the least interesting conversation in the world continues 06.27.2006, 1:47 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Much as I hate to dredge up Updike and his crusty rejoinder to Kevin Kelly's "Scan this Book" at last month's Book Expo, The New York Times has refused to let it die, re-printing his speech in the Sunday Book Review under the headline, "The End of Authorship." We should all thank the Times for perpetuating this most uninteresting war of words about the publishing future. Here, once again, is Updike:
Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.
I was reading Christine Boese's response to this (always an exhilarating antidote to the usual muck), where she wonders about Updike's use of history:
The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I'd characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes.
....swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the "fruit basket upset" of turning the known world's power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I'm no determinist. I don't see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I'd hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!
I say it again, it's a shame that Kelly, the uncritical commercialist, and Updike, the nostaligic elitist, have been the ones framing the public debate. For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape. Search is merely a tool, a means: the books themselves are the end. Yet, neither Google Book Search, which is simply an apparatus for extracting new profits off of the transmission and search of books, nor the present-day publishing industry, dominated as it is by mega-conglomerates with their penchant for blockbusters (our culture haunted by vast legions of the out-of-print), serves those ends very well. And yet these are the competing futures of the book: lonely forts and sparkling clouds. Or so we're told.
bob stein on June 27, 2006 9:49 AM:
thank you Ben, this needed saying. your quote from Updike "the book revolution . . . taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality . . ." perfectly illustrates the fear of successful contemporary authors (and i certainly include Kelly here) that the highly revered role of the individual author is being challenged in the network era. Contrast Updike's quote to Roger Sperberg's comments about the Ken Wark's Gamer Theory which flattens the hierarchical relationship of authors and readers, "What the author has to say has broadened almost immediately into what the book has to say."
Mo! on June 27, 2006 4:38 PM:
Amen to that. I am turned off both by breathless cyber-utopianism and curmudgeonly cyberparanoia.
I see the role of books in the future as being a hard copy of a person's achievements.
Example: Penny Arcade.
Penny Arcade is a huge webcomic. Let's say for whatever reason some hacker (most likely working for the big console companies that usually get lampooned in the comic) decides to destroy the web site and all those archives are kaput. In addition, the backups are burnt in a fire. Well, we still have those Penny Arcade trade paperbacks in every major bookstore in the country.Amazon can ship those books to Google overnight to ensure that the legacy remains.
In other words, books will exist as a paper trail for our most outstanding online achievments. You know, in case John Updike gets any funny ideas.
Jason Boog on June 27, 2006 5:34 PM:
"For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape."
I agree that the New York Times is setting up an empty-headed debate. It's not an either Google or bookstores situation. It's fine and dandy for a writer at the end of a great career to ignore this digital shift, but we younger writers can't. If we want to eat, we have to cope with the Big Changes going on around us--sitting around arguing about the merits of Kelly's way and Updike's way won't change that.
renee on June 27, 2006 5:38 PM:
Regardless of what Updike thinks or wants, the new Renaissance is underway. Carly Fiorina spoke at BEA the same weekend as Updike, and she made the point that this type of change has occurred many times throughout history, and several times in recent history (i.e. digital photography, digital music). In each case, there are always some who embrace the change and are on the forefront of shaping it, and there are some who resist for as long as possible. It doesn't make a difference which path you choose, she said, the change will still continue to take place. She then pointedly refrained from saying anything further to her audience primarily composed of publishers.
Eddie A. Tejeda on June 27, 2006 8:49 PM:
I really enjoyed Updike's essay. I don't think he is either denying what is happening to the book (the "book" as we know it) and I do not think he is on a crusade to try and save the book. I think he is simply acknowledging the changes to the book and I think he has a honest concern of what might lost in the transition of moving ideas to the web, especially from someone who's life has been about books.
I don't think he is trying to hold back what appears to be progress the way we share ideas. The benefits of the web are enormous! and it's hard to imagine ever trying to revert it...
But, like Updike, who doesn't acknowledge what is gained, I think it's important to also acknowledge what might be lost. I often say that I read the news, facts and interesting ideas on the web all day and I am rarely satisfied! Thats my life. That is what I do. I read stuff on the web. Usually interesting stuff. But when I pick up one book, my life changes. Almost every time! When I finish a (good) book it almost always has a profound effect of me. I think about the ideas in the book a lot! And the thoughts never fade. Books change the way I think. The internet fills me up with facts.
In the web I can read about the Ottoman Empires, I find out who acted in what movie, and I can find out details on the collapse of the Argentinean economy in seconds, and now I often say I have a hard time imagining not having the internet to answer many of my questions. I joke: Before the internet, what did people do when someone said an ambiguous or incorrect statement? Unless you bothered going to the library every time someone said a strange "fact", how would you know if it's true? Did you just accept it? Who bothered doing "research"? That world now seems distant to me.
But I wonder, as it appears Updike does, wether that profound moment you have after reading book is lost. Will it be replaced with technology? maybe... until then..I think it's fair to lament what might be lost.