The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Collateral damage

I just posted this as part of a comment at Bookfuturism, and am curious to know what the Snarkmatrix makes of it. Partly because I’m not entirely sure myself!

(Short context: it was responding to a post and commenter who took issue with the idea that reading, especially literary reading, was just “a method of digesting information.”)

You could say that certain kinds of information work better in some media than others, likewise certain kinds of entertainment, or for intellectual reasons, like working through a philosophical or literary text, or for that matter a self-help book. (These might not be your thing, but I’d contend that the mix of aesthetic and psychological intent is about the same.)

But it starts to become hard to say things like “information belongs to the web, literature to print,” because it’s all about what kind of information, what kind of literature. Every genre finds different ways to work a medium to its advantage.

Maybe this is a different way of addressing the question; is it inevitable that certain media become dominant, even if they’re not as well-suited for the purpose at hand? For instance, you could say that it’s better in the abstract to read a magazine or shop with a clothing catalog in print, rather than on the web. (For the sake of argument, let’s grant this.) But once the web becomes the source of most of our information, in the form of news, search results, or references, and the most effective way for advertisers to target and reach their customers, print loses anyway; its inherent advantages don’t matter, because both readers’ behavior and sellers’ incentives have moved somewhere else.

This is essentially what defenders of newspapers have argued; journalism is best suited to the specific culture and medium of print newspapers (rather than TV or blogs), and so we need to find some way to offset that it’s no longer best-suited for full-page or classified ads. If the newspaper goes, investigative journalism goes with it. That, at least, is the argument.

Ditto booksellers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to buy a Moleskin notebook, wrapping paper, or a copy of the Sarah Palin autobiography; maybe it belongs at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. The fact is, if your bookstore can’t sell at least a fistful of those hardcovers at cover price, they stop being able to function as a going concern — so all of those things that your bookstore IS really well-suited for (seller of literary fiction, community center, whatever) get lost for reasons that have nothing to do with them.

So, is publishing like this? If Dan Brown and Malcolm Gladwell publish only in ebook, does the next Joyce or Hamsun get the chance to publish widely in print? If Joyce can publish a little run of Ulysses on Lulu in 19/2022, does it get published in a fat edition by Random House ten years later? (I don’t think Joyce ever gets published by Random House unless his book was banned for over a decade.)

I’d like to think that we live in a world where we can have everything and give up nothing, where every act of reading can at least in principle find the medium, presentation, and audience most appropriate to it — but that assumption still remains to be shown.

One comment

Mario says…

Don’t you think that, even through all of this change, books, newspapers, magazines, would all still be around in print 50, 100, 200 years from now? What I mean is, people, since we first became people, love and need “analog”-type technology. I’m not sure what the word is exactly, but look at music for example. The music world now is dominated by digital files. MP3’s and whatnot. But vinyl records are still really popular. People still love going to concerts. People know people who know how to play an instrument, and they love listening to them play at a party or anything like that. There’s still that live, analog-type experience that people will always love, but the digital revolution is like the printing-press revolution. It gets the stuff out there to a mass audience quickly and efficiently, but I still love going to plays to see real people act out the words, to go to the movies to see it on the big screen, to tell ghost stories around the fire to my friends and family.

This is all rambling I think, but the point I’m making is, books, newspapers, magazines, etc. would be better served as a business model to truly embrace technology, and we’ll all be happier for it, but people still want to hold books, to look at full-color photos on glossy magazine pages, and to read articles on paper along with their digital counterpart. I just don’t think paper will ever leave humanity.

I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, but those are my thoughts on the subject.

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