1 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I do have one final, semi-serious Future of Reading post to write, but I’m caught up in a few other things and will have to put that off until tomorrow . . .

Now although libraries weren’t a huge part of the discussion at the RIT conference the other week, they obviously play a huge role in the future of book culture. I know that I fell in love with reading thanks to my local library (we didn’t have a bookstore in Essexville, Michigan, so thank god, thank god) and loved scanning all the various shelves for hidden treasures. Unfortunately, librarians don’t get nearly enough love when we talk about the future of reading, books, book culture, etc., despite the fact that libraries have been dealing with readership and community issues for years now.

There were a couple news pieces earlier this week related to libraries that I think are worth pointing out. First off, over at Art Beat, the blog for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Jeffrey Brown continued his “Next Chapter of Reading” series by talking with Camila Alire, president of the American Library Association, which held it’s annual conference this past weekend (more on that in a minute):

Camila Alire: [. . .] I’ve talked to library school students all over the country this year and I tell them this is the most exciting time to be going to library school, to be coming into the profession, because these students are tech savvy, you know, they know everything about library 2.0. They know everything about the different mobile devices and all their capabilities. They know that they can just click on a mobile device and get to specific information. They come in, they are part of the solution in terms of thinking broadly and thinking ahead and thinking how we could incorporate the best technological advances in our libraries. Our public libraries listen to their communities. They do community analysis, and when they hear the community say we want more access, you know, 24/7 access. We want more electronic databases; they try to respond.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, you know, you’ve talked about new devices, you talked about the e-book, something we’ve talked a lot about here is the future of the book, the form it will take, who reads it and what do they read on and how do they read. How much is that discussion affecting your world as you think about the library of the future?

Camila Alire: Well, it’s interesting because I think the lay person spends more time wondering about the future of the book than the librarians do. We want to be able to provide what our communities, what our customers want. E-books are really popular and they are getting even more popular now. In 2007 our public libraries provided about — 38 percent of their collections were e-books. That rose to 55 percent in 2009. The challenges in the readers and, also you know, I was just in a session yesterday where one of the librarians reported that people can just download a particular title, an e-book title onto their device, and then they have it; they don’t have to come in to the library. They check it out virtually. We’ll still have the printed words. But, you know, libraries have transformed. We have changed for a long, long time. I mean, we first only provided the printed the word. Then we were hearing from our communities that they wanted it on visual resources, so we did that. And they were saying, well, you know, we would like more online databases. Most people love the catalog. I am sure you can remember the card catalog, but you know there aren’t a lot card catalogs around anymore.

And speaking of ebooks and libraries, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week on an Internet Archive project through which a group of libraries will make a slew of public domain and contemporary ebooks available to readers:

To read the books, borrowers around the world can download and read them for free on computers or e-reading gadgets. Software renders the books inaccessible once the loan period ends. Two-thirds of American libraries offered e-book loans in 2009, according to a survey by the American Library Association. But those were mostly contemporary imprints from the last couple of years—say, the latest Stephen King novel.

The Internet Archive project, dubbed Openlibrary.org, goes a step further by opening up some access to the sorts of books that may have otherwise gathered dust on library shelves—mainly those published in the past 90 years, but of less popular interest. [. . .]

With its latest project, the organization is making inroads into the idea of loaning in-copyright books to the masses. Only one person at a time will be allowed to check out a digital copy of an in-copyright book for two weeks. While on loan, the physical copy of the book won’t be loaned, due to copyright restrictions.

The effort could face legal challenges from authors or publishers. Paul Aiken, the executive director of the Authors Guild—which challenged Google’s scanning efforts—said “it is not clear what the legal basis of distributing these authors’ work would be.” He added: “I am not clear why it should be any different because a book is out of print. The authors’ copyright doesn’t diminish when a work is out of print.”

Mr. Kahle said, “We’re just trying to do what libraries have always done.”

This plan—which may well work—brings together a few of the issues facing libraries today: how to reach readers who live digitally, and how to work within shrinking budgets. Jeff Brown brought up budget cuts in his conversation with Camila Alire, and they talked about reduced hours, closing on Sunday, etc., etc. That all sucks, but makes sense in our economic climate. What doesn’t make sense is FOX News Chicago (surprise, surprise!) and this piece (thanks BoingBoing) on tax money and libraries:

They eat up millions of your hard earned tax dollars. It’s money that could be used to keep your child’s school running. So with the internet and e-books, do we really need millions for libraries? [. . .]

But keeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them.

That’s money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions.

Knowing Illinois like I sorta do, I can only imagine the ways in which politicians could embezzle and/or misuse this $120 million. (And while we’re talking about FOX, this Onion article is brilliant. “ ‘Our very way of life is under siege,’ said Mortensen, whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination.”)

