Friday, February 06, 2004

Readerville Roundtable: The Literary Condition | February 2-6, 2004

An interesting discussion going on here. (Link via Bookslut.) Far more optimistic bunch than usual, even amidst the hand wringing over what is to become of literature. It helps when Nicholas Basbanes starts off the discussion with a post like this:
I have a chapter in “A Splendor of Letters" that I call "Ingenious Cipher," a phrase I derived from an observation offered in 1940 by the great poet-librarian Archibald MacLeish to describe the carrier of wisdom, enchantment, and information we call the book. I offer the brief quote here in full because it is pertinent, I think, to the discourse at hand:

"The physical book is never more than an ingenious and often beautiful cipher by which the intellectual book is communicated by one mind to another, and the intellectual book is always a structure in the imagination which may hang for a time above a folio-page in ten-point type with a half-calf binding only to be found thereafter on a different page above a different type and even in another language."

What MacLeish was saying a half-century or so before the printed book would be regarded in some quarters as a terminal species was that the mode of transmission--the artifact--changes as technology changes, and one of the great pleasures I had in writing SOL was to consider the multitude of writing surfaces that have been developed over the centuries to perform that essential function (and while I was at it to identify some of the timeless works that have been passed on to us by them, the “Gilgamesh” epic by way of baked clay tablets, the “Tao te Ching” by way of silk scrolls and bamboo strips known as slips, etc., etc.)

The relevance of all this to Katherine’s question, I suggest, is that whatever the shape and form of the moment, the book survives. ( Indeed, the subtitle of my book is “the permanence of books in an impermanent world.”) Even more to the point of her question about the future of publishing and writing is the irrefutable fact that publishing is an industry that responds to the tastes and interests of the marketplace. I haven’t seen the figures for 2003 yet, but my guess is that there was something on the order of 60,000 or so new titles issued last year in the United States alone, and the delicate state of the economy notwithstanding, I expect that most of the major houses posted profits. All that talk of a few years ago about e-books supplanting conventional books has become little more than a distraction in recent months, with no discriminating readers, so far as I have been able to see, eschewing their hard covers and paperbacks for flickering pixels, and with some of the publishers abandoning altogether their e-book imprints. (How many Readerville subscribers, I wonder, can say they have read an entire book from beginning to end on a computer screen?)

As for what will be published, well, let’s see what the others have to say as the discussion continues this week. I do know from my research that some of the grand publishing ventures of the past, particularly multi-volume efforts commissioned by university presses that take decades to produce, will likely go electronic. But as for the printed book itself, let me offer the view of Librarian of Congress James Billington, who stressed in an interview with me for “Patience & Fortitude” his belief that one significant consequence of electronic publishing will be that “the serious kind of traditional literature that has always been in book form will continue to appear in book form. The book, in my view, will be freed from a very heavy burden that it has had to bear all these years. It will be allowed to flourish anew.”

From what I've read thus far, it strikes a nice balance between the idealistic and the pragmatic, between the "we are writers, we are creators, we are unsung heroes of civilization" and the "we are narcisisstic, we are full of it, we are in it for the money". It would be foolish, I think, to pretend otherwise.

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