23 March 2012

Of Books and E-Readers: A Debate

In which my friend, BH, and I debate the relative merits of e-reading, the potential death of real books, my antipathy toward technology, his antipathy-yet-embracement of technology, and lots of salient points about where books are headed in the 21st century and why that pisses/doesn't piss us off...

BH is a graduate student in literature at the University of Chicago, a writer, and one of the smartest people I've ever met. I am a budding Luddite who makes peace with technology on a daily basis so that I can do my job but wishes we could get back to the 1970s, when life was better because people were actually relating with each other instead of with projections and avatars.

It all started with this Facebook photo, and my one-word caption: "Ouch." 
Then, a few comments from friends who sympathized. And then:

HU: For the life of me, I can't understand why people want another screen in their lives.

BH: I didn't understand how anyone could want an e-reader, either...until I got an e-reader. Now I've got loads of 19th-century fiction for free from the good folks at Project Gutenberg. It has expanded my ability to study a large number of texts without spending loads of money on books, the royalties of which wouldn't go to the authors, but to a bunch of conglomerated publishing corporations. I say it with due reservation, but I no longer think they're the tablets of evil I once thought they were.

HU: So, wait, let me get this straight. They are naming a line of books that are NOT printed after Johannes Gutenberg, who was responsible for bringing words INTO print? So maybe he'll look the other way??

HU: That said, I appreciate access and cost reduction, especially for students. In NM, I struggle to find even basic stuff (like a 2006 Robert Lowell biography-geez!). But I can't imagine that Chicago doesn't have ginormous libraries and interlibrary loan capacity, as well as some drool-worthy used bookstores. I've heard it predicted that in the not so distant future, maybe 5-8 years, books will go the way of...paid employment for writers. Obviously, I struggle with both. And tangibility, one of my favorite things, we're losing a little more of every day in the favor of enriching the technology industry, which is all about creating problems we don't really have, then devising "solutions" that do little but make them rich and make us feel inadequate if we don't have the latest and greatest. Given that scholars have been around since the dawn of time, I guess I really don't buy that people need an e-reader to conduct serious research or have access to texts.

BH: I don't think for a second books are going away. I think that the worry about e-readers -- my worry, anyway -- was that it's an either/or situation. I no longer feel that way. My study is still floor-to-rafters with real, printed books, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Worrying that books will vanish has to me the same ring as painters worrying their art would disappear with the advent of photography. It's just another medium. And while Chicago has awesome libraries and access to anything and everything you could want (I'm using a first edition of TH Huxley's Ethics and Evolution for my thesis!), being able to instantly download any of the jillions of titles in the public domain for nothing is pretty exciting. I can make my marginal notes, underline like mad, and not have to worry about damaging a priceless volume or spend any money on my own copy.

As for Project Gutenberg, it was started in the 70's by the inventor of e-books as a way to get books out for free to anyone who wanted them. The original Gutenberg was driven by a desire to make money AND industrialize printing, not by a deep love of movable type. (He put scads of scribes out of business!) The guy who started Project Gutenberg has done it all open source and without making a dime, which I respect. (He died last year.) Unfortunately, they're bound by copyright, so there's no access to the Lowell bio you want -- that's still controlled by Norton or Faber & Faber or whomever pub bed it. But any of the 38,000 volumes they have can be read for nothing by anyone with a laptop or e-reader.

I agree that scholars have been around since the dawn of time, but a scholar today can do more than ever. Scholarship has moved from the exclusive domain of the elite, those who were aligned with the church or some other governing institution, and become something that anyone who can get to their public library can take part in, whether in bound volumes or, more likely, on the web.

I more or less agree that over-technologization can be pretty lousy, but I would hesitate to say that "the technology industry" is about creating solution for non-existent problems. It's too broad a brush. The internet's information aggregation, email, and democratization of publishing weren't overtly problems, but they have given anyone a voice and access to information, and were, by and large, not developed by industries but by thinkers who were driven by a desire to expand knowledge and make it more available. I can't argue with the basic idea behind what you're saying, but I also feel like I sometimes have to fight my traditionalism to take a genuinely open look at some of these things to see if they genuinely have merit before I discard them. E-readers offended my sense of ethics and aesthetics until I really understood their potential importance. Moreover, the sheer number of books -- many of which are utter garbage -- being published each year use an astonishing amount of natural resources. E-books, even counting the labor, chemicals, and electricity, use less.

I'm always going to love books most of all objects. I just don't find it useful anymore to poo-pooh tech on general principle. And I say all this with the requisite respect and affection for you, HU.  

HU: First of all, thank you for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. You have indeed given me points to consider (on a topic about which I am fairly close-minded), and that is always appreciated. AND I enjoy thinking about the photos you posted of your book collection, and imagining what a great time you must be having at U Chicago.

