych

A few posts back I noted that I thought reading on a tablet reader would change the way immersive literature would be read, that traditional, plot-driven literature would miss the metaphor and illusion of “edge-to-interior, interior-to-edge” the printed book provides. As book-readers, we appreciate traditional books because we read them in their printed versions. But tablet-style readers will “flatten” our ability to immerse ourselves. On the one hand, this will open new ways of writing. In English, Beckett and Burroughs will most likely emerge as the godfathers of literary abstraction, Markson, Shields, and Danielewski its avatars.

But as they read in digital format, which emphasizes surface-tension, will the next generation of screen-readers understand the deeply running waters of previous literary generations? Will they be able to appreciate it unless they read in the delivery format for which it was intended? As I wandered through the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, and stared at a Rothko painting in the Smith College Museum of Art yesterday, I was struck by how the former could rail against the frame and the latter ignore it. If you removed Bonnard’s late paintings from their frames, would they retain a strength built on the violence against the frame? If you add a baroque frame to Rothko, will he retain his surface tension? If you force Tolstoy into a different delivery method—an uncomfortable frame—will the reader understand what made past generations appreciate him? Will holding plastic by the fingertips provide the illusion that life is lived within the cover, which feign a natural environment full of transcendental emotion? As we approach the composition of new literature, “life lived within these covers” will not matter, because the literature itself will be abstract. The question is will the illusion of the past be unattainable in the delivery methods of the future?

The next generation of machines may have the ability to create illusion, as did the printed book, or enhance abstraction, the way the current ones do. Or perhaps accomplish both. That way they won’t kill Tolstoy for future generations, and it won’t really be the absolute end.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Thinking about Future Reading

A few books that discuss topics in the future of reading, though without spending much time directly on them:

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody. Penguin Press. Shirky became a Twitter darling last week during his apprearance at SXSW. I assume the title refers to Joyce's Finnegans Wake, but I don't remember a direct reference in the book itself. Maybe I missed it or maybe he purposely omitted it. The sections (not whole chapters) that refer to the post-Gutenberg years and the lessons learned for our own age are particularly interesting about the future of reading.

Cory Doctorow, Content. Tachyon Publications. The Zen-master of the e-reading revolution. His chapters on the e-book are fun and informative. He notes the differences between printed books and e-books from the point of view of marketing, sales, copyright, etc. but he falls short of a clear look at discussing in what ways the technological change might affect the reader and the writer. And the annoying way of simply printing the [references] to digital hotlinks I could do without.

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur. Doubleday. I agree with very little of what he writes compared to the above two writers. Some of his "facts" (in fact) are not proveable. For example, he describes Wikipedia's content as "unreliable" and contrasts its amateur writers and editors to the "100 Nobel Prize winners and 4,000 expert contributors" to the Britannica's site. Full disclosure: I co-edited an encyclopedia a few years ago, and when it comes to encyclopedias and accuracy, I doubt Keen has ever edited one. He then quotes Lewis Mumford, completely out of context, to support his claims, when he should be sampling both encyclopedias (as Stacy Schiff did for her New Yorker article a couple of years ago). I can imagine that when he and Shirky get together they come to blows.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Saul Bellow and the eReader

What would Saul Bellow have thought of the eReader? Following is an excerpt from his The Adventures of Augie March:

And I lay down and finished the Five-Foot Shelf Einhorn had given me, the fire and water-spotted books I had kept in the original box. They had a somewhat choky smell. So if Ulysses went down to hell or there were conflagrations in Rome or London or men and women lusted as they did in St. Paul, I could breathe an odor that supplemented the reading.

Question: what does reading smell like? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it sound like?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reading the Literary in America

The awarding last week of the best translated book to be published in the United States in the past year raises questions about the change of interest in the U.S. in “pure” cultural products from beyond its boundaries. Two developments in the past few years have made an impact: the first was PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival, which focused several days of attention on writers from around the world, who come to New York to participate in readings, panel discussions and interviews with their American counterparts. Thousands upon thousands of people attend these 60-odd events that take place.

The second is Chad Post’s Three Percent (named after the fraction of literary titles represented by translation, although Chad makes a good case that the number is actually much lower, and closer to about .5%). Chad gathers as many translated titles as he can on his web site and blog to try to get the word out to a broad audience. His recent awarding of a prize for the best translated book takes publicity one step further.

I was involved in a very small dust-up last fall with the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which took place solely in digital news, after he said that it would be difficult for an American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Americans are too isolated and ignorant of world literatures. I don’t have to go into my reasons here for thinking that a stupid statement, but I would like to examine a bit why Americans (in general) do not read translated literary books.

