The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
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Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The book as social contract
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Dan Cohen writes a nice post on the same theme I wrote about a few days ago — roughly, what is a book, and why do certain communities hold it sacred?:

When Roy Rosenzweig and I finished writing a full draft of our book Digital History, we sat down at a table and looked at the stack of printouts.

“So, what now?” I said to Roy naively. “Couldn’t we just publish what we have on the web with the click of a button? What value does the gap between this stack and the finished product have? Isn’t it 95% done? What’s the last five percent for?”

We stared at the stack some more.

Roy finally broke the silence, explaining the magic of the last stage of scholarly production between the final draft and the published book: “What happens now is the creation of the social contract between the authors and the readers. We agree to spend considerable time ridding the manuscript of minor errors, and the press spends additional time on other corrections and layout, and readers respond to these signals—a lack of typos, nicely formatted footnotes, a bibliography, specialized fonts, and a high-quality physical presentation—by agreeing to give the book a serious read.”

It’s all the better because, having formulated this powerful defense of the book as contract, the book as a signal of value, Cohen moves past it to ask how we can continue to work to create and recognize similar signals of value in work done outside the book, especially online.

It’s got a nice sweep, and it seems like a place to begin — especially insofar as community seems to be the one common value that defenders of print and defenders of the digital both want to recognize.

March 5, 2010 / Uncategorized

4 comments

Carl Caputo says…

Charlie Stross has been writing recently about books and book production. He estimates the writer’s proportion of effort in getting a book into print at closer to fifty percent than ninety-five percent. It’s about half the work to write the manuscript, and then it goes into the hands of people who do the unsung but deeply necessary work of making a book into a thing worthy of respect and attention.

Tim Carmody says…

I think the “95% done” figure is self-consciously wrong, Dan-as-character putting forward something that Roy-as-character can knock down.

In a way, the fact that half of the work involved in book production isn’t done by the writer makes it even more of a signal of social value. It’s not just the effort implied, but the fact that other people, many of them experts on what makes a book good, have found the book worthy of their additional effort.

Few books are as de luxe as those made by vanity presses. I mean, if I give my own self-published, self-written book a fancy cover and acid-free paper, and embed gold into the leather, who cares? I’m probably biased to think that what I’ve written is worth the effort. But if independent craftsmen and publishers and editors put in that work, putting their own reputations on the line, then a reader can feel pretty confident that they might be about to read something good — right?

Carl Caputo says…

Exactly, Tim. Other people add worlds of responsibility and accountability to the process. They help to make our attention worthwhile. We trust these objects produced by many hands much more and with much better reason than we have to trust the words produced by a solitary writer.

Tim Carmody says…

Now, with blogs, you’ve got a string of evolving mechanisms that serve some of the same function. A good blogger is a good writer, sure, but they have arguably even more value as a reader and filter. If you run good links, you get a good rep. Start running crummy links, and your rep drops.

Ultimately, though, a bad link, a bad blog post, is just that. You can slough it off. You don’t NEED the same level of legitimacy and social signals, if only because the body of writing, and the time required, is so much smaller. Ditto a YouTube video or MP3 vs. a feature film or full-length album. It’s one reason why podcasts are tricky, because the things are so danged long.

And, blogs, videos, MP3s are all free.

A book has all sorts of ways to signal that it deserves your attention. But that’s because it NEEDS more of it. The digital world, those legitimation mechanisms are just as social, but a little more porous, but that’s okay. After all, they’re not asking for so much.

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