And while this is all devolving into a series of jokes (man, it’s almost Friday, right?), I wanted to come back to the ALA conference for a second. I was there on Saturday afternoon to participate in a really interesting panel on translations. Alane Mason of W.W. Norton and Words Without Borders spoke, as did the very impressive Edwin Gentzler.

That’s all fine and good—the ALA is a wonderful conference, with very interesting panels, thousands of cool libraries, etc., etc. But really, the best reason to go to the ALA is the Book Cart Drill Team World Championships. I have no idea who won this year (should’ve delayed my flight!), but I really hope it was “Gett Down With Your Funky Shelf”:

30 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The other week, the first Future of Reading conference took place at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was a fantastic few days, very interesting, with a range of great speakers. Rather than summarize each panel or person, I want to try and explore a few of the topics that came up. A lot of these posts will be simply referencing and pulling together some of the ideas and/or articles/books that came up, but hopefully it’ll lead somewhere sorta interesting.

In the same issue of Wired that included an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which basically argues that the Internet has rewired our minds, there’s also an interesting conversation between Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age) and Daniel Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us) about the idea of cognitive surplus and how the interactivity of the digital age is allowing us to accomplish a lot more than ever before. Here are a few excerpts:

Shirky: People have had lots of free time for as long as there’s been the industrialized world. But that free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television.

Pink: The numbers on that are astonishing.

Shirky: Staggering. Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours—more than five and half solid years. [. . .]

Pink: Any sense of how much of that giant block of free time is being redirected?

Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

I still need to get a copy of Shirky’s new book, but one of the main ideas seems to be, that today’s technologies (smartphones, laptops, etc.) are not just consuming devices (a la TV), but also devices that make us producers. And rather than simply sitting there passive and consuming media, we tweet, Facebook, e-mail, text, interact “socially” in all sorts of mediated ways that nevertheless are interactions.

Back in the day—and good god, do I mean back in the day . . . I’m exactly 5 days away from my 10 year anniversary working in publishing . . . and I forgot to ice my Achilles last night, so I’m limping again like an old man—I used to work in independent bookstores and loved giving and receiving book recommendations from other booksellers, from reps, from hardcore readers. I found about Dalkey Archive Press this way, about the NYRB reissue of Julio Cortazar’s The Winners, about the Oulipo. It was face-to-face, reader-to-reader, booklover-to-booklover stuff.

But nowadays, that doesn’t work so well. Not just because of my desertion of the retail side of things to spend all my time, well, marketing and doing sales and p.r., but because of the decline in the number of really excellent independent bookstores. Well documented, but over the past few years, Cody’s has closed, Shaman Drum, etc. etc. And here in Rochester, we don’t have a single indie—just a few B&Ns and Borders. Which is fine, fine, they carry a lot of books, host readings, etc., etc., but these stores aren’t necessarily set-up to foster discussions between clerk and customer.

Frequently, these bookseller/readers found out about various titles both via this word-of-mouth network, but also from all the various newspapers and book reviews they were reading. I worked in bookstores after the true heyday of newspaper book review sections, but nevertheless, the scene was much better than it is now.

This is all widely known and reported on, but I really want to draw special attention to John Palatella’s The Death and Life of the Book Review, which appeared in the June 21st issue of The Nation. John’s brilliant and over his two (three?) year tenure as book review editor of The Nation, he’s continued in the line of great Nation book review editors before him (including Adam Shatz), and has helped The Nation remain one of the best book review sources out there. Pieces are long, in depth, fascinating, written by excellent reviewers (like Joanna Scott and Marcela Valdes), are very well edited, and often focus on fascinating international authors (like Juan Carlos Onetti). The Nation does everything a weekly book review section should do. (Unfortunately, the subscription department managed to cancel my subscription after three issues, but whatever, databases are only as perfect as computers.)

I highly recommend reading the essay above. Even if you already know the basics of the situation, this is incredibly informative, well-written, and comprehensive. Lot of good bits to choose from . . . The part that most struck me was this bit about the anti-intellectual edge to newspapers that underlies all the decisions to cut the number of pages devoted to book coverage:

It’s necessary to explain these broad economic trends to understand a crucial and overlooked point—namely, that it is disingenuous for newspaper executives to justify the elimination or reduction of the book beat by claiming that books sections don’t turn a profit. Undeniably, the executives’ math is correct. A newspaper books section, if one were to total up its costs, loses money. But does not the sports section or the metro section? Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it’s the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can’t earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

“Anti-intellectual” is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, “anti-intellectual” does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word “anti-intellectual” to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”

This is scary shit.

