retreat to his study / thoughts for '07 01.02.2007, 7:49 AM
posted by ben vershbow
2006 was a big year for the Institute. We emerged as a sort of publishing lab, a place for authors and readers to rethink books in the digital age -- both theoretically (in the wide-ranging dicussions on this blog) and practically (in hands-on experimentation). The project that got things rolling on the practical end -- and which is now wrapping up its current phase and down-shifting tempo -- was undoubtedly Mitch Stephens' book blog Without Gods. Like many of our experiments, this one emerged not by some grand design but through an offhand suggestion, when we thought we were headed somewhere else.
Two Novembers ago Bob and I were meeting Mitch for lunch at a cafe near NYU to chat about blogging and its impact on the news media (remember that Mitch, though lately preoccupied with the history of atheism, is a professor in the journalism program at NYU). We were preparing to host a meeting at USC of leading academic bloggers to discuss how scholars were beginning to use blogs to enliven discourse in their fields, and how certain ones (like Juan Cole and PZ Myers) were reaching a general readership, bringing their knowledge to bear on media coverage of subjects like Iraq or the intelligent design movement.
At one point during the lunch it came up that Mitch was in the early stages of researching a new book on nonbelievers and the idea was tossed out -- I suppose in the spirit of the discussion -- that he start a blog to see how the writing process might be opened up in real time, engaging readers in dialog. Mitch seemed intrigued (guardedly) and said he'd think it over.
A few weeks later, back from a fascinating time in LA, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Mitch saying that he'd been considering the blog idea and wanted to give it a shot. We'd returned from the USC meeting pretty charged up by the discussion we had there and convinced that blogging represented at least the primitive beginnings of a major reorganization of scholarly and public discourse. But we were at a loss as to what our small outfit could do to help. Mitch's email, if not the answer to all our questions, seemed like a great way to get our hands dirty making a tangible product and would perhaps help us to figure out our next steps. We had a few brainstorm meetings, pulled together a basic design, and Without Gods was born.
A year on, I think it's safe to say that it's been a success -- actually a turning point for us in balancing the proportions in our work of theoretical pondering to practical experimentation. It's somewhat ironic that the most substantial thing to come out of the academic blogging inquiry was slightly to the side of the initial question, and conceived before the meeting. But that's often how things occur. Questions lead to other questions. Without Gods led to Gamer Theory, Gamer Theory led to Holy of Holies, which in turn led to the Iraq Study Group Report. Which I suppose all in some way stems from the academic blogging inquiry and the many tributaries it opened up. MediaCommons is steeped in a belief in the importance of vibrant and visible conversation among scholars in forms ranging from the blog to the networked book -- values laid out in the original USC gathering, and developed through our work on Without Gods and beyond.
Now, as hinted before, Mitch has decided it's time to retreat to his study in order to bring the book to fruition -- offline. As he forges ahead, however, he'll carry with him the echoes -- and the archive -- of the past year's discussions.
After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.
As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.
I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those - commenters or just silent readers - who are interested in this project....do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.
New experiments such as "Holy of Holies," a paper that Mitch delivered last month before an NYU working group on "Secularism, Religious Authority, and the Mediation of Knowledge" (it's still humming with over a hundred comments). Although blog posting will be sporadic, futureofthebook.org/mitchellstephens will remain the internet hub for Mitch's book, sections of which may appear in draft state in a format similar to the NYU paper (depending on where Mitch, and his publisher, are at). If you'd like to be notified directly of such developments, there's a form on the site where you can enter your email address.
Thanks, Mitch, and best of luck. We couldn't have asked for a better partner in exploring this transitional territory. I hope 2007 proves to be as interesting and as healthy a mix of thinking and doing, for you and for us.
R barrera on January 2, 2007 7:45 PM:
"sporadically," with a "d" not a "t". blogs are so cool, aren't they. Best wishes.
Gary Frost on January 2, 2007 8:58 PM:
Its unclear to me if the new publishing scenario supported by innovative IFotB writing software is intended to result in a print or screen book or both. Either way the end product can also display innovation.
This is especially so with the print book. The sculptural, 3 dimensional potential of the print book is underutilized due to narrow conventions of print presentation. The concertina structure, for example, has been relegated greeting card functions when it and its derivatives can support layers of content and multi page displays. The old codex is also overdue for some innovation especially as regards the restrain of a single beginning. The 3 dimensional codex format can easily provide multiple entries. Best of all, the fundamentals of print navigation are so well assimilated that variations present little challenge.
Such a hybrid of networked writing and innovation in print presentation is a natural scenario for the digital book.