First, let’s admit that Americans don’t read many literary books at all, translated or not. The New York Times bestseller list—the old one, which listed only 10 or 15 books—in the 1960s might have boasted several highly regarded literary authors, which is generally not the case today. Americans for the most part read for entertainment, and sometimes enchantment (to use Nabokov’s descriptor), but rarely for the erotic intensity of wordplay itself. The erotics of reading or, as novelist Christopher Sorrentino once described it to me, the ecstatic of reading, has never been widespread, but it seems to be even less so nowadays, particularly in the adult world. I can’t tell you how many adults I meet nowadays who tell me their favorite book is something I would classify as a young adult novel. The winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature far outsells the Fiction winner. Cormac McCarthy’s “young adult novel”, as one literary blogger described The Road to me, far, far outsold any of his previous novels for adults.

In reading Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity recently, her chapter on the narrative imagination focused for the most part on older novels as helpmeets for the cultivation of humanistic principles (Dickens, Ellison). Yet the novel of abstraction, such as Beckett’s trilogy, and refraction, such as those of Carole Maso or David Markson, finds only a tiny audience. Two million people a year will go to the Museum of Modern Art and view abstraction. Why does text suffer from the burden of verisimilitude?

I went to the New York Comic Convention a couple of weeks ago. I arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday, and had to cajole my way in because it was sold out. Sold out? My daughter, aged seventeen, went with me, dressed as Ragged Robin from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Lots of other people dressed as their favorite characters. The fantastic is in, especially among younger people who grew up with the fantastic and the commercial. Story is in, simplicity is in (obvious good versus obvious evil, even when the comic book characters are flawed), manic Manicheanism. The novel of meaning is so…yesterday.

The literary community needs more excitement. When was the last time you saw a novelist of the late night shows? Remember when Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Mary McCarthy would appear on The Tonight Show because they were witty and charming and intelligent and outrageous? Who are their counterparts now, and when will they bring us in from the cold? Americans need that in their authors. One part artist, one part philosopher, one part harlequin. Here’s my suggestion: I think Jonathan Franzen should marry Paris Hilton, the way Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. It doesn’t have to last long, but it would give a few writers the opportunity to appear in photographs like the one with Monroe, Miller, Signoret, and Montand at dinner in the 1950s. Kiran Desai and Brad Pitt. Achy Obejas and Ellen Degeneres. Like Bernard-Henri Levy and Arielle Dombasle. I think I’m onto a new program here, something I could coordinate. I wonder if I can get a grant.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The American Republic of Letters, Part Two

Politics and power have always played a role in literary reading. Who reads what and why is not always based on taste, as it has for the most part been in our bourgie era. In various times and epochs it has also been influenced by education, political censorship, sexism, money, marketing, religion, ambition, and technological advances. The medieval Catholic Church was one of the most obvious lords of literature, both restricting and preserving great books. Its influence into the Spanish Inquisitional era is very well documented in Irving Leonard’s Books of the Brave (out of print, I believe), where the Spanish administration in Madrid and Seville could control every book sent to its colonies, until it exported printing presses, and lost control both of ideas and then the colonial states themselves. Contrast that with the privately run English colonies, where control was exercised by local ministers, if at all.

Our own era is witnessing a vast shift in power and influence in literary reading, and though we have often bantered and argued about who influences our reading habits and why, certainly those we considered primary influencers are trying desperately to “re-tool” in order to retain their influence as it slowly slips away.

For about two decades we have watched enrollment in college English courses deteriorate and the number of English majors decline (viz., Andrew Delbanco’s article The Decline and Fall of Literature in “The New York Review of Books”, November 14, 1999), done-in by a variety of forces, including a willful need for obscurantism and even irrelevance; the number of independent booksellers decrease by two-thirds, picked off one-by-one first by superstores and then by the internet; and newspaper book reviews have all but disappeared, killed by the interplay of digitization and cultural anarchy (the idealistic kind, not the chaotic kind).

Without flogging the trope that “as moveable type, blah, blah, blah”, the advent of digitization is changing the power structure of who reads what, in many, many ways, including everything from creation to consumption, and the new “players” include the great digitizing companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, eInk, and a host of bit players who create apps, blogs, and other things that appeal to recently created patterns of consumption. But they are not the only power players. Corporate copyright fiefdoms are in the midst of creating the Celestial Jukebox. If libraries of the future have no right to lend information, the copyright-holders—often large corporate entities—will control what we read, and even re-read. Of course, the opposite may happen, and anarchy-oriented organizations may figure out a way to yippify the literary universe. Small presses linger on the margins, wondering if the new structure will bring them more influence. In any case, the old power structure is changing, and the American Republic of Letters is in the process of creating a new booky politic.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Flat Screen Novels

Today’s introduction of the second wave of the Kindle brings to mind certain aspects of reading on a screen versus reading on a traditional book.

