Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Digitizing our World, One Book at a Time

Computerworld has an article this week about the University of California's agreement with Google to digitize the books in their libraries. The article is not a commentary, but a very straight-forward look at the contract between these two massive institutions - and they include a pdf of the contract itself. I won't lie to you - fascinating, this contract ain't.

But the tone is rather amazing - of the article and the contract. It's all cut-and-dry business as usual. There is no sentimental looks at writing, and sweating and slaving over the creation of these books, the ideas within these books. There's no romanticizing the excitement of finding books on shelves that are fascinating, of just scanning shelves for more, for books you've never heard of, for subject areas you wouldn't dare ask about as you know too little, but which really do interest you. I love the library, and I love books, and I rarely leave the Boston Public Library empty-handed. With my latest trip, I walked off with two books on Tennessee Williams - who saw that coming? I was looking for Armies of the Night by that old blowhard, Norman Mailer!

So back to the article and the digitizing - 'tis business. And some would argue that I could peruse "shelves," albeit virtual shelves, just as easily once Google creates and makes available its massive online library. But I return to my concern in putting books online - does it cheapen their value to make them virtual? Again, this isn't elitism. When something is on screen in front of you, it's less tangible inherently, it's less precious. You don't have that respect for the work like you do with a book - even if it's merely about presentation. A book sharing a screen with videogames, celebrity websites, endless and largely useless stores, and constant email spam is going to depreciate in value, and I don't care how used to screens the next generation is (mind you, I'm only 30, people), the venue lessens the thing itself.

If you go see a play in an old theatre, you hush up when it starts, and you pay attention - at least at first - to what's being said. When you see a play at an outdoor theatre, you might be distracted by the weather, and more likely to look around at other attendees. You're on the grass, where usually you might be having a picnic or lazing about, reading a book. It's casual, so you're likely to be a bit less respectful to the actors on stage.

When you can find a 1893 book while sitting in your underwear at home with a mallomar stuck to your table and your mom on the phone, and you're screaming at the dog not to go in the house, how respectful will you be of that 1893 book? Will you stop, slowly open it, take in the pages, the stray marks in it, the wear and tear, or will you view it quickly as a mere oddity and then shut the window? Will you become distracting by an IM blinking at the bottom of that same screen?

I don't want these books to fall apart from too much handling. But book production adds to a book itself, so to the people who think I'm clinging to a sinking ship, may I suggest you are dismissing an element of reading that might be only noted unconciously, but in fact increases one's enjoyment of reading, and publishing for that matter. My authors feel a thrill when they see a cover, get a proof of the jacket, and certainly when the bound book arrives. Telling them their book has gone live online would not achieve that sense of achievement, and could therefore lessen their motivation and the amount of work they put into their manuscript. And for that, we'd all suffer.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions

I hope to keep this up regularly as we move forward, so please pardon me as I in fact move backwards.

On June 5th of this year, Motoko Rich wrote an article in the NY Times about Mark Z. Danielewski's new novel, his second, entitled Only Revolutions. Like our good friend McKenzie Wark, Danielewski has thrown his work online, to the savage pack of readers anxious to sink their dripping fangs into his artistic achievement to make it, in some way, their own. But Danielewski is only allowing margin notes - these readers will not be changing plots, adding characters, or moving action from Cleveland to Toledo.

And in fact, by the end of this rather circuitous article, Danielewski returns to admit that he's making the book - the actual book - in such a way that the reader will have to turn it upside down every 8 pages to follow the action. This seems like he's just taunting those of us who insist on physical books, doesn't it?

Now having novelists use online technology to bridge the gap between writer and reader, artist and spectator, presents different issues than those that arise with someone like MacKenzie Wark. And generally, I have less of a problem with it. I feel stodgy resisting it - one novelist quoted in this Times piece, Vikram Chandra, uses the metaphor of some guarding the forts against barbarians at the gate, ready to take over. Don't resist. This seems extreme, though it rather fits the Kelly v. Updike debate very well. Updike was frustrated, cranky like a kid at Kelly's bullying, aggressive suggestion of putting the final nail in the book's coffin. And Updike is, of course, a novelist.

So the idea is the novelist, an artist with a medium, a concept of her or his art ending up in binding, with pages, with a cover and a title page and end papers and quotes on the back and... this is all sounding quite boring and staid. So you're a young novelist, and you think bigger, and you think these pages with jackets and quotes and page numbers are not going to cut it, and you imagine a story that leaps from webpage to billboard to free pamphlet to radio spot - this to me sounds pretty damn exciting! It brings to mind Shelley Jackson's short story, Skin, which turned into a project wherein each word - 2,095 total - would one by one be tattooed on volunteers' bodies. A friend of mine got a word, and I complimented him on his participation. It's fun and interesting and he's involved in this bigger artistic thing, but... I'll never read Skin, besides this one word. And if I do, how seriously will I consider its literary merits in lieu of this art project?

