when we get what we want 12.22.2009, 9:09 PM
posted by dan visel
It's the shortest day of the year, New York is under a thick blanket of snow which will soon turn to slush, and it's hard not to feel let down by the world: when the Democrats gut health care reform in the name of passing something; when Obama fails to accomplish anything meaningful in Copenhagen; as it becomes clear that the war in Afghanistan will soon be marching into its second decade; when bankers still gain million-dollar bonuses for doing, as far as one can tell, nothing useful; when Mexico City can legalize gay marriage before New York State. December, the end of the decade, both summon up the retrospective urge: to look back and wonder what was accomplished, what could have been accomplished. One feels more disappointed when it seems like something could have happened: a year ago it felt like Obama might be a light at the end of a decade-long tunnel.
It's also the end of a year in which electronic books have received an amount of press that would have been unthinkable five years ago. At the same time, I find it hard to get as excited about anything recently: there's been a great deal of hubbub about devices, but it seems clear that's premature: any device will be obsolete in a year or so, when Apple rolls out its long-delayed tablet and a barrage of Google-powered devices follow in its wake. There's a lot of publishing talk, but it's not especially interesting for the would-be reader: publishers argue about the dates at which e-books come out relative to hardcovers, and whether to grant exclusive rights to a single distributer. It's not particularly interesting, especially with the past five years in mind: in the current discussions, the book is simply a commodity, something to be passed off to consumers at the greatest profit the market will bear. (An analogous argument might be made about the social networking world, which seems to reach a logical conclusion in Blippy, a new social networking platform with the genius idea – albeit a recession too late – of replacing the arduousness of even Twitter-length communication with a record of one's credit card purchases.) The argument could be made that electronic books have finally made it; executives make grand proclamations about how electronic sales will figure as such and such a percentage of future sales. Stephen Covey makes exclusive distribution deals with Amazon. Motoko Rich dutifully reports it all daily in The New York Times.
Part of my problem is personal. The technology world turns over so quickly: the five years that I've spent at the Institute is more than enough to make anyone feel wizened and elderly in the amnesiac new media world, if one didn't come into it feeling that way. It becomes increasingly hard to find anything that seems new or interesting, let alone revelatory. And, as mentioned, it's the end of the year; it's dark, there's a recession going on. But I'm not sure I'm alone in feeling that there's been something of a longueur in the world of new or social media; I've had a number of conversations recently that come back around to this. A post by Whitney Trettien at diapsalmata beautifully identifies a related sort of frustration: the sense of being on the verge of a future that's dragging its feet. Trettien begins her post with a triad of quotes on the imminence of a new digital reading experience, quotes that the unassuming reader might imagine to be from the present; they turn out to be from 1999.
* * * * *
Symptoms suggest a diagnosis; for a physician, I'll suggest St. Teresa of Avila. Answered prayers, she noted, cause more tears than unanswered ones; Truman Capote would have put this on the cover of his unfinished novel about the unsated. At about the same time I was reading Capote, Courtney Love offered a more profane restatement: "I told you from the start just how this would end / when I get what I want I never want it again". It's a description that seems apt for the present: we're living in a world of answered prayers. Obama restored order after eight years of misrule; millions of people are reading digitally from their iPhones and Kindles and whatever else they're using.
Why tears then? By and large, the current raft of devices and software aren't particularly innovative or attuned to how reading works; the reading experience itself isn't substantially different than it was fifteen years ago, when Voyager was offering mass-market books on 3.5'' disks for sale in bookstores, though the hardware's much better. What's different is the networked aspect: it's now possible to get a huge number of books near instantaneously. Bored on a Virginia highway over Thanksgiving & feeling the need to re-read Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, I could nearly instantaneously (and without cost) download a copy to my iPhone. This is, it should be said, astonishing. The reading experience was terrible, but that's beside the point: I could get the text (or an approximation thereof) almost as soon as I could imagine it. This is something new.
I'm interested in this sensation of immediate gratification: it's one of the hallmarks of the present. Something similar is present when you can buy almost any piece of music from iTunes, or when you can choose from a plethora of movies to watch instantly on Netflix. In a weakened form, it's the same experience as buying used books on Amazon, something I'm constantly doing: almost any book, no matter how out of print, will pop up on Amazon, and most can be yours for under $10 and inside a week. In all these cases: given enough capital and access to a network, the majority of our desires for media can be solved, increasingly instantaneously.
We don't think about this very much, but this newfound ability to instantly satisfy our desires is actually a very strange development. So much of human development is a process of learning to deal with desires that are delayed or vexed; so much of the history of the book is a narrative of scarceness. In terms of the market, there was more demand than supply. The move to the digital has changed all that: the supply of a piece of digital content is, for most intents and purposes, infinite, and we find ourselves in a position where supply far exceeds demand. It isn't just books where this is the case: it might be said that all electronic reading is in this position. If you have an even marginal amount of curiosity, there's no end of content that could, given the time, be interesting.
