Washington Post Book World, we hardly knew ye

Another supposed nail in contemporary literature's coffin gets hammered down firmly.

Maybe I'm stubbornly in denial, but the slow demise of glossy paper book-review-magazines like the Washington Post Book World is just part (a small, small part) of the much larger and admittedly painful and nostalgia-inducing technological re-configuration of media currently underway, which is itself a small part of the staggering transformation of the global economy. In ten years it might well seem incredible that newspapers were ever printed on real paper and delivered to houses using vehicles that burned fossil fuels. I don't think the current technological clusterfuck extends to the book itself, though, because the book is already a perfect technology. Technology exists to make things better, faster, easier. There's nothing to improve about the book. It's done. It's there. And it was already there before your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was born.

Many are loudly fretting about the future of reading and writing. Yet it seems to me that people are reading (online news, blogs) and writing (email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, chats) more than ever. I mean, 40-50 years ago, during this alleged Golden Age, even the men who went to college couldn't type -- they actually had secretaries to input whatever they muttered around fragrant pipe stems as they ogled the secretaries. My grandfather couldn't type. Sure, he had beautiful handwriting, and I treasure his letters -- but there aren't very many of them, and in truth, he was not a great writer. He sure didn't sit around writing constant messages to various people and departments all day long like we all do now.

I don't think books are going to go under, but they will probably become more divorced from other media -- movies, TV, music, and the Web are taking off together on a rocket ship to God knows where, and yes, tossing out important-looking ballast, but the book is standing alongside us waving with the same slightly unsettled look on its face that we have. It's just a fact that people don't want to read long stretches of text on a computer (now whether they'll keep wanting to at all -- I grant you, that's a deeper, more horrifying question). Books, which have survived every other technological advance in the past 600 years, will I believe undergo a strong, enduring revival as chic and retro cool -- a no-batteries-or-overnight-charging-or-wifi-hotspot-required holiday of comforting authenticity away from the ever-enlarging infotainment electro-glut convergence. The book is well entrenched and loved. It isn't going anywhere or likely to change one iota, because there aren't any problems with it to solve.

It's the passing of an era. I don't think I ever read the Washington Post Book World, not even once. It's sad that bookish, intelligent people will lose those jobs, but I think they will find other jobs, hopefully with outfits that aren't trapped in suddenly outdated economic models. If I want to research what books to read, I talk to people whose opinions I respect and/or go online where there are scads of book reviewers -- not to one specific printed newspaper insert -- and since December I do it on my damned phone. Doesn't even the whole idea of newspapers themselves already seem kind of quaint and 50s-ish -- never mind what kinds of insert sections they had/have? I'm sure people mourned the passing of the mimeograph, and the telegraph, and hand-set typography, and even all those beautiful handwritten works when the printing press came along. Then they got over it.

Books are not part of this. They are different. Call it a hunch (or denial).


Nicole Jackson said...

Great post. I've wondered about these trends, too, and I agree with pretty much everything you've said.

the plunge said...

No technology is perfect, including the book. Just because it's been around for a thousand years doesn't mean it can't be improved.

Take the college text book, for example -- a kind of book that is obsolete the second it's printed. The textbook industry cuts down millions of trees every year for books that will mostly be thrown away.

If you're talking about the small fraction of books printed every year that are quote unquote timeless, you're not representing the medium as a whole. But even Dostoyevsky and Nabokov and Joyce may not want to live in a physical form, either. Why lug 15 pounds of novels with you when you travel, or bring the bulky 2666 with you on the subway? Why pay $24.99 for all that paper when you can pay $5.99 for the same content?

The book is a great medium, and I love my collection, and the feel of one in my hands, and what it represents, too. But these arguments always get bogged down by sentimental considerations, which play a decidedly limited role in the evolution of technology. Technology is, after all, an engine of efficiency and convenience, not of sensual or emotional appeal.

Grendel said...

Well, but which books get printed is determined by the market. It's not the book's fault that school boards insist on buying soon-to-be-outdated textbooks.

As for traveling with books, you couldn't read 15 pounds worth of books in any kind of travel time-window. You bring two or three or four books, and you're good for an average trip. I never seem to get any reading done when I travel, i.e. I only end up ever opening one of the four books. Besides it's good for you. Work some muscles.

If you want to read 2666 on a glowing, probably-tiny screen be my guest. But don't think it's more eco-friendly. The power needed to do that, coming likely ultimately from coal, would surely do more damage to the environment than dissolving and pressing part of some moderate-sized limb. And they should be making books out of hemp anyway.

I'm not saying the book can't ever be improved. But the technology that could actually make a machine as good as a book that was cheaper, more environmentally kosher, and exactly as or more satisfying is probably on the order of thousands and thousands of years away.

I have the complete works of Shakespeare on my iPhone -- just because, and it was free. I started reading Macbeth the other night. My hand started hurting. My screen-bathed eyes dried up. I had a pinched expression on my face. I kept watching the battery icon shrink. After 45 minutes I gave up.

the plunge said...

Check out the Kindle. It's the early version of the answer to this question. In a few more generations (of the technology, not humans), the screen will be color and probably touch-sensitive. Its screen (same size as a book page) is already quite easy on the eyes. And it only uses battery to 'turn the page' -- or re-magnetize the digital ink--rather than being a computer that's on all the time. So it's very low power.

cj said...

