Thursday, June 11, 2009

Because Children Are Our Future

Dave Eggers is once again doing his whole smother-you-with-hip thing, where you start by saying, "oh, cool" and end by saying, "okay, okay, OKAY I GET IT!" I don't entirely blame him for this. His hipster credibility makes him a bit of an online media darling, and he's created this San Francisco media troop that throws him up on their shoulders any time he utters two words.

In this case, Stephen Elliot is hoisting him up via Elliot's smart new sit, the Rumpus. Elliot has a long Q&E with Eggers about his new non-fiction book, focused on a Muslim family living in New Orleans during and after Katrina. The interview also touches on Eggers recent I-heart-the-printed-word campaign:

Rumpus: You have a lot of optimism about print in general.

Eggers: Well, there are still a billion books sold every year. And there are about a billion newspapers printed every day. I understand when people are worried about aspects of the business, and as a small and always struggling publisher, we worry at McSweeney’s too, but there’s an element of doomsaying that’s just premature. The Kindle, for example, has a comparatively tiny portion of the overall book sales, but I have friends who already assume that new books won’t even be printed on paper in a year or two. It’s kind of extreme, and it ignores a fair bit of reality.

Rumpus: I know a lot of your optimism comes from your working with kids at the 826 centers.

Eggers: The students we serve at 826, by and large, just aren’t addicted to electronic media—not in the way we’re led to believe all kids are. Most of our students don’t have cellphones of their own, and they don’t have computers at home. So they come into 826, and they work with paper and pencil on their homework. Honestly, that’s about 80 percent of what we do. Even at the high-school level, the students we work with aren’t soaking in the Internet all the time. To some extent all the doom about the printed word is a class thing. Wealthier kids who can afford their own phones and computers are probably spending more time online and in some cases, less time with books, but the kids we work with are honestly pretty enamored of books and newspapers. It means a lot to them to have their work between two covers, an actual book that they can see on a shelf next to other books. There’s a mystique about the printed word. And the students who come into 826 every day really read. These middle schoolers have read everything. Judy Blume came into the center in San Francisco one day, and she was mobbed. Fifty kids swarmed her. They practically tackled her. Same thing with Daniel Handler, who writes the Lemony Snicket books. These are by and large kids whose parents immigrated here from Latin America, and English isn’t spoken at home. But they’ve read all thirteen Lemony Snicket books. So I have optimism about print because I see these kids and how much they love to read. And they work on our student newspapers and anthologies and a dozen other print projects. They really have a thing for print. And I do too. I fear sometimes we’re actually giving up too soon. We adults have to have faith. And we have to rededicate ourselves to examining what in any given issue of our daily papers is really speaking to anyone under 18. That’s a challenge. I was just in Chicago, and the Tribune there does all kinds of very interesting stuff to reach out to younger readers. It’s something that we all have to think about.

Rumpus: So you’re not looking at a post-paper world.

Eggers: My admittedly strange opinion is that we need to try harder with print. We can’t just give up on it. Inevitably there will be some loss of newspaper readership, but even that will stabilize. Not everyone wants all their news online. Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum. I guess that’s one of the things that’s always frustrating to hear, that the rise of the Internet means the death of print. There’s always this zero-sum way of painting any given industry or trend, while the reality will be more nuanced. I think newspapers that adjust a bit will survive and still do great work. But we do need to give people reasons to pay money for the physical object. The landscape right now does require that we in the print world try harder. We have to think of the things that print does best, and do those things better than ever before. We need to use the paper, maximize the physical product.

See what I mean? I'm down with him, I'm pleased to hear kids aren't all determined to read on screen only, I'm in agreement about newspapers, I'm growing skeptical of how in agreement I am, I have to stop reading.

Maybe it's me.

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