Sunday, September 26, 2010

When does print matter?

Picking up where I left off… though not with Nicholas Carr (at least, not immediately).

At the Wheeler Centre’s weekly lunch-time soapbox event Anna Krien addressed the question of whether newspapers still matter in the digital era. Krien’s central argument was that print newspapers needed to recognise and mobilise the features that make them unique and play to their strengths, rather than playing catch up with their online competition. Print newspapers can make a virtue of their relative slowness; can devote resources to research; can provide in-depth analysis and long-form reportage; can deliver a product that is worth the paper it is printed on (i.e. is worth its cover price and is worth whatever effort it takes to carry it from breakfast table to briefcase to beachside). In so doing, newspapers can leave the speedy work of ‘news coverage’ to the web. Printed papers, with their research, analysis and critique, can be the roughage in our media diet, giving us something to chew on: slow-to-digest information that complements the news snacks we get online.

It’s just possible that the same idea could be used in considering how to respond to talk of the demise of the novel in the digital era. That is to say, what if we proposed that it was the slowness of print books that provides a pleasure that online forms don’t deliver? In an essay in The Millions, Garth Hallberg notes that “the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.” Just like Krien’s proposal that the newspaper should seize its potential for (time-consuming) considered investigation, many novels make a virtue of their ‘bigness’ and ‘slowness’; make a virtue of being substantial food-for-thought.

Without proposing that there’s anything new about the popularity of big books Hallberg offers a couple of interesting ideas about the relationship between print and digital media when it comes to big books:

 “The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles””

A big novel can be valued because it is time consuming, it demands attention, it might hurt a little. Along with all that focus and time the reader must devote, Hallberg notes that the big novel requires a certain kind of solitude, a little bit of pleasurable alienation:

“The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically.”

These comments are an interesting rebuttle to the thesis of Nicholas Carr who sees readers as having been near-irrevocably ruined by the internet. But the internet isn’t to blame. Literary novels and reading habits were already on a downward trend before the internet became ubiquitous. Carr proposes that we once enjoyed a more focused and more cerebral phase in our history when we did all our learning from books. Now, with the internet, with its solicitation to click, click, click our way through the ceaseless flow of  information presented to us, we’re developing the worst kind of shallow thinking. But it all depends what it is you’re clicking, and what you’re reading. A critic of Carr’s rightly asked,

“What if [it’s] Mein Kampf? What if it’s Jefferey Archer? Or Barbara Cartland? Am I not better off playing a well-constructed online game, or reading Aristotle’s poetics online? I really don’t see why books should particularly promote worthwhile though, unless they’re worthwhile books. And the same applies to what’s on the internet.” [Professor Andrew Burn qtd in John Harris, ‘Online and Altered,’ Guardian Weekly 17.9.10, 25-27]

For Carr the biggest worry is that we’re very poor at regulating our impulse to stop clicking and start focussing. We need an information diet. Yet, the talk of Big Novels and Kindle-proof books that resist digitisation suggest that there are readers out there very well aware of what their media do, and their own habits with relation to them; readers who are comfortable with the unique qualities that print and online publishing each offer. Readers who know how to enjoy a balanced diet of focused, fibrous material that takes some time to digest alongside byte-sized morsels of digital content.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

(Why) Does Print Matter?

Almost every time I tell someone about the project I’m working on they tell me they’re uncomfortable with the idea of books disappearing from our everyday lives. “I can’t imagine not holding an actual book in my hands!” they say. “I like having something that’s not my phone to hold onto when I’m on the tram.” It’s true that second perhaps only to mobile phones books are probably one of our best hand-holding devices. By which I mean, somewhat cornily, you’re not alone if you’ve got a book. But it is true, look around an airport or a crowded bus and you’ll see what I mean. And, while you can certainly read a great book on an iPhone these days the comments from my pop-quiz respondents suggest that there is something else about holding books in our hands that a digital device just can’t satisfy.

There is something about the existence (or the disappearance) of the book that affects us profoundly. A world without actual books seems somehow diminished; perhaps it’s the shades of Farenheit 451 or 1984 that the idea conjures: a dystopian, tyrannical world where individual consciousness is erased; maybe we don’t all always want to be part of the “hive mind” of the digital world. Books (as we know them – cloth bound, mass produced) are associated in our cultural history with the radical individualist, with dangerous ideas, the Romantic, self-discovery, the quest for truth. None of those things are impossible with a digital text, we just haven’t yet developed an association between digital material and slow, introspective connection. A seemingly trivial, but revealing, example of this: what we talk about when we talk about the digital: speed. Fast equals good, slow equals bad. It might be helpful to start thinking about the possibility for fast (technical) connections (e.g. broadband-width) while also holding onto a more human-paced engagement that we’re familiar with from reading, writing and other time-heavy (slow) pursuits. I’m still sceptical about the technological determinism that creeps into discussions of the benefits of books vs. the net, but I am curious to see what gets said this evening at the Wheeler Centre by Nicholas Carr.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First Impressions

If you were to believe everything you read about the future of Australia’s literary culture in the mainstream press you’d be forgiven for imagining an environment in which skinny-jeaned bloggers and tweeters were glued to their iPads, busily breaking down the traditions of printed culture into some trendy remix ready to be uploaded to YouTube. And yet, over the last two decades (over the same time span, incidentally, that we’ve gone from plain-old-vanilla-web to “web 2.0”) there’s also been a steady growth in creative activities related to print publishing, like the production of small-scale book imprints, magazines and literary journals. The question is, why is this happening? Far from impediments to traditional publishing technologies, it seems like new media are facilitating the production of quality cultural publications...

Printed Matters is a three-year research project designed to interrogate this idea. One aim of the project is to offer a more balanced and considered take on issues related to the continuation of print culture and the development of a digital literary culture. Another major objective is to examine the practical experiences of those engaged with printed and digital publishing formats; the intention being that this information can be used by organizations and individuals who want to ensure the interests of those engaged in creative work which bridges the gap between print and digital culture are fairly and accurately represented. After all, many small-scale publishers have come of age in an era where technology and online media are ubiquitous tools for professional development, forming networks, collaboration and creative practice. Their work isn’t a case of ‘either/or’ when it comes to print and digital culture.

To make things more manageable, the project focuses on enterprises mostly based in or associated with Melbourne’s independent publishing community (and, given that Melbourne was recently designated a UNESCO City of Literature, there’s no better time and no better place for this research to begin). Here on this blog information about the project will be charted out, ideas discussed and comments and suggestions welcomed. From time to time the site will also serve as a first point for the collection of research data. It all sounds much more formal than it really is; in the first instance, blogs are a great way to start thinking out loud, even when you spend most of your time working quietly on your own, like I do.