I guess that Kindle and its relatives will change the market for books, eventually. But books have lots of different types of value, not all of which Kindle can replace. Think of all the books we keep even though we know we'll probably never look at them again -- just having them is form of self-expression (not to mention home decor). Isn't there a big difference between raising kids in a house filled with books and raising kids with a Kindle on the shelf?

The invention of processed foods had a big effect on the way we eat, but the TV dinner didn't put home cooking out of business.

Grendel said...

I would like to try the Kindle sometime. I don't think I'm being sentimental when I say I believe I will still prefer books. If I found that it was a better experience, I would make the jump.

But what you're saying seems to be "You liked albums, but now you listen to music files you bought or borrowed or stole." The same thing will happen with the book. I really don't think so.

But I want to try a Kindle. Do you have one? Like, can you easily flip to any page, like a book? Can you throw it in a backpack or leave it on the kitchen counter for a week? Can you search? Searching would be an improvement, I admit, to the book.

the plunge said...

I had a 'review unit' for a few weeks but had to give it back. It was clunky and unattractive, with a not-so-great user interface. But the essence of the technology was there -- download (just about) any book in seconds, from anywhere (it's cellular, not WiFi), totally portable (backpack or kitchen counter), and it reads pretty nicely, far better than a computer screen or iPhone.

You can search and book mark and highlight, etc. The 1.0 was *not* good at flipping around quickly, but it's not hard to see that being fixed too.

Ultimately it comes down to a question of medium vs. content. The book is essentially a container for text, but it's been the preeminent container of text for so long that it's hard for us to separate it from the thing it contains. That relationship is largely a historical relic -- for centuries it was the best way to copy and transport large volumes of words. That's what it was invented for. And that's what these new things--as unromantic as they seem to us--will do better.

The book is not going to go away any more than horseback riding did when the Model T came along. But it won't be the preeminent medium for much longer.

Some more on this.

cfp said...

Lending ebook readers an air of inevitability is a great marketing strategy. But it doesn't change the fact that books are only getting cheaper and easier to produce without the apparatus of an enormous publisher. So why does it have to be zero sum? Far as I can tell it just doesn't.

cfp said...

I want to voice, too, my general reluctance to assume that the role of new technology is to do things "better, faster, easier." I know that's the way we talk about it. But I think in the current context, the role of new technology is to change markets in favor of the owner of that new technology's patent. In other words, to make money.

Now, of course: a pretty good way to make money is to offer an improvement over what's otherwise available (though usually that probably isn't enough). But that's not the ONLY way or even, I'd guess, the usual one. It's much easier to solve problems people didn't even know they had.

Grendel said...

Wow, plunge, what a kickass article! I'm kind of embarrassed now at my inexpert ranting. You really dug deep there.

the plunge said...

Thanks Grendy! Yeah, that was a real fun thing to work on and think about -- it's such a distilled example of the old / new media divide that is shaking all these industries up right now -- newspapers being the most obvious other one.

Anyway the Kindle 2 just came out today--sounds like it's only an incremental improvement. But still, most of the people I've talked to who have one of these things use it pretty regularly, even if they haven't stopped buying dead trees quite yet...

Grendel said...

I just came here to post a link to that David Pogue article and you beat me to it.

cfp said...

Good stuff, Plunge.

I think I've said this before. But I think the future of books is more likely to be driven by print-on-demand than e-books. (I don't mean the current vanity press practice; I mean the humongous but shrinking machines they have at the University of Michigan that print books from an online database). Right now, their use is limited by cost-per-book. But that will come down. If you can print any book ever written for, say, $3-5 in 3-5 minutes, doesn't that make much of this debate moot? The preference for a physical book wouldn't have the tradeoffs we expect in an e-book vs. traditional book future.

Really, who knows. But I think the more interesting change is coming in how the book business works than in the literal format of books. It's hard not to worry that the global meltdown won't expedite the troubles of big publishing. That's scary, no doubt. But with distro having gotten so much easier for small presses it isn't necessarily such a bad thing--provided they themselves survive.

My prediction: big publishing will end up having to support POD because the money they make from that--on existing contracts-- will be reliable enough at a moment when they need it and don't have the strength to fight what it means for future books and contracts. But that future would seem to lessen their position substantially.

Think of the role that record labels now play- it's more curatorial than financial. It's a way of grouping like-minded artists. I don't know what the modern record deal looks like on an indie label, but you've gotta hope that they aren't asking for much money.

And so maybe the future of publishing will work to the writer's advantage. Overall profits might be smaller, but writers will get a larger portion of them. They'll probably work harder for it, too; doing a lot of the self-promotion that seems to be so crucial in a successful indie book launch these days. But that's a trade I'd take. All in all it seems like a more natural negotiation of art and commerce, one less alienating and more intuitive than the insane and inefficient system of advances, returns and all that.

El Gordo de Amore said...

With the whole book/computer/reading argument, it seems like the underlying concern from all of this is how will writers get paid? And will electronic publishing turn books into free commodities like songs. Unlike bands, writers can't go on tour (well, they can, but how many people really go to such things -- you can't fill the Garden), sell T-shirts (they can, of course -- I have a Phil T-shirt from George Saunders -- but even Saunders himself seemed pretty freaked I owned one), and they can't really start clothing lines.

So, you're left with sales and advances. The bigger question is that if everything goes free, will that be OK? Writing might get better (in the sense that no one will be doing it out of any reason other than love), but it might get worse (I could spend three hours on this sentence, or bang out my freelancing law gig and make a few hundred bucks).