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June 15, 2004

The Culture of Books

Dear Vanessa --

I notice that this year's Book Expo took place in Chicago a few weekends ago. Did you attend? If so, I'm curious to hear how it struck you.

For those who haven't encountered it, Book Expo America is the trade-book industry's annual convention. It's quite a show; two or three thousand exhibitors display their wares to 25,000ish attendees. When it first began, the convention's purpose was to enable publishers to show off upcoming lines of books to retailers, who at the time were mostly local bookstores. What with changes in the business (the big bookselling chains, the absorption of much of the publishing industry into media conglomerates, etc), that original rationale has semi-evaporated. The show has become more of a general bazaar, as well as an excuse for people in the industry to mingle with each other, swap business cards, and size up the competition.

During the years I semi-professionally followed book publishing, I attended 17 of these get-togethers. Fun and exhausting, all of them. But educational, too: I learned far more about the culture of books -- which is, like it or not, the matrix from which all trade books (including that tiny subset known as "literature") emerge -- from attending Book Expos than I did from anything I ever read by a prof or a critic. It's been wonderfully enlightening.

In fact, I've had exasperated "if I were God" moments when I've decided that all authors should be required to attend a Book Expo. It's amazing how naive writers (and would-be writers) can be about the industry they're hoping to find a place in, and their dreaminess has at times driven me batty. At other times, though, I wonder. Some writers, I've found, get some of their energy from their naivete. And is learning the simple truth guaranteed to do anyone any good anyway? The other day, for instance, I heard about a published novelist who attended her first Book Expo and was so traumatized by the experience that she wasn't able to write again for another year. Then again, was the world any worse off?

In any case, I enjoyed the Book Babes' wrapup of this year's BEA, here.

As the years have passed since I gave up following publishing, my brain has gone on sifting and sorting what I observed and experienced. The picture keeps getting simpler and simpler. For instance, if someone a couple of years ago had asked me, "If you had to say which three new lit-fiction books from your years in the biz were the best, which would you choose?", I wouldn't have been able to answer. I'd read too many really good new lit-fiction-books -- how to choose from among them? Today, though? Not a problem: Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; Josef Skvorecky's Dvorak in Love; and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies. In memory -- though I'm not entirely sure why -- these three really stand out.

Another hyper-general retrospective observation ... Many people who go into the writing-and-publishing game quickly get shell-shocked: "Omigod, it's nothing like what my English or creative-writing teachers led to me expect!!!" Those who stick it out seem to my current self to divide into two groups. On the one hand are those people who say, "OK then!! Let's see what it's actually like!!!" These are people who learn to find the activity of creating and selling books rewarding in itself. On the other hand are those people who somehow manage to function in the publishing world despite continuing to cling to Eng-lit standards and attitudes. For them, the existence of the publishing biz is justified only by the "literature" that -- despite the biz -- somehow manages to get produced.

You'll be shocked, schocked to learn that I got along far better with people from the first group. It seemed to me that their interest in books was deeper as well as more trustworthy, while second-group people often seeemed to prefer their idea of what literature can be to the reality of what books really are. (No coincindence that it's often desperately important to these ego-addled people to be seen as those who define what "literature" is.) On the one hand, three-dimensional people who are able to adapt, and who are willing to work with what life brings; on the other, people who want to argue about ideals, to be celebrated for their standards, and to be seen as triumphing despite enormous odds.

Hey, an even-more-general question: are martyr-like superego-wannabe types especially drawn to certain fields? If so, which ones? It seems to me that the arts and the media -- with their glamour, and their soft requirements and qualifications -- must be especially attractive to such people. What percentage of the general population would you guess consists of superego-wannabes? 2%? What prcentage of people in the arts and the media might qualify? 30%? God, they're annoying. I suppose I should be more tolerant of them, although at the moment I can't imagine why.

Still in looking-back mode, it seems to me that the public discussion of books doesn't touch often enough on a couple of important topics. The conglomerization of book publishing was at least taken decent notice of. Trendlets and newsiness -- advances, fads, etc -- are often covered to death and beyond. But two big topics don't get anything like their share of the discussion. IMHO, of course.