As an editor, I admit that I spend my days forcing work into a format, getting authors to fit more into convention in some ways. But is the resistance aimed at these experimental authors an issue of control? Are publishing professionals not prepared to be challenged by new formats? Are readers afraid of having to re-adjust to something that could be less convenient, because for other readers it's more convenient? Are other authors intimidated by their colleagues expressing themselves in more unique, technologically advanced ways, thereby forcing them to move into technology and possibly, away from their usual literary, even traditional work?

So that's where me and people like me are now, I think. You can experiment technologically, but at the risk of people focusing more on that than your work's literary merit. There are still paintings done on canvas - hell, there are even still life paintings, portraits, etc... So let Lisa Scottoline, an author of thrillers quoted in the Times, sit back while her publisher gives away a chapter of her book here or there. "Whether it's 'paper, pulp, gold rimmed or digitized, I don't think you can take away from the best stories,' she says." If this gal is happy to have her work chopped up and served in whatever style is en vogue, than I'm thinking her story isn't necessarily one of the best.

Is that wrong?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chronicle of Higher Ed, McKenzie Wark, and the Future of the Book

So the Chronicle had an interesting article - a whole interesting issue, actually, but let's start with the article - a few weeks ago (July 28th) about a professor of media and cultural studies at New School University, McKenzie Wark, who was putting his latest academic book fully online to let any old web user "peer review" it. The sub-headline read "Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations."

The article referenced the now infamous May 2006 New York Times article by Kevin Kelly, called "Scan This Book!," which was then discussed at BookExpo America (covered here by the Washington Post). I found Kelly's piece useful in unpacking the mentality of these kinds of futurists who foresee the end of books as we know them, and a future of "books" which are online, shared amongst readers who can make alterations, tags, updates, and offer feedback. Wikipedia-esque. I'm not against this, but I'm skeptical and a tad nervous when the idea is applied liberally to any and all books.

In this Chronicle piece, Professor Wark is living the dream. His whole book is online. "Each paragraph of Mr. Wark's book has its own webpage, and next to each of those paragraphs is a box where anyone can comment." Given that the book, entitled GAM3R 7H30RY, is about videogames, arguing "that popular culture increasingly casts life itself as a kind of game-where you're only truly a survivor if you can avoid being voted off the island," this format isn't that huge a stretch. But Wark goes on and on about how he's writing "low theory," and wants his book to be accessible to the masses - while hoping it gets published old-school-style - on paper and stuff - by the publisher of his last book, Harvard University Press. One extreme to the other, from cutting edge publishing online to stodgy publishing with an outfit funded by rich old white men guarding their money like it's the last bit of cash on God's green earth. But to each his own. MIT Press would be a bit better, but I'm sure he has his reasons.

I'm not waving the flag of John Updike, who responded to Kelly's NY Times piece with choice words in support of The Book - as in books in general, not the Bible per se. Updike claimed passionately that "books are intrinsic to our human identity." I work with the things everyday, and I'm still not that against a book like Wark's online in such a way. But I do take issue with the idea that any idiot with access to the interweb can offer useful critiques of a book of non-fiction. I'm far from an elitist, but I am an editor, and I don't understand how an author can truly believe we do not need standards. I don't think someone with a Ph.D. is better than me, and christ knows that I know from firsthand experience that the smartest people can be real assholes, but they are still, in their subject, smarter than me. And this is true if I read a book the week before in that subject. This is probably true if reading about the subject is a habit of mine. If you disagree, you're calling our entire academic institution into question. And if you're doing that as a professor, than you are in the wrong business, I'm afraid.

I am going to use this space to explore this issue further. I should state my politics upfront: I'm far left, power to the people, etc... I get frustrated by the way our culture has universally decided to feed the masses tripe, but I still am not ready to put everybody on an intellectual even playing field with no regard for scholarship. Getting education, reading thoroughly in a subject, is labor, and the person who has performed that labor should be given respect and a certain amount of authority.

More to come, and happy to hear responses!
I'm going to start blogging about all the media I've been collecting on the future of books - on paper or electronically. As a book editor and an avid reader, I'm fully invested in this debate and fascinated by the tone of it, the points raised, the personal declarations and the mix of politics from both sides. This is a debate - finally - that is not between conservatives and liberals, democrats and republicans, but rather amongst people who love to read, and trying to create extreme sides and launch attacks is futile. So where are we, what's in our future, and how quickly must we get there? Let's discuss.

I'm really hoping to post thoughts and disseminate information, but also find out from other people what is going on with publishing. I'd like to interact and gather information and debate this issue that, to me, is of the utmost relevance.