Today is my one-year anniversary of writing for Snarkmarket.
I should say — my anniversary of writing as an author, because I was the unofficial commenter-in-chief long before that. Snarkmarket was the first blog I read; it inspired me to start my own, which (being even nerdier than Matt and Robin) I bestowed with the German pun Short Schrift; and I think it also helped me to realize that the problems I’d been thinking about in philosophy and literature and politics and elsewhere revolved around problems in media — and for me, specifically, media that had something to do with writing.
It’s been really cool, to use the parlance of our times. When I describe Snarkmarket to people who’ve never read it (especially if they’ve never read a blog), I say that the three of us – a journalist, an academic, and a media producer (does anyone know exactly what to call Robin?) write about how these three fields and everything they touch (which is everything) change — with all of us writing about everything, under the assumption that one important change is the redefinition of intellectual/professional boundaries.
Now, I like the indefinite tense on “change,” because Snarkmarket has always been tense-agnostic; we all write about the past, present, and future. If I skew towards the past, Robin towards the future, and Matt towards the present — I’m not completely sure that we do, but that’s what you might predict — it all somehow becomes quite coherent.
I think the root of that coherence may be that Matt, Robin, and I are all in love with writing, in all of its forms.
I deliberately give “writing” a very broad meaning, both materially and conceptually — which is nevertheless a very literal meaning. It’s not an accident that in my entry for “photography” in the New Liberal arts, I define it even more literally as “the writing/recording of light.” It bothers me when otherwise intelligent people implicitly limit writing to either handwriting or print, the writing that fills up books or fills out our signature. It’s not true. Writing — and reading — are everywhere, in almost every medium. It’s not even worth listing them all. We’re saturated in literacy.
The assumption that usually goes along with this reductive view of writing — setting aside ritual genuflections before the ghost of Gutenberg and his machine — is that reading and writing are essentially ahistorical, almost natural, assumed parts of the educated order, at least for moderns like us, while other technologies are unnatural interruptions of this order. Or, that once key technologies are discovered/invented – e.g., script, the alphabet, the codex, or print – their history stops, and they proceed along, virtually unchanged, until the present.
I once heard Marilyn Frye, a philosophy professor at Michigan State, describe this as the point-to-point view of history. In 1865, Lincoln abolished slavery; in 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the franchise — and after each event, nothing else happened, at least to women or black people in the United States. Ditto, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1439, after which, nothing else happened, writing no longer has a history.
For instance — and I don’t want to unfairly pick on something tossed off during an interview, but here we are — Brian Joseph Davis, interviewing Michael Turner for The Globe and Mail, flatly asserts that the book “is stalled out, in terms of technology, at 1500 AD, and sociologically at around 1930.” See Jason Kottke’s post, “Books have stalled,” where he quite rightly asks what these dates might mean.
On the technology side, Davis is just flatly wrong. I’d invite him to operate an incunabula letterpress — set the type, prepare the pages, swab the ink, and crank the mechanical lever page by page — and then visit a contemporary industrial press before he felt tempted to say something so silly again. (If he’s only talking about the codex form of the book, and not the means of production, then he actually needs to run back over a millennium — and even then, the size and shape and composition of books has steadily changed over those 500+ years too.)
We also don’t print on parchment anymore. Gutenberg did print a bunch of bibles in paper, but it was cloth paper — the fancy stuff we print our resumés on now — not the kind of paper we use today. Davis should read a few 19th-century histories and manuals of papermaking — they’re free on Google Books — just to realize what a technological triumph it was to create usable paper out of wood-pulp. You can’t just smash up some trees — it’s a chemical process that’s as complicated as creating and developing photographic film, a breakthrough that happened around the same time (the two are actually related.) Turning that into an industrial production that could make enough paper to print books and newspapers and everything else in the nineteenth century was another breakthrough.
This is what the industrial revolution did for us, folks. It wasn’t all child labor and car parts. It changed the way we made and consumed culture.
For the last 500 years, ours has been a culture of paper. But the East had paper for centuries before, and what we call paper completely changed a little more than a century ago. It’s convenient if you want to either attack or defend book culture to paint it as unchanged by the passage of time, but it just isn’t so.
Add in all of the cataloguing and distribution technology developed in the twentieth century, shifts in marketing, the rise of chain retail and online booksellers – the kind of stuff that Ted Striphas writes about in The Late Age of Print — and it’s clear that there wasn’t just one revolution (Gutenberg’s) that made the past and another (digital media) that’s making the present and future. We are dealing with a long, intersecting history of multiple media, each of which are heterogeneous, that is ongoing.
Anyways, that is the past, and the present. I hope you will stay with us for the future. So far, I’ve loved this show. I can’t wait to see what next.
Unintentional Simultaneous Coda (from Matthew Battles, writing about something quite different):
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure.
What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
Absolutely. Now all we have to do is get there.