Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dead-Tree Books in the E-Age: The Late American Novel by Jeff Martin & C. Max Magee

The book is dead.  Long live the book.

As we continue to step into the E-Age with shaky legs--some of us trading our pulp-based books for KinNookPads, others vowing "they can have my dog-eared paperback of The Catcher in the Rye when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers"--some questions pop to my mind:

Do we live in an age of reading revolution, or is the iPad merely the cassette tape* of publishing?  Should we be alarmed or thrilled?  Does convenience of pixels smother quality of prose?  Is my Kindle Satan's tool or a gift from God?  Am I a new-age Gutenberg for wanting to read screen-words, or am I betraying all that is good and holy in the act of reading?  If I Whispersync do I effectively reduce brick-and-mortar bookstores to smoking piles of rubble?

These and many other questions are posed and sort of answered in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee.  The anthology of essays comes at the dawn or twilight of the Age of Reading, depending on how you look at it.  Martin (author of the "fabricated memoir" My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize) and Magee (founder of The Millions) have corralled an impressive list of contributors to address the issues surrounding this "sea change" in publishing, writing, and reading.  "We wanted to hear from some of today's most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless," Martin and Magee write in their introduction.

The result is a volatile mix of cultural dissection, personal testimony, and dice-tossing prognostication.  The editors found a good balance between those for and against e-books, as well as others who are sitting on the fence waiting for the jury to come back in.  The Late American Novel provokes, cajoles, and laments with equal measure.  It is must-reading for anyone at all interested in the sunny-bleak future of books.

I read The Late American Novel earlier this year and have been letting its contents simmer on low boil ever since.  For the record, I read the Dead-Tree Book version, though I could have easily downloaded it via Whispersync onto my Kindle.  Though I'm a reluctant champion of the e-book, a little voice inside whispered that I should hold this particular book in my hands, feel the paper beneath my fingertips even as I read about the alleged coming death of paper.

I apologize in advance for making this one of those reviews which are heavy on the quoted excerpts, but I thought it best to let the book speak for itself--as all books should be allowed to do.  Here then, are some choice cuts from The Late American Novel.  But, really, do yourself a favor and buy the whole side of beef.  (In hindsight, I realize most of these quotations are from pro-DTB essays, but there really are some excellent contributions from e-book-friendly authors in the anthology.)

In "Not Quite as Dire as having Your Spine Ripped Out, but..." Owen King writes:
      I don't mean to be a Luddite, and I'm speaking entirely for myself. I belong to the tail-end of the last generation whose first computer was an electric typewriter and who didn't know that email existed until college. On some level, I'm still coming to grips with the Roomba. It could very well be that my inner fogey is just squawking over one technological advance too many. I should be happier for the trees.
      That said, I don't believe it's unreasonable to have some concern about "the future of the book" in the context of a world where more immediate diversions--music, movies, video games--are all readily available in the same portable device. While novels have been in competition with these entertainments for years, and it hasn't stopped a diverse audience of readers from flocking to Jonathan Franzen and John Grisham alike, the difference now is that for many people, their books will be snuggled right up next to the other stuff on their iPads, or whatever their multimedia machine of choice happens to be. While it’s sort of exciting in the abstract to imagine Jonathan Franzen rubbing shoulders in a tight electronic space with your favorite Beck songs, a few choice episodes of The Wire and ZombieSmash, in reality that’s an awful lot of potential distraction when you’re in the trenches of the difficult first hundred or so pages of The Corrections. Again, these temptations are nothing new, but in the past, a person generally needed to at least stand up and take a few steps to get at them.

In "Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future," Lauren Groff handles the problem with acerbic wit in a list describing the writer of the future, including:
      A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic.
      The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating.
      It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer.
      Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows.
      The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies!
       Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again.
Groff's essay alone is worth the price of admission.

I could quote the entire length and breadth of Rudolph Delson's essay...but I won't because then you wouldn't buy the book and discover it for yourself.  Instead, I'll just give you his wonderful title: "The Best Books Will Be Written Long After You Are Dead."