  • The impact of electronics on publishing. Amazon, databases, copyright, distribution: all these developments have affected not just the business of books, they have affected the way books are conceived of, accessed, thought about, and experienced. Electronics have even had a dramatic impact on the writing itself. Before anyone jumps on me for making too much of this, let me pass along the titles of a couple of good books by supersmart guys who've done a lot of substantial thinking on the topic: Jay David Bolter's Writing Space (buyable here) and Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word (buyable here). (There are other books on this topic too, I know, but these are the two I liked best.) Bolter and Lanham both argue -- to my mind convincingly -- that electronics have changed the very nature of writing. An example: where text was once thought of as the form where ideas went to become permanent, these days electronic text is an often-modified and easily-updated thing. In such a world, what becomes of writing for the ages?

  • The changing nature of books themselves. A not-unrelated topic, as you might imagine. Thanks in large part to advances in computer and printing technology, the standard book these days is no longer a long prose narrative meant to be read straight through. Instead, it's more like a zippy-looking database, or a website.

    For examples of what I'm talking about, I've scanned in spreads from two books I happen to be reading. First up: Stephen Toulmin's intellectual history about how Western thought went wrong in the 17th century, Cosmopolis.

    And here's a spread from John Bowker's God: A Brief History:

    Both are good, substantial books by serious profs. But they certainly look dramatically different. They work differently too. The Toulmin is all black-and-white, all-prose, and has a voice-and-idea flow that moves through many successive pages. The Bowker (published by the wonderful Dorling Kindersley) has color on every page, and is composed of text blocks, images, highlight boxes, heads and subheads. And, instead of foregrounding a single voice talking on and on, the Bowker is made up of chunks. Each spread, for example, features -- along with a sack of graphic goodies -- a self-contained, theme-driven essay.

    As we move ever more in the direction of this kind of book -- and I'm pretty certain that we aren't witnessing a minor trend but instead a tectonic change -- what's going to become of the long-linear-argument end of things? Will we be postmodern and leave it behind with no regrets? Even if we do, people are likely to want some kind of coherence from a book. What ways of giving these books coherence have developed? (Themes and topics, largely.) What ways of giving these books coherence are likely to develop?

    Another question to enjoy fretting over in this context: what's likely to become of what we arty types love to think of as "the author's voice"? Book purchasers have for a couple of centuries bought many books hoping for a personal-seeming connection with the author behind the book. These new-style books, though, are put together more like TV shows or small movies than they are like traditional books. The moving force behind them usually isn't an author; usually, it's an editor, agent, or packager. These projects also can't by any stretch be considered the product of one hand; they demand intensive collaboration between -- at a minimum -- writer, editer, artist/photographer, and designer. And, like TV and movies, they tend to be expensive to produce. So ,will the bookbuyer of the future simply have less of an appetite for the direct-personal-connection-to-the-author thing? Or will she learn to get it otherwise, as we've learned to take some movies and TV shows as being "by" a solitary author-figure? In that case, why should the person who supplied the words be considered the author of the work ? Perhaps the editor will be instead.

    And how will the proliferation of these mixed-media books affect future reading-and-writing habits and expectations anyway?

FWIW, one reason I usually hold back from conversations about what's a great book and what's not is that all the candidates usually proposed are long prose narratives written to be read straight through. And, also FWIW, I'm not convinced that 80 years hence many people will be spending much time with such books. I can't imagine why they would be. (By the way, I'm not talking about whether I approve of this or disapprove; I'm an enthusiastic raised-on-books book-reader myself. I'm trying instead to make a plausible forecast.) Based on current developments, it seems to me likely that, in a few decades, the reading of long-prose-narratives-meant-to-be-gone-straight-through will have become a special and rare taste.

How could it be otherwise? Computers and the Web will be far better than they currently are; we'll have portable devices capable of storing and displaying tons of audiovisual material; and even books and magazines will largely be design-heavy, mostly-visual things. In such a media world, what chance will long prose narratives stand? Especially once we generations who grew up on acres of prose have died off.

Though I wonder if the long-prose-narrative thing might be kept half-alive ... It's such a low-budget (and physically easy-to-produce) medium. Perhaps it'll make sense for the media business to sponsor long prose narratives as a way of trying certain projects out before committing big money to them.

How do you interact with these chunked-up visual books anyway? I tend to flip around inside them, put them on a shelf, and then pull them down occasionally to use as reference books. And when I do look closely at a spread or a section, I'll skim it first, eyeballing art and boxes before selectively diving into the prose -- an approach more akin to surfing the Web than to reading a traditional book. Do you ever read one of these books straight through? I'm trying to do so with the Bowker, but I'm finding it rather unnatural.