But this change in values comes at a price: with this shift in values, it becomes very hard for us to know how to value content. We're used to the arc of wanting – conceiving a desire, justifying it to ourselves, figuring out a way to get it, receiving it – that serves to convince ourselves of the importance of what we want. When that's short-circuited, we're left at a loss. In a previous end of the year piece, I used the example of the rescued Robinson Crusoe in Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England": he looks at his knife, the thing he once valued religiously, and finds that it's become meaningless, just another knife. "The living soul," he notes, "has dribbled away." Maybe that's where the book is now.
Raymond Aron, from Eighteen Lectures on the Industrial Society: "It is poverty that humanity, as a whole, still suffers from today. Poverty, defined simply by the lack of common measure between the desires of individuals and the means to satisfy them."
* * * * *
I've been keeping a list this year of the books I've finished this year, from a need, I suppose, to keep some kind of record: if books make a man, keeping a list of ingredients might be useful, though for what I'm not sure, yet. I haven't tallied up my year in reading yet, but I suspect I'll wind up having read somewhere around a book every three days. (This isn't particularly difficult if you have a typical New York commute and count on other people to read The New Yorker for you.) This seems desperate: a frantic attempt to stay abreast of a world that moves ever faster. There are more books on my lists of books to read than I have any reasonable chance of completing in my lifetime. This happens.
The most interesting reading experience of my year, however, wasn't a book that I finished; rather, it was reading at a book that can't be finished. I've been going to the monthly meetings of the New York Finnegans Wake reading group. I'm not, it should be said, the most religious of Joyceans; re-reading Ulysses a decade ago, I had an epiphany and suddenly understood what style meant, but if I had to make a list of my ten favorite writers I'm not entirely sure that Joyce would make the cut. It's Proust that I go to when I want answers. But there's something pleasing in the ritual aspect of the group reading of Finnegans Wake: feeling oneself a part of a community, a community devoted to something greater than oneself.
Each month the group makes its way through about two pages in two hours. Wine is drunk, everyone reads a bit of the text aloud. The group has been at this task for a very long time; the median age of the members is twice my age, and plenty of them have been at their reading since before I was born. Close reading is the only real way into Finnegans Wake. In a text so dense, the reader can only begin to understand by listening to others. Different readers find something different in it; some scrutinize the text silently, some sound out words for unvoiced puns, others argue their own idiosyncratic theories about the text. Digressions invariably arise and are followed. But when it works, it feels almost as if the text lifts off the page: out of the cacophony, you begin to hear how Joyce's overlaid narratives resonate.
One arrives, finally, a bit closer to an understanding of the text. It's something that's only really possible through group reading: the individual reader can't possibly know as much as the group – although something like the experience could certainly be asynchronously recreated if you had enough books and patience. But I'm most interested in the experience of reading this way: because in this community context, reading becomes something more than the interior experience that we usually think of reading as; it's something entirely outside of the economic context (or even an academic one). I've never found anything quite like it on the Web, despite long residencies on a couple of literary mailing lists. Reading like this, one gets the sense that maybe one book might almost be enough for the rest of one's life – provided, of course, that it was the right book. This, I think, might be one remedy we should be looking for if we're trying to find way forward for reading: to think about reading as a matter of communal exchange rather than of commodity exchange.
Posted by dan visel on December 22, 2009 9:09 PM
barbara fister on December 26, 2009 9:54 AM:
Interesting ideas; thanks for taking the time to give us a big picture. The trouble with all the e-book developments of this year (aside from things like commentpress enhancements) is that they are all about readers (as in locked content delivery systems) and not at all about readers of the human variety (who, even if you think of books as product, should get more attention as customers). Every decision being taken by publishers about the future of books and publishing has, for the past ten years, had nothing to do with the reader experience and everything about finding a way to cut costs or cut others out of the supply chain.
Reading as community exchange is where it's at. I wish publishers could realize that the health of reading culture (which includes sharing and exchanging and commenting on texts that aren't "consumed" the way shoes or hotel stays are) is their future. Neglect it and thwart it at your peril. There will always be stories.
Sonja on December 28, 2009 1:00 PM:
Excellent end-of-year post. I agree with Barbara about reading communities. I think an additional remedy might be the re-invigoration of the paper products that are out there. A while back, this site posted a video contemplating the future of the book, and it embraced both the electronic and the analogue. Hopefully, this is where the feet-dragging future is headed; but in keeping the paper book relevant its status as an object to be desired has to be maintained, or even re-introduced. While, for the moment, such a prospect means increasing the prices of new volumes (already at a premium, if not bought on Amazon), the ubiquity of e-book readers and their texts will pick up the slack and offer affordable versions to those who are not so enthralled by or have no desire to own the physical book.
Gary Frost on December 30, 2009 7:05 AM:
I agree that one needed consideration is better understanding of the strategic future role of print. There is an eerie interdependence of print and screen; almost an emergent system. Understanding the role of one will assist understanding of the role of the other.
The elegant cost combining of storage and display in print is one clue and so is the self-authenticating role of print relative to its own simulation. Then there are efficiencies of para-text features and the possibilities that context searching (WolframAlpha) is as productive as word parsing and ramified linking. In the longer run we do need further evolution of the artifact of bionic reading and that will take the whole culture of the skill.