3 June 09 | Chad W. Post

A few weeks back we mentioned the then upcoming symposium at the University of Michigan on the “future of reading.” Well, the amazing Karl Pohrt was able to attend and wrote this comprehensive piece on the somewhat bleak gathering.

Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age is the title of a symposium held today at the University of Michigan.

New Fate of Reading? Uh-oh . . .

The event announcement features an illustration of books rendered as if they are a flock of birds flying above the reach of a group of young people standing in an open field. The image is ambiguous. Are the books flying toward the people or away from them? Are people greeting the arrival of the books or are they ecstatically waving goodbye? In both instances I fear it’s the later. This might be due to my anxiety about the precarious economics of the culture of books these days. Or perhaps it’s just my bad attitude, something that surfaces now and then despite years spent practicing hardcore zazen.

The text accompanying the picture poses some key questions: What new literacies are generated in the digital era? What happens to the cultural practices associated with the traditional book? How are institutions responding to this new situation? Bookstores are specifically mentioned, along with libraries, publishers, and newspapers. And finally, moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive: How ought they _(to) respond?_ This is what I’m really interested in. What is to be done?

The symposium, sponsored by the Michigan Quarterly Review and the Rackham Graduate School, is held in Angell Hall on the U of M’s central campus, and is divided into two sessions. MQR editor Jonathan Freedman tells us the morning panel, New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age, is devoted to questions of theory and history. The afternoon sessions will examine new institutions.

The program kicks off with a talk entitled “The Aesthetic of Bookishness in Twenty-first Century Literature.” Jessica Pressman, who teaches at Yale, informs us that the role of the book will change—has changed—from an essential format to one medium among many. She says the recent talk about the death of the book is a literary response to the perceived threats of the digital age. The theme of the death of the book has become a source of inspiration for writers, despite the fact that literature was never about information delivery. Book bound content is now associated with the literary.

She cites The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall, as an example of a new literary form in which the novel itself exists as a character.

“_Shark Texts_ begins with the main character reading himself back to life from near death,” she says.

Pressman describes an aesthetic of bookishness in which books are viewed as a haven from the increasingly threatening digital age. This position is most certainly retro because “we now live in a world in which the text no longer exists just on the page.”

Within the bookish aesthetic, bookstores (“spaces for bound books”) are like sanctuaries or churches. They provide a safe location from which readers can network with each other and critique the digital culture. For bookish folk, bookstores are “shields against the shark.”

Frankly, I never thought of bookshops as lairs of a bound-book Ancien Regime, but I take her point.

“The book is a reading machine and data mutates across discourse networks,” she tells us, channeling William Gibson or William S. Burroughs.

Obviously the practice of reading and the bookish experience have changed in the digital age. Nostalgia for the world of print doesn’t cut it anymore in our multi-modal world.

*

Our second speaker’s subject is book fetishism. Harvard English Professor Leah Price
informs us that the “hand-wringing age-based subgroups” fretting over the two National Endowment for the Arts reports on the decline of reading in America are contributing to “a nostalgic narrative of loss.” Price says that books make up only around 14% of printed media, so we’re not factoring in newspapers, magazines, advertising circulars, legal document or screens. She refers to computer screens as “the ‘uncanny double’ of the book.”

“We feel like a beleaguered minority. There is a self-congratulatory aspect to this.”

She does concede that “books are precariously perched in the larger media cultural context.”

Price gives us examples of book fetishism (books as objects regarded with respect, devotion or awe), beginning with Bibles that were never read but functioned as decorative objects in religious households from the eighteenth century on.

She mentions alternative sentencing programs in which offenders are required to attend book discussion groups because it is assumed that reading creates empathy. And she tells us about Bibliotherapy, created by psychologists who believe fiction has a therapeutic value, a moral logic.

The latter two examples sound reasonable to me. Granted, these programs and therapies presume a more optimistic view of the human condition and the transformative power of fiction than may be warranted, but neuroscientists do talk seriously about the plasticity of the brain and speculate about the connection of mirror neurons to empathy. And regarding moral logic, I read an essay by the Israeli writer Amos Oz in which he argues that “imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.” Aren’t novels powerful tools in assisting us to imagine others?

Price talks about reading as a substitutive behavior for different compulsions, mentioning various addiction metaphors we use to describe our reading experiences: “_I couldn’t put the book down . . . I was swept away . . . I’m hooked on books._”

She goes on to describe programs in which children are encouraged to read aloud to dogs. This keeps the animals relaxed and calm and the kids get to practice their literacy skills.

She mentions children who read aloud to horses, and says “a kind of species politics is emerging these days.” This gets a good laugh.

I briefly consider what I might read to my cat, who has a short attention span and is easily irritated. Maybe a book of snappy jokes about birds and squirrels?

Price informs us she doesn’t mean to trivialize the project of literacy. I’m grateful that she is clear about this.

Then she zeroes in for the kill:

“Literacy had been feminized by the time Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary. Since then, men have been distanced from reading.”