So we no longer have book reviews in papers, never really have on TV (Oprah excepted, but using the words Oprah and book review in the same sentence feels uncomfortable), and overly-well-read and talkative booksellers are going the way of Amazon.com and whatever . . . But yet, according to Shirky, we’ve redirected our free time into creative endeavors—many of which reflect the new state of reading in which we spend a lot of time in the world of links and info nuggets and skimming and over-sharing. And for most people of my generation, this is just the new normal. We still love books—the joy that the “long-form narrative” brings to our lives hasn’t changed, it’s just been supplemented with infinite amounts of information that can be gotten in a seemingly endless variety of modes. From the ironic and charming Facebook update to the overly exuberant and bewildering tweet (Thanks!!! So funny! RT @rachweiss http://bit.ly/bZJ8kJ).

So. A few weeks back, I was scrolling through my daily update of books read, reviewed, marked to read, etc. by my GoodReads friends. Every day I receive this e-mail, every day I at least scroll through to see what all the cool kids are reading. On this particular day, Jeff Waxman—Three Percent contributor, bookseller at 57th St. Books in Chicago, all around great guy—gave 5 stars to Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is forthcoming from NYRB and translated by the French by fellow Facebook friend Anna Moschovakis.

Although this book is listed in our Translation Database, I had never heard of Cossery and whenever I entered the data, it didn’t make much of an impression. Ah well. There’s data entry that’s exploratory and exciting and then there’s data entry. I marked The Jokers as a book “to read” and moved on.

The following day, same e-mail comes from GoodReads. This time, Tosh Berman—excellent publisher of Boris Vian and others via TamTam Books, bookseller at Book Soup in L.A.—gives 5 stars to Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which had just come out from New Directions.

More curious than ever about this elusive Cossery character, I again marked this “to read” and went on my way, which, on this particular day included going for a walk in the forest with my kids. Now, while they were safely jumping off of various things (same things I would eventually bust my Achilles tendon on trying to perform the same jumps), I was checking Facebook on my phone. And because I had linked GoodReads to Facebook, all of the recent books I had marked “to read” had popped up on my news feed. And not surprisingly, Cossery had caught the eye of another friend, one who went through the trouble of researching him on Wikipedia and posting info about this author “devoted to a philosophy of laziness” on my “Wall.”

Now more than intrigued, but stuck in a forest, I checked to see if I could buy the Kindle version. No such luck. But, according to bn.com, copies of A Splendid Conspiracy were available at the local store. So I corralled the kids, took off, bought the book, and read it over the next three days—something that never would’ve happened in the pre-information overload of my life days.

So what does that all add up to? God only knows. And I know none of this is particularly new, but hell, if you’ve read this far, maybe the one thing I want to really say is that you should rush out and buy a book by Albert Cossery. Who will get his own post(s) in the near future. Which I’ll tweet about. And try and get his name into the flood of information readers read to figure out what to read.

Coda: So I finished A Splendid Conspiracy while doing my laundry. Bored, with about 45 minutes left for things to dry, I headed over to Tapas 177, the local bar that I frequent maybe a little too much. It was a Monday, it was pretty empty, it was as pleasant and wine-soaked as it always is. As I sat there drinking my glass of wine and spinning my book around, I overheard the two youngish women next to me mutter something about a book . . . Assuming they were making fun of me or about to—it’s not that I’m overly paranoid, but outside of the universities, Rochester can be a bit anti-intellectual—I was thinking about how odd it is to carry books around to bars, or rather how odd it is that it would be thought of as odd to carry a book into a bar when one of the girls suddenly asked what I was reading. I gave a silly spiel about Cossery, his belief in laziness, about how the book is about a Cossery-like character who left Egypt for France to study, but ended up spending all his time chasing tail and boozing. He’s called back to Egypt by his father though, and is initially super-depressed about being stuck in such a crappy little town until he stumbles upon a small group of like-minded libertines who stumble upon a mystery involving the sudden disappearance of a lot of wealthy men . . .

All of this appealed to one of the two girls. She became very interested in Cossery, and I gave her the book. (After moving for the ten millionth time, I’ve decided to give away and and all books at any and all moments of time. They should flow like water.) And so an electronic recommendation became one of the best reads of recent times became a chance for an actual real-life social interaction and a word-of-mouth recommendation.

29 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The other week, the first Future of Reading conference took place at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was a fantastic few days, very interesting, with a range of great speakers. Rather than summarize each panel or person, I want to try and explore a few of the topics that came up. A lot of these posts will be simply referencing and pulling together some of the ideas and/or articles/books that came up, but hopefully it’ll lead somewhere sorta interesting.