UPDATE: Mallarme at The Greater Nomadic Council comments here.

posted by Michael at June 15, 2004


No doubt Paglia would consider these "serious picture books" to be another example of Pagan Image ever increasingly taking over Text as European societies re-paganize. I'm more inclined to think it's just marketing (not that that is necessarily different). Why this would be a successful marketing ploy (if it is)is another matter. My reaction is similar to yours: mostly I look through the pictures and skim the text in a desultory manner. I have yet to buy such a book (tons of D-K for the kids, of course), but there is one that has tempted me in the past: I don't recall the title, but it was an apparently serious book on Hinduism which nevertheless had a format similar to the Bowker book. What attracted me were the myriad (full color)depictions of gods, avatars, demons, etc. I never have been able to keep even basic Hindu mythology straight, so I thought it would make a great reference. But it was a little pricey (the ultimate point of these books, I fear), so I passed on it. Maybe I'm just limited, too text-bound, but I can't see buying one of these books except for a graphic reference.

Posted by: bald cypress on June 15, 2004 01:08 PM

Perhaps books in this format (Bowker) reinforce the theory that the ADD syndrome is rampant in America? Today's world is so rush, rush. Everything designed to be digested in 30 second clips of attention. These visual books are just a sign of the times. Alas.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 15, 2004 02:38 PM

What a lovely post! (Another.)

FWIW: I read "those" books straight through, as often as any other non-fiction. And don't you think Stephen Toulmin would have wanted pretty pictures and graphics? Medical books have been image heavy pretty much from the get-go. (As an aside, after many years, I've decided the images confuse the issue in books about centered riding and suchlike.)

You might want to wander down to a sci-fi bookstore - "graphic novels" sell as well as any 500-page pure-text installment in a giant, seemingly endless series.

Back in the day, I new a few people who were working with hypertext and "new" ways of writing. None of it got any further than Choose Your Own Adventure - at least, not that I know of.

It does seem that video - especially live - has destroyed news reporting.

My guess is that a very large percentage of the general population consists of superego-wannabes. The thing is, a lot of people lack the smarts or circumstances to foist their addled egos on the rest of us. (One hears that many of these people are able to put on shows for their therapists.)

That seems glib and probably doesn't make my point. My own ego must be addled.

It's very nice of you, M. Blowhard, to suggest we be should be more tolerant.

I see no reason to be more tolerant of them - why should we tolerate people who believe that most of us should spend our lives in awe of the tiny elite group of them? Why can't they tolerate my desire to be left alone? Just be a member of the herd, that's my motto. Live and let live. Chew clover. Avoid scrapie. Like that.

Posted by: j.c. on June 15, 2004 02:40 PM

Way back in 1940, before TV, before the Web, etc., Mortimer Adler wrote a book called "How to Read a Book." It is an excellent book, IMO. Adler makes the point that one difference between skilled and unskilled readers is that the latter believe that all books should be read cover to cover, whereas the former understand that very few books actually require being thus read. Adler then teaches us how to do what he called "inspectional reading," or "educated skimming"--he gives very precise instructions for how to do this. Close, cover to cover, reading he calls "analytic reading." It's required for most novels, of course, and for tightly constructed philosophical tracts and such. The highest form of reading, Adler says, is "syntopical reading," in which we engage in an educated skimming of several books on a given subject so as to draw out connections and relationships. Since I read Adler's book when I was very young, my own reading techniques largely follow Adler's instructions.

All of which is to say that these new sorts of heavily produced books (of which I just "wrote" one of my own, though I find the form maddening) may be a belated recognition of the essential inadvisability of reading books cover to cover in the first place. I think traditional novels and linear philosophical arguments will continue to be produced. It's just that other kinds of books that have always mimicked those linear forms may no longer seek to do so.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 15, 2004 03:19 PM

"Back in the day, I new a few people who were working with hypertext and "new" ways of writing. None of it got any further than Choose Your Own Adventure - at least, not that I know of."

