Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book Futures and Fantasies

From A&L Daily (26 Feb 2011):
Sure, the future of publishing looks grim. But not entirely. New literary objects are taking root in the digital world... more [Paul Duguid in The Times Literary Supplement] ... more [Virginia Hefferman in The New York Times Magazine].
In the first of these articles, Duguid reviews John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture (about trade publishing), Irving Louis Horowitz's Publishing as a Vocation (about scholarly publishing), and Jacques Bonnet’s The Phantoms on the Bookshelves (about a “bibliomaniac”). Duguid concludes:
Though the form may change, the book chain itself is likely to continue to endure. For ultimately, it is a communication chain, and it is hard to believe our garrulous species will cease trying to communicate. We cannot communicate without a medium, and as new media develop, new authors will push at their edges to experiment in the sort of unplanned possibilities that make the best books. You cannot have art, as William Morris argued, without resistance in the material. Books have provided splendid resistance. But as long as there is a medium, there will always be resistance, and, with luck, art. So while we codex-bound bibliophiles may look with gloom on the future, new cultural forms worthy of the name “book” will develop in the digital world.
A few weeks ago in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik offered a typology for all the “books explaining why books no longer matter”:
call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.
In something of a never-better moment, Gopnik suggests that the Hogwarts library would have disappeared if the Harry Potter series had appeared after the launch of Google. But see, below, Hedwig delivering a parchment letter. Below that is the Book of Pythia from the 21st-century version of Battlestar Galactica. (Both from exhibitions in Seattle, November 2010.)