I am so sick of “death of publishing” articles, so tired of talking about the ridiculously oversimplified “print versus web” argument that I could spit. (But I won’t, because Mama Graff didn’t raise no spitter.) So what did I do last night? Why, I hied myself down to “The Future of the Book: A Conversation on the Art of Writing and Publishing,” where Aleksandr Hemon (Love and Obstacles, 2009) and Jacob Weisberg (The Bush Tragedy, 2008) discussed that very thing, abetted somewhat by Victoria Lautman.
Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, or maybe I just didn’t want to be alone when print died.
Anyway, both Hemon and Weisberg had a lot of interesting stuff to say, although I think they could have used a couple of other panelists–a web editor and a book author aren’t exactly apples and apples, so maybe they should have been joined by a print editor and a writer who’s embraced e-books (not Sherman Alexie). And, fittingly, given the audience and the location (Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center), this was more like the End of Books as We Know Them 101 rather than the more detailed diagnoses given at the just-ended Book Expo America.
I meant to bring a video camera, but I forgot, so I scribbed a few notes.
As can be expected, Weisberg, Editor-in-Chief of the Slate Group, was very enthusiastic about the evolution of the printed word. He did acknowledge generational and socioeconomic differences when speaking of access to e-writing (via the Web and via Kindle), but felt strongly that prices will come down, access will grow, and the Digital Divide will soon be a fraction of its former self.
Hemon, while no Luddite–he reads his newspapers online, for example–was more cautious in his embrace of new technology. He worries about access for all, he said, about who’s behind what we’re reading, and where we’re headed. We’re always in the middle of history, he reminded us, and we don’t know where it will all end.
He had another concern, too: “If Kindle becomes dominant, and then you have to watch a Budweiser commercial between chapters . . . at some point, books will be sold with commercials.”
To which Weisberg replied, citing historical examples of paperbacks with bound-in advertisements: “The idea of a book as sacrosanct from advertising is a relatively recent innovation.” (I hope I have that right.)
As questions were not being taken from the floor at this point, I didn’t have time to ask Hemon how he would feel about Heineken.
Weisberg spoke about the differences between newspapers and magazines and books, saying that newspapers and magazines were “infinitely better” online. For the news-obsessed, I’d agree that a minute-by-minute news cycle is better than a 24-hour one, although I find that I really only have time to read the newspaper in the morning, not all day long.
Talk at some point turned to hypertext; Weisberg talked about the ways in which hypertext enhances online journalism, and Lautman followed up, asking about hypertext in books. Hemon, who resists e-books, was not at all interested in an enhanced e-book experience, saying, “that’s not reading, that’s something else.” If he wanted pictures and music, he said, he would watch a movie instead of reading a book.
On the subject of Google and digitized libraries, Hemon said he was torn between excitement at the possibilities and fear of too much centralized control of such libraries. “Being Bosnian,” he concluded, “I choose fear.”
When discussion turned to “the public sphere,” Hemon and Weisberg disagreed on what we’re losing as channels multiply, audiences grow more selective, and, above all, people stay indoors. Hemon lamented the loss of common conversation, but Weisberg felt that an inevitable trend was merely continuing.
However, Weisberg noted, when he rides the subway in New York, he’s always amazed by how many readers there are, and by how many of them use their books as gambits in social interactions. Kindle readers, he noted, are labeled with a certain set of cultural assumptions–but we still don’t know what the heck they’re reading.
“For Kindle to succeed,” he quipped, “they need to invent one that displays what you’re reading on the outside.”