I sense we’ve both held similar sentiments and have drawn some different conclusions. I do believe that publishers will cease publication of paper books within our lifetimes—that’s already happening in certain areas. What tweaks me about this is that, as a crotchety old 80-year-old (as opposed to the currently crotchety __-year-old), I will be forced to adopt technology I don’t like if I want to read books at all. It’s kind of like what happened to the music industry: people who enjoyed the acoustic quality of vinyl got forced into buying new releases on CD because the industry was touting the technology as “better” than records. And then, as soon as everyone spent great amounts of money converting the record collection they’d been told was outmoded, what happens? The industry reintroduces titles on vinyl and hypes the heck out of it to get kids to think it’s cool. Which it of course always was. It was a giant manipulation, and we all drank the Kool-Aid because that’s all the grocery stores were selling. I believe it’s entirely plausible that the publishing industry is now pulling the same kind of antics, and books get tossed in the garbage or made into art projects or furniture, and then, after we’ve all become “modern” people with our Kindles, the industry will say, hey! You know what’s REALLY cool? Old-fashioned books! With bindings!

So I guess the good news takeaway is that books might NOT go extinct. But I do resent like hell the marketers’ attempting to take something as beloved and important as the book and turn it into “content” for yet another screen.

But my greater problem with the technology thing is that I think we’re losing our humanity. People spend increasingly greater times in their heads and on their screens, and we have fewer and fewer human connections. (I’m sure your mileage on this one varies, as you’re in school, and school life tends to have a lot more human connection than the workaday world.) And if we’re online most of the day, we’re relating with 2-D personas that are, frankly, to me a lot less interesting than real humans in 3-D. As with TV, the Internet is a drug, and we get addicted to interacting in the ways that we do online, so that when things in the real world don’t go down in the same fashion, it becomes maddening, and people tend to retreat to the predictability of the order they’ve created as a cybercitizen, where more is controllable. I won’t even get into the Neil Postman/D. Foster Wallace Infinite Jest/Amusing Ourselves to Death scenarios.

All I know is that I used to really enjoy my tangible life, with my tangible books and my tangible records and my tangible friends. And now the world feels a lot colder, cognitive, and abstract, in a way that I don’t find pleasant or relatable. AND I don’t really feel like I have a vote, as more and more of life is happening online, whether I like it or not. I guess I could go live off the grid, but even those folks have to get online to transact certain kinds of business. It’s just damned difficult to live as a Luddite in this day & age. (I’m currently reading a book about Internet marketeer turned “decorative hermit,” and this I find very compelling!) [The Bee-Loud Glade, by Steve Himmer]

Point well taken about Gutenberg and Proj. G., which I hadn’t realized was a nonprofit venture. Yes, of course, access to texts and knowledge is obviously a very positive thing. It would be nice not to have to go thru the trouble of requesting an interlibrary loan to get the Lowell book from my local librarian. But on the other hand, she has a really great smile (you’d like her), and it may be the only human contact I have all day, so maybe it’s not so onerous, you see? Maybe I’d rather have the one book and her smiling at me more than the 38,000 potential titles that overwhelm me by their sheer numbers and I don’t have the time to sort out and wade through in my day, which is mostly spent trying to get to the moment when I am AWAY from the EFFIN SCREEN!!

My other contention is that e-readers and the Web are like verbal beef grinders—they take a book that may have taken 10 years to research and vast of amounts of inspiration to create, and turn it into yet another piece of hamburger (aka “content”) that one consumes in a “feed.” And it becomes just like every other Internet experience, without the specialness that a discrete entity like a book seems to provide de facto. Maybe this is just an illusion my mind hasn’t quite assimilated, but it feels true. While I enjoy reading any number of articles online, it is a distinctly different experience than reading a book, and seems to go down like cotton candy, whereas a book (well, the kinds I choose to read, anyway) have a more substantive feel. And I don’t know if that would be the case if I had a pile of words sitting before me on an e-reader.

I both appreciate and hate the democritization of media. I absolutely loved my position as “gatekeeper” (aka editor), and the Internet has relegated that job to part of the evil, hierarchical past. I mostly feel like a cow put out to pasture, as everyone is a “writer” these days, because they can text and blog, and despite the fact that we all feel overwhelmed with too much information, the job of an editor is now maligned and not paid for. That is a whole ‘nother topic.

I completely agree that there’s way too much verbal spewage that somehow gets bound and printed, when it should just be bound and gagged. And I do believe that for people who insist on reading genre fiction, the e-reader probably makes sense because they’re reading merely to escape into the commodity of story, which is roughly the same as having a few beers after work at the bar, and is thus, highly disposable and shouldn’t require the blood of trees to deliver its 2 hours’ worth of impact.

Always interested to hear your thoughts, BH… And, as ever, I appreciate and reciprocate the respect & affection.