“Reading used to be associated with mobility, but now reading—along with the rise of other sedentary enjoyments—has become a refuge for those trapped in enclosed spaces.”

“Reading for pleasure is done most often by women, children and the old—three segments of the population associated with the social loss of power. What does it mean that reading is associated with socially disempowered groups?”

“Books change lives for the young,” she says. “Books fill time for old people. Americans read when they are about to die.”

_Smackdown! _

Recently retired psychotherapist Jim Kern, who is sitting next to me, whispers, “Well said . . . for a young person.”

*

Our final speaker this morning is Alan Liu, chair of the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He tells us he has changed the title of his talk from “Marginalizing the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins, and Social Computing” to “The End of the End of the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins and Social Computing.” Is this good news? Has the paradigm shifted back again? Will the book business as we know it rebound? Will I live to see a return to the good old days?

I don’t think so, especially after Professor Liu tells us “it doesn’t make much sense to focus on bookishness in an age when books have already gone away.” I get the drift.

That said, the talk is a fine introduction to cutting edge electronic research environments, what he calls Knowledge Ecology Studies, the culture of information. A number of Powerpoint images of interesting websites, graphs, and various formula (Accessibility + Tractability=Operability, On-line use=operability specific to the level of data structure) flash across the screen next to him. I’m able to follow most of this until he starts talking about String Theory and the “Hermeneutics of Reduced Dimensions.” I don’t understand the twelve dimensions slide, but the visual pattern is beautiful and the colors are restful tones of blue. It’s kind of a 60s psychedelic thing.

He speaks of “data structure hierarchy” and “post-industrial flexibility,” and tells us that “the digital subordinates big forms (like books, music, and films) into documents. Documents signify the de-formation of forms.”

I wonder if this is a step forward. Sounds somewhat reductive, but he reminds us that breaking up big forms into small pieces is not new. He cites the way monks read the Bible in the Medieval West. In monastic liturgical traditions the Bible was read “discontinuously in daily modules.”

“The Bible is a very flexible & plastical codex,” Liu says, citing the Book of Revelation as the proto hypertext.

One of the potential consequences of what he calls “the de-formation of forms” is the end of narrative. This could be a problem.

Anyway, bookishness has gone marginal; and there is an analogous move to the marginal in academia. Liu lays out the sequential movement in contemporary scholarship: From Deconstruction to Cultural Theory to Media Theory and finally to the History of the Book, the materiality of the book.

He tells us scholars are concentrating on book euphemera these days. Current cutting edge research involves looking at website sidebars, which he thinks are “bookish metaphors.”

“This is where the Shark lives,” he tells us. We must “boldly go where no bookshelf has gone before.” The Star Trek reference is a crowd pleaser.

Professor Liu concludes his talk on an up note. “Books can be a new media,” he says.

I raise my hand in a Vulcan salute. “_Live long and prosper!_”

During the Q & A, a librarian who obviously still embraces “old school” values says he doesn’t believe people will cozy up with electronic readers.

Prof Liu says he owns a Kindle and suggests the librarian read an essay by Jeffrey Nunberg about reading as a private activity, which traces the history of the image of curling up with a book.

Tom Fitzgerald, who writes on social policy, talks about the closing of our local newspaper and asks Liu if he thinks the loss of newspapers is a problem in a democratic society that depends on an informed electorate.

Liu says he’s heard that argument before and doesn’t think it’s true.

“When I go into Starbucks I see people all around me reading the news on their laptops,” he says.

I ask him about people who don’t have laptops or access to Starbucks

He tells me he doesn’t think this is a problem because computers have come down in price to around $400.

I think about inviting him to visit Flint, my hometown, where about a third of the population now lives in poverty. We could take a poll or do a visual census of computer use among folks in downtown Flint coffee shops. But I hold my tongue.

*

At noon I leave the building for lunch. I thought the talks by the panelists were interesting and provocative, but disconnected from my reality—which at the present moment is filled with anxiety.

This morning Pressman and Price, like a pair of professional tag team wrestlers, skillfully tossed the bookishness aesthetic to the mat. They were followed by Alan Liu, who stepped over the body and escorted us into the world of . . . book ephemera?

I’m being unfair. I’m taking this way too personally. Maybe that’s because I suffer from book fetishism, a pathological condition I used to think was relatively harmless.

Various authority figures in my past told me that books were a kind of charm or talisman against the chaos of the world. Was this true? My elementary school librarian said it was while she taught us to fold bright yellow oil cloth jackets around our books to protect them from damage. She told us we were making book rain coats.

And this doesn’t even begin to get at the radioactive half-life of messages still in my head from my Presbyterian Sunday School teachers, who told me that the Bible was the ultimate powerful mojo.

My teachers were speaking metaphorically, but children live in a literal universe. So maybe I was set up for this fall by well-meaning youth literacy advocates. And I never got over it. I kept the faith.

What a chump.

*

At 2 pm we reconvene for the afternoon forum. I find the topic — New Institutions for the Digital Age — vaguely depressing, but after this morning’s sessions it’s difficult to feel upbeat and peppy. I’m afraid I’m still mourning the decline of the Old Institutions. And it’s 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. Maybe my sugar is a bit low.