This has been pretty much my impression as well. I took a class on hypertext with Michael Joyce, hypertext theorist and author of seminal hypertext Afternoon, and my impressions of it haven't changed. As a definite category, hypertext seems pretty much meaningless, since the theorists are intent on obfuscating the issue rather than clarifying it. But in general, yes, it seems to mean very vapid choose your own adventure types, which, though giving the illusion of choice or interactivity with the narrative, really do no such thing, since every choice that can be made is decided upon beforehand by the author, and unapproved choices cannot be made (Lets not get into the fact that most of the choices are made semi-blindly due to ambiguity).

In general though, the entire endeavor just reeks of avant-garde impetuousness, and as much as they rail against straightforward narrative that's unresponsive to a reader, I see them as far worse in that regard. Most people I know would rather read even a mediocre non-hypertextual novel than a great hypertextual one.

As for nonfiction, I don't stray too far into that side of things. I suspect a lot of the design changes are a result of book-by-committee (textbooks especially) and deconstructionist theory that disfavors single coherent narratives (thinking here specifically of history textbooks). Francis' syntopical reading theory also seems valid.

Posted by: . on June 15, 2004 09:14 PM

Just a thought, remembering old books I've read... Could today's design- and illustration-heavy books be a consequence of simply being able to do it? Look at your old books: if they were illustrated with photographs at all, they were included as a separate section on different, glossier paper than the main text, and rather self-consciously labelled "plates." (My 1911 Britannica even has "coloured plates" for line drawings like Flags of the World, with rather poor color printing.) Book production and technology at the time couldn't integrate decent printing of photographs into the main text very handily. Yet there has always been a need to illustrate text with pictures, and maybe one of today's DK books is what a book designer of 1912 would have given his eyeteeth to be able to do. For my taste, things have gone a little too far in the direction of artsy flash over solid content, and I get impatient with breaking off reading the main text to read yet another sidebar.

On another book note: in my current state of semi-retirement, I've decided to use my time to whittle down the stacks of unread books I've bought but never gotten around to over the years. As a matter of policy, just to be able to list a book in the "Read" (past tense) column, I've been reading each one straight through. Somehow it would seem like cheating, like not having really read the book at all, to skim or cherry-pick for particularly pertinent bits, even if that is the modern way to do it. If I were researching a specific topic or studying a narrowly defined subject, it would be a different matter, and I could justify mining just what I need out of a given book while giving the rest of it a pass.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 17, 2004 01:26 PM

Bald -- T^hat's probably exactly how Paglia would see it, lol. How do you react to her theories about where popular culture is going, etc? I think she's great and am with her about 90% of the way. We seem to see the same things, but we seem to react to them differently. She has a triumphalist way of celebrating the pop-ification of everything (though she's no fool about the consequences), where I'm full of misgivings. I attribute this to her being of Italian (ie., let's heat this baby up!) descent, where I'm of northern-Euro (let's cool this baby off!) ancestry. Also, she's a little older than I am -- a real '60s person. I think she was able to take a lot of that '60s "rock will set you free" stuff much more seriously than I was. By the time I came along, the downside of the '60s ethos was already apparent, so I watched what I saw much more skeptically. Interesting that you take these books as reference things -- they do seem to function best that way, don't they? It seems to help explain one of the big mysteries, which is why prose-fiction doesn't seem to work well on the web. Maybe traditional prose fiction takes some slowing-down, some immersion in an imagined world, etc -- it can't survive an itchy mouse finger. I dunno, though, really.

Pattie -- I think you're right about ADD. These kinds of works seem to promote it. A funny thing is that they were conceived of as a way to set us all free (I remember some cyber-hypertext types years ago who were going around yakking proudly about setting everyone free from the tyranny of text). I think a lot of these developments are darn nifty, and can even feel liberating to those of us with more traditional backgrounds. But those who are born into a click-and-go world seem to develop no depths, let alone patience. It's just the water they swim in.

JC -- You're right, let's just purge the world of superego-wannabes. Who needs 'em? If there've got to be judges and critics, I want them to be people who are reluctant to do the job, not people who are desperate to do it. I'm with you where hypertext is concerned too. I'd read some of those things and wind up feeling ten times more boxed-in than I do when reading a traditional book. And then I'd think about video games (Bugdom, something like that) and think, Wait a minute, this is already a create-your-own-adventure environment! Once again the academics and theoreticians seem to have missed what's plenty obvious to lots of other people. Fascinating that the hypertext world never seems to have gone anywhere, really. I wonder how the Brown U. kids who spent time with Coover feel about it now. Was it fun? Educational? A waste?