In "Home Word Bound," Nancy Jo Sales writes:
      Would my life in books have been the same if they had been coming to me via Kindle or iPad? I don't think so. There's something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells--the notes written in the margins--that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying). I don't think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much. They remind us that we exist; they show us how we have lived.

Tom Piazza interviews Tom Piazza during his slice of the book.  Here's one answer he gives himself:
      Computers and e-books and smartphones all basically look alike. They are strictly vehicles; you pick them up to step through them into some consensus reality; you’re wired in. Everything is leveled out. When everything has equal weight, everything is weightless. The world they offer is one of infinitely diverse information with a common denominator: the screen. The computer is neutral in that it gives you access to limitless amounts of information, but the one requirement is that you have to get it on the computer. The information has no smell, no weight, no texture. Nothing that seriously impinges on your reality. People think it represents some kind of democratizing of information because everything’s the same size. But democracy is when things of different sizes get a chance to mix it up and work it out, measure themselves in their respective strengths. If everything is the same size, there’s no perspective.

The arguments in these pages are not confined to "real books" vs. e-books; these writers have plenty to say about the novel itself--whether it lingers on life-support or dances around hale and hearty.  Here's Kyle Beachy in "The Extent of Our Decline":
      Here is your novel of the future. It is messy and sometimes long. It traffics in both ontology and epistemology and demands from you, reader, activity unique today. Your time, your patience. Your effort. But rest assured, please, that beneath these words are the everlasting arms. Sink into these pages, the novelist says, whether on paper or touchscreen, and find love within. Lies, yes, told via a bounty, even superfluity, of words. Though hidden among these lies sits an experience buried, a truth untellable as fact.

In "The Outskirts of Progress," Marco Roth writes:
      The "future of the book" is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. The crisis of the book is really a crisis of our free will to culture.

The collection ends with Reif Larsen's "The Crying of Page 45."  Like Larsen's visually-stunning novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, his essay comes complete with illustrations, charts and dotted lines in the margins.  Martin and Magee were wise to save Larsen's contribution until last--like the final, rousing sermon of a tent revival.  Here's just a portion of the (blessedly-welcome) preaching:
      As I write this, e-books have not been able to achieve the same sang-froid delivery hum of the book. Perhaps it is no surprise then that e-readers are currently obsessed with mimicking the printed page as best they can. The animation present in the iPad, in which you literally can watch the page turn with your fingertip, was cited as "comforting" and "satisfying" and "just like reading a real book" by early reviewers. Of course this is nothing like reading a "real book"--whatever that means. Nor should it be. This kind of thinking is a lingering form of the "horseless carriage syndrome," in which we are trying to reconstruct old technologies in a medium that does not do old technology well. The screen cannot be fondled or written on, folded or torn. The screen does not smell (not yet, at least). We should not simply recreate the sparse beauty of the printed page on the screen. We can learn from the page's minimalism, from the power of its margins, but if we are to be true storytellers in this new medium, then we must embrace the power of the medium and move into new standards of delivery that use the page as only an instructive starting point.

(A curiosity: As I was reading "The Crying of Page 45" six months ago, I was taking a bath.  A hot, steamy bath.  A bath during which I leaned back in pleasure and the pages dipped dangerously close to the water.  As a consequence, whenever I reach that portion of the book now the paper is rippled and wrinkled. What should rub against the grain of my desire to have "clean books" actually comforts me because just by touching these warped pages, a synapse sparks in my brain and I'm taken back to that bathtub. To my delight, I find the water is still warm.  Take that, Kindle!)

The Late American Novel is designed to be a conversation-starter--whether in an on-line chat room or in the living room at your book club's next get-together.  Do yourself a favor, get a copy and use it as fuel** for your literary fire (Kindle version or otherwise).

*A term which, by the way, was recently excised from the "concise edition" of The Oxford English Dictionary.
**Not meaning any Fahrenheit 451 implications by this.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, and so true, while the ebook is great for many reasons, it can never capture the unique thrill of wrinkled/dogeared/well loved (and/or soggy) actual paper pages. Read excerpts from this one in Shelf Unbound as well - seems excellent. Another for the impossibly long TBR.