Our first panelist, Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, is a public economist. He tells us he approaches information technology as a person concerned principally with public institutions and public policy. Profit is not the bottom line.

“There are a number of flavors of value and not many of them are monetized,” he says.

Paul Courant is optimistic about the future and he doesn’t think it helps to be wistful and Luddite, to turn the clock back.

I understand, and I try to buck up, but some days this is easier said than done.

Paul asks about the consequences of the revolution in information technology. Are there things we have lost?

He says the number of households that can produce their own music in America has declined over the years. The production of music is lost to an increasingly large sector of the population. However, people now have available a vast catalog of music that they can listen to on their iPods or mp3 players. The point is there are gains as well as losses.

How do we minimize those losses?

What has changed?

Competition is less important these days, he says. Inexpensive searching and indexing changes everything. We are moving from libraries filled with books to libraries of electronic records. A library will cease to have a competitive advantage over another one because electronic records will be so cheap.

“Now we can share and we should share,” he says.

I admire the generosity of this position.

He returns to the subject of the new technologies.

“I own a Kindle,” he tells us. “Not only can I read in bed at 2:30 in the morning without waking my wife, but I can also buy a book on my Kindle at the same time.”

This is bad news for booksellers in bricks and mortar stores. I’ve just been disintermediated.

“The world of search and the world of browse are finally merging,” Paul concludes. “Software designers are creating an analog to browsing. Soon we’ll be able to see a computer image of titles on either side of the book we’re reading. Of course, we’ll still need librarians to help people search the database.”

“What we need are charismatic human kiosks in the library,” he says.

This is an interesting idea, although I’m not sure I’d like the outfits. I imagine a version of the Gumby costume Eddie Murphy wore on SNL, except that it would be more conical & cement gray—not green.

I sneak a quick look around the room to see if the librarians in the audience are flinching, but it’s a joke.

I need to get a grip.

*

Phil Pochoda, Director of the University of Michigan Press, is up next. He describes the difficulties of serving authors and readers who are from the relatively small community of scholars, and he tells us university presses are extremely fragile right now because of the uncertain business model for electronic media and the economic collapse. They could fail.

Phil’s talk is grounded in a reality I understand. This is a perspective that was missing from the theoretical papers this morning

After describing the professional tensions and economic risks facing university presses, he asks what university presses in the future might look like. If they survive, will they be the digital analog to what university presses are today? Authors and readers will be able to interact with each other much more quickly and easily when all the texts are digital.

During the Q & A session, Alan Liu wonders who in the future is going to fund scholarly books and journals if university presses collapse.

Good question.

*

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is our last speaker. He begins by talking about the paradox of transformation. As information becomes more universally accessible, a single identity evaporates. He worries that the social conditions are no longer there to nurture the next Whitman, Melville, Bellow or Updike.

He feels that the romance of technology overwhelms content right now, and he asks writers in the audience if what they do feels different as a result of the new technologies.

Then he turns to the crisis in the newspaper business. Economic market forces have always existed in a jumbled up relationship with the creative, but conditions are now dire. All newspaper profit comes from advertising, and on-line ads cost one tenth of what print advertisers pay.

How do you solve this? Do you make up for the loss in advertising revenues by charging readers for access?

“We have lots of solutions,” Tanenhaus says, “but that means there isn’t one good one.”

At its peak the NY Times Book Review published over 50 book reviews in every issue. Now they average around 14 reviews per issue.

This decline in review space is a terrible problem for the book industry. How will we inform a broad sector of the public about books? Will publishers be able to effectively advertise new books on social networking sites, blogs and cellphones? How will people discover important new writers? Will publishers be profitable enough to risk investing in new writers who haven’t yet been tested in the marketplace?

During the Q & A, Eileen Pollack, Director of the UM MFA Program in Creative Writers, speaks about mid-career writers she knows who can’t get agents or publishers to look at their work. She worries they will just stop writing.

And then there is the attention span problem. Tanenhaus mentions being on a TV talk show with columnist Arianna Huffington, who was critical of a recent article in the Times on the stress tests for banks. She complained that she had to read down eleven paragraphs before the article got to the point.

Sam asks, “Since when has reading eleven paragraphs become outrageous?”

The symposium wraps up a few minutes past four, and I leave quickly. Hopefully these problems will all work themselves out, but then again maybe they won’t. Given what I’ve heard today, I think there will be a great deal of collateral damage. I don’t know how to fix this.

I’ve got to get home to help my wife Dianne prepare for a small dinner tonight. Rev. Bayardo Lopez, who we met in Nicaragua this January, is in town. Bayardo, a veteran of the Sandinista literacy campaign during the Contra War, used to travel by horseback across rural areas occupied by Contra paramilitary soldiers in the early 1980s, risking his life to teach peasants to read.

But that’s another story, about a different world, another life.

-Karl Pohrt
Shaman Drum Bookshop


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