16 March 2012

Homeless Street Art in Cardboard

Homeless Sweet Homeless 2 - Pandaphobia
Pandaphobia is Roberth Fearon, an American artist living in Sweden, who made this set out of cardboard and placed it in an alley near his home.

I particularly like this image by Michael Aaron Williams, which he posed in Malta. Despite his lifelike appearance, this little boy is actually a cardboard cutout.  Williams routinely creates images of the homeless out of cardboard and places them in a street context. He welcomes people to pick up these figures and "adopt" them by taking them home, which many people have done.
Another stunning figure/setting from Williams. The Knoxville, TN native states, "My street art is purposely made fragile, just like the people that it represents," he says. "It is drawn or painted on the cardboard and is then attached to the wall with high tack mounting tape. This allows the piece to be taken off the wall by any passerby and put up in their home. This way, the piece survives or otherwise they would be destroyed by the harsh environment on the streets. So, in a way, it is an analogy for the homeless and street children. If we do nothing, then they too will be left on the streets and cease to exist."

14 March 2012

Want to Be an Artist in NYC? Move to SoHopeless

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Skull)
In the early '80s, just about everyone I knew wanted to be an artist in NYC. It was cliche, de rigeur, and a la mode all in one. Of course, most of us lived about 20 minutes away, so running across the GWB wasn't a huge leap. But back then it also seemed feasible. People were doing it, often in grand style. Look at Basquiat, Schnabel, Haring. There was art to be made, and even money to be made as an artist. Obviously not for the many, but for the few, and for most of my friends, those were good enough odds. But as journalist Christopher Ketcham points out in "Gilding the Big Apple" (March/April 2012 Utne ReaderOrion), http://www.utne.com/politics/income-inequality-zm0z12mazwar.aspx, NYC's circa 2012 demographic no longer holds much room for those willing to trade "salad days" for pursuing creative dreams. NYC's population has radically changed, and for these F-the-poor alterations, we can tip our threadbare hats to the One Percenters.

Ketcham's fascinating statistics include one that made my blood boil: 11% of NYC's population (~900,000) live in "deep poverty," earning $10,500 for a family of 4. I have no idea how ONE person can survive on that salary in NY, forget 4, forget nearly a million. In contrast, the average One Percenter household earns that much for a single day's "work" (72-point quotes there). These are of course the finance industry suits, who do nothing but shift money around without designing, building, or selling anything at all, as their predecessors felt at least occasionally compelled to do. A vampirized state that has taken down the masses for the solipsistic pleasures of a few. The net result is a near-cultural genocide, as the bright, talented, and creative are left by the roadside, having to struggle so hard to earn a living that there's neither the time nor space to give the world art.
Soho loft of artists Bill and Yvonne Tarr circa 1970
(Photo: John Dominis/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Ketcham's article is well worth reading not only for its ghastly stats, but also for historical perspective on the city (which has endured this kind of ugliness before) and where it's ended up today: a place where artists, intellectuals, and sundry creatives can no longer afford to live and work. A city where the cast of Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids never could have honed their craft. A locus of metaphor for early 21st century American values.

A quote:

" 'If you want to know what's really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money,' writes author Jaron Lanier. 'If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artist, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless... Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising." No surprise then that the most lucrative 'creative' jobs in New York for the 'aggregating' of 'content' are not in journalism but in corporate media, advertising, and marketing--the machines of manipulation and deceit."

The Lanier quote is from a fascinating sounding book entitled You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Buy from your local independent bookstore, as an act of rebellion.

If you do feel inclined to order from Amazon, may I suggest reading this Mother Jones cover story first?
It's the kind of real journalism that seldom is seen anymore: Mac McClelland's firsthand reportage about how online retailers submerge their warehouse workers in Dante-esque Infernos in the name of offering you free! lightning-fast! shipping.

A Favorite Picture of Ma Mère

I was digging around in some old Kodachrome slides that my dad took during the '50s and '60s, and found this one of my mom on vacation in the Adirondacks. Lois did play piano, so this wasn't a fake pose, and held her hands this particular way when playing--very gentle. One thing I really like about the photo is that the piano looks like it's sitting in the outdoors and she just sauntered through the woods and happened to find it. Which would have been just the kind of whimsical experience Lois would have had....

Years later, my mom bought a piano that resembled this one for my 9th birthday, and I became a serious piano student. One of the best parts of my childhood.

07 March 2012

Franzen on the Unspeakable Irritation That is Facebook... & Twitter

On Facebook:"We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don't have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It's all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

-The New York Times, Op-Ed, 5.28.11 

And, on Twitter:
"Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. It's hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It's like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it's like writing a novel without the letter 'P'… It's the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves."

-Tulane University address, 3.5.12

Keep heaping on that scorn, Jon. We love it!