Francis -- That's fascinating about the Adler, thanks. I hadn't run into that before. It does sound like Surfing the Web 101, doesn't it? And: you've written one of these chunked-up visual books? I'm eager to know more. First so I can buy a copy, but also to hear what it's like to be "the writer guy" on a team putting together such a book. I despise writing to space myself (for better or, probably, worse), and it seems like putting together such a book would be nothing but writing to space. More like creating (or solving) puzzles than what I think of as writing.

"." -- You studied with Michael Joyce? He was a legend for five minutes. I wonder what he's up to these days. How long can you go on pretending that hypertext is going to revolutionize the world? Like you, I always found it amazing that some people seemed to think that we needed to be set free from authorial authority, as though authorial authority was responsible for disease in Africa or poverty in Asia. What were they thinking? More practically, presented with one of these "put it together yourself" works -- I don't mind that the genre exists, this is just my usual reaction to it -- I tend to feel like someone who's gone to a restaurant, has ordered dinner, and is given a tray full of ingrediants, and is told to put it together for himself. I go to a restaurant to be served a meal, darn it. Have you kept in touch with the hypertext world? I wonder if it still has much oomph to it.

Dwight -- I know that feeling, that I haven't really read the book unless I've plowed thru from beginning to end. At the same time, I've always loved playing with books -- juggling a half a dozen, at least some of which I'll never finish; yanking books off shelves and scribbling notes, etc. What I find funny about the chunked-up web-style world is that it kind of enforces that way of going about things. Unless you pick and choose and surf and play, you'll just bog down. I think you're right that a big part of the reason these books are made this way is simply that they can be. In fact, if you go back to the very earliest years of books, when they were still handmade, they were amazingly similar to these computer-age books -- chunked-up, not really meant to be read straight through, lotsa visuals ... Seems to be, in some ways, what books have always wanted to be. Another reason why I wonder whether in 50 years there'll be many people at all bothering with read-it-straight-through books. You and I have a big taste for that kind of thing. But is it natural? And what kind of chance does it have to flourish in a world a-brim with tons of other (and much-more-accessible) media goodies? Fiction? I wonder if people will want tons of prose fiction. Already most people are getting their fiction fixes from TV, DVDs, cable, etc. And as all these media blend, the old barriers and categories that fiction tends to depend on crumble -- so I wonder what direction storytelling is going to go in. I suspect that things like reality-TV and videojockeys are suggesting what we'll see a lot more of in the future -- ongoing, semi-scripted things with people kind of playing themselves and kind of not playing themselves. Hey: blogs. We've got characters here, and ongoing stories -- blogdom is already a kind of open-ended soap opera, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2004 04:20 PM

In all this, I think the traditional book form is going to stick around, at least for fiction. When reading fiction, illustrations are a distraction from the prose: there's a special kind of engrossment that comes from following the author's voice. Requiring that eyes have a function other than reading (such as looking at pictures) breaks that spell.

Non-straight-through fiction exists already - look at Asimov's I, Robot or Orson Scott Card's The Worthing Saga - but usually in the form of a collection of short stories. It works well, but IMHO coherent narrative works better.

Movies and audiobooks have their uses, but they are synchronous media. They have to be watched or listened to in real-time. Books can be sped up or slowed down to match the pace of the reader. It's the difference between a lecture and a conversation (and good lecturers often time themselves by the expressions of their students.)

And as long as novels exist in narrative form, I'd wager the readers won't lose touch so much as to demand a new form for non-fiction works of ideas. (Exposition is better off without a single coherent narrative, I think, but no one can prove a thesis that way.)

Posted by: Bob McGrew on June 18, 2004 02:45 AM

Has anyone read Anderw Sean Greer's Max Tivoli, published this past February? I thought it was quite good, although it was clear the author was new in the field. The storyline was compelling. But the writing, well there were some really great pieces, and then some parts where it seemed to dwindle. .or maybe he was just outdoing himself, or trying to. . I got the sense he hadn't quite found his voice before he sat down to write. Still, allin all I thought it was good. He got pretty good feedback-comparisons with Nabokov, even Joyce. Any opinions?

Posted by: Shana on June 20, 2004 03:34 AM

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