According to Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, the physical layout of the book as we know it supposedly evolved around the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, Manguel attributes the folded nature of the book to Caesar himself, who found it difficult to carried rolled scrolls on his person as he was riding into battle with the Gauls. The opening of The Gallic Wars, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All Gaul is divided into three parts) gave rise to the folding of a large page, or printer’s sheet, into four parts (which resulted in the quarto), eight parts (the ubiquitous octavo), and the mostly outmoded twelve parts (the duodecimo). This lasted about 2,000 years, until Sony and Amazon, “taking a page” out of Caesar’s book (where will that expression go, I wonder), decided that the most comfortable way to read would be on a tablet, as the middle-easterners did before the scroll, a single, smooth, untextured screen, a rectangle of limited size. (By the way, I’m kidding about Gaul being divided into three parts as having given Caesar the idea for the book).

One difference between the screen and the printed book is that the former has no depth while the latter has the illusion of depth. When you read an e-book, you read from edge to edge. When you read a printed book, you read from the edge to the interior, and then the interior to the edge, again and again and again, a metaphor of immersion (unlike edge to edge reading). And this is the case whether you read left to right or right to left (or even up and down, as do the Chinese, since the sequence of columns moves to the interior). The “frame of reference” becomes the center. The physical act focuses the reading experience.

Another difference is the lack of uniqueness for the book as an object. Even though you may be reading a Stephen King novel along with a million other people, the object in your hand is a unique item. Sure, your own Kindle is unique, but the cover to the book never changes, and again flattens the reading experience from a unique physical experience with unique content to the same physical experience with unique content.

Is this bad? Only to those of us who grew up with the metaphor of depth and immersion. I find it interesting that, as cinema explores the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen and virtual realities re-define artificial “reality”, the e-book is providing the means to move in the opposite direction, away from representation. It’s also interesting that, even though King today promoted the Kindle at the Amazon press conference, I believe that his story-based work will actually be less successful as a reading experience (aesthetically) in e-book format, simply because it is figurative and the e-book is not.

From time to time, I read books on my iTouch, and I find it most successful as an experience when I read material written for the screen, not things written for the printed book. Several posts back I suggested that Amazon give 100 Kindles to writers around the country and see what they come up with when they approach writing for the screen, writers of all different stripes, from Bruce Sterling to Nora Roberts to Mark Danielewski. Then we might see reading on the Kindle as a new aesthetic experience. Right now it's just a convenience.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Future of the Literary Past

Rumors abound that backlists have seen their day, paralleled by diminishing influence in the professoriat. If that is true, the future will mean fewer classics, read mainly by mandarins, oddballs and nerds, and the canon will ossify even more than it has. I doubt this will be the case. Digital downloads (despite DRM; see yesterday’s post) and on-demand printing will ensure consistent availability. DVDs of films made from Jane Austen’s work will furnish a clever marketing tool (viz, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road). Classic authors are as much “brands” as contemporary best-selling authors.

However, the number of authors and works from the retreating past for the most part decreases as the dates grow distant. Imagine a funnel turned on its side and seen in profile. Who reads Epictetus, for example (despite its importance to Philip Lopate’s recent novella “The Stoic’s Marriage” from Two Marriages), even though he was a schoolboy staple in the late nineteenth century? There is no room for him now that we have Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. At the same time, the mandarins, oddballs and nerds keep re-discovering and printing, hoping against hope that even 1,000 people will read such wonderful works as The Gallery by John Horne Burns.

Perhaps this is where the famous—and now discredited—long tail will have an effect, where not only the famous, but the eccentric (e.g., James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner) will find a readership of a couple of hundred a year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who Will Own American Literature?

Change has come rapidly to the business of American literature in the past thirty years: conglomerization, new delivery methods, the declining influence of the literature professor, restrictive copyright laws, etc. Of course, literature has always experienced external control over who reads what and why. Government censorship, commercial cost, the exigencies of marketing, the outrage of parents, the clergy, and the community continue in various forms around the world.

This creates a panorama one could call the American Republic of Letters (not in the nineteenth century sense of an exchange of correspondence). Portals of access have disappeared, while others have developed. Newspaper reviewers are ignored. Literary critics are invisible. Graphic novels, which are 95% image, are taking an increasing segment of the traditional “book” market, especially among the next generation to come of age. The publication of literary works drifts from large to small presses, which have significantly less power to publicize and market, at least for now. The bookstore wars have ended (for the most part), at least between the large and small bricks-and-mortar stores. In ten short years, sales have shifted to a struggle between distant and local purchasing. Government is unable to keep books away from almost anyone with a credit card. Copyright is becoming permanent, leading to angry exchanges between publishers and scholars. There is a real question whether public lending libraries will survive, not because they are not needed, but because book-lending will no longer be needed by enough people to make them a community priority. DRM (digital rights management, a code that may allow a copyrighted work to open only on the device for which it was purchased or solely to the user who purchased it) threatens one of the great grass-roots traditions in reading: the enthusiastic passing of books from one reader to another.

All this will affect the whys and wherefores of literary reading in the United States. It always has. What has also endured is the political wrangling that created reading opportunities. The small press "movement" is one. A backlash against American arrogance and insularity manifested in the lack of literary translation in the United States is another. The NEA's "The Big Read" is a third. Ownership rights.