When academics and/or people in the book industry get together to talk about the “future of reading,” it seems to me that there are two or three main assumptions at work: that we’re talking about reading books (a.k.a. “long-form narrative), that the number of people reading books could decline precipitously in the not-so-distant future, and that this is due in large part to changes in technology. Different people take different approaches to this—from claiming that reading is just migrating to a new place and form, to claiming that technology can help improve close reading, to a belief that the belief in a constant decline in readership has been around since Gutenberg Day One and nothing has really changed—but all seem to address one or more of these elements.

I’m really not that old (although having iced my Achilles tendon the past few nights thanks to a baseball injury sure as hell makes me feel like it), but I suspect that this “death of reading” debate has been going on as long as discussions on the imminent “demise of publishing.” This has heated up in the past few years though, thanks to discouraging NEA studies (namely this Reading at Risk one), the belief that the Internet is siphoning off all available free time that used to be spent with a book, and the slow decline in sales of literary fiction (which Alane Mason of W.W. Norton referenced during our ALA panel on Saturday).

One of the interesting things about the current moment of this debate is the way in which people are speculating less about reading habits as a whole, and starting to look more at how technology is altering how our brains function.

This is the main focus of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which has been getting shitloads of press. (See here, here, and here just to name a few.) I haven’t read the entire book yet, but a couple of key studies he summarizes got a lot of attention at the Future of Reading conference the other week. (Specifically, N. Katherine Hayles—whose presentation blew me away, and which I’m sure I’ll reference several times over the next few posts—brought this up, raised a few criticisms, called for more studies, etc.)

One of the studies involved the way in which surfing the Internet for one hour a day for a week created specific neural pathways found in experienced web users. In other words, using the Internet—even casually—reconfigures your brain. As pointed out in this Wired article this reconfiguration results in an increase in brain activity, which initially sounds like a good thing . . .

However, according to Carr and others, this isn’t necessarily making us smarter:

What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

To me, the more interesting study involved having people read Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover.” This study is explained in full in the aforementioned Wired article, but in summary, if you read the story in normal book format (linear text, click “next” to move to the next page) you remember way way more than if there are hyperlinks embedded in the text. Even if you don’t have to click a single one. Which seems to imply that the very nature of how articles appear on the Internet has rewired our brains in such a way that our reading of these pieces is almost automatically cursory, hard to remember, etc.

This all seems pretty intuitive in a way. I know that my memory of articles I read online is total trash. I print out EVERYTHING. (Things that are important. That I want to recall later.) And placing this in a larger context makes even more sense. A lot of us live in a sea of over-stimulation. As I type this, I have nine other tabs open in my browser, including both of my e-mail accounts, my Facebook page, and my Twitter feed, and I’m flipping between these every so often. I’m also listening to music on my iPhone and my concentration on this post is punctuated by responding to text messages and occasionally making my move on Words with Friends. (Although seriously, how can I even compete with someone who played the word “barf”? I should just resign now.)

Written out like this, especially if I were to present it in a stream of consciousness format in which my concerns are flipping from one thing to another every minute, it all seems like too much. But to be honest, this is how I exist in the world almost 24/7.

Which isn’t all that unusual. And has very palpable, obvious effects. Around the same time all the Carr publicity was popping up, the New York Times ran a piece on distraction and gadgets. Centered around Kord Campbell’s excessive addiction to information and devices and whatever (this is a picture of his life), it discusses the mental impact of all this signal-noise sorting . . . Or I think it does. I totally started skimming when I realized the article was five screens long . . .

So, for a publisher—like many respectable publishers—who brings out long, complicated books that require a lot of concentration, and possibly some outside knowledge, this all raises a lot of questions and issues.

Letting go of the potential lure of the Internet to pull readers away from books (this has always been the fear w/r/t other forms of more immediate, accessible entertainment—books rarely hold the same visceral joy that a 3:23 song does), I’m more interested in how this knowledge about the way people read will impact both the production of literature and the study of it. Over the next few days, I want to get into this a bit more, but right now, a lot of buzz in the publishing world is about “enhanced ebooks,” creating a full multimedia experience for the reader, creating apps to attract person XYZ to book ABC, etc., etc. All stuff that plays to the way we’re awash in bits of information; all stuff that plays to the typical 21st-century reader’s tendency to bounce in and out of reading frames, from one site to a million.

I have no grand outline for these posts, just a lot of random thoughts from the RIT conference and other things I’ve been coming across lately. And as mentioned above, I’m no expert in this field (or really any field, for that matter), but as a lifelong reader who has noticed things shifting a bit, I’m curious . . .

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