14 July 2010

Books in Print

Not long ago, I made the possibly shameful confession that I love libraries. I guess it’s not surprising to learn that I love books, too. I also love newspapers, but I not only love the daily paper and its news stories and editorials, but I love the look of it. No, that’s not accurate. I love the looks of the different newspapers.

I live in New York City now and I read the New York Times and I occasionally look at the Post, Daily News, and Village Voice. I grew up in Washington where my family took both the Washington Post and the Evening Star. When I was a teenager, we lived in Germany and we read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune and The Stars and Stripes. They all looked different, with different banners, different typefaces, different layouts, even different sizes: The Stars and Stripes, New York Post, Daily News, and Village Voice are tabloids; the others are (or were—the Star is no longer with us and the Paris Trib is now the International Herald Tribune) broadsheets. When I came to New York and got into research, either for graduate school, independent projects, or out-of-town clients, I referred to a lot of newspapers from all over the country and even all over the world and I found a kind of pleasure in seeing the variations on the theme of newspaper format that was both thrilling and comforting at the same time. It was fun, a kind of game like spotting license plates on a long-distance car trip.

From what I’ve been reading over the past few years, this little corner of civilization is in jeopardy. It’s getting too expensive to publish newspapers and the readership is shrinking. People who get their news from papers are turning to on-line editions and as subscribers and readers migrate to electronic media, advertisers abandon print media, too, and publishers lose their principal source of revenue. Several papers around the country have already closed down and others are abandoning coverage and reducing their sizes. Sooner or later, the act of unfolding a newspaper and thumbing through the day’s stories, ads, and editorials, moving from the front page to the last, from one section to another, will no longer be a common occurrence. Sitting on a subway or in a park with a newspaper won’t be possible anymore.

It looks like the same future is in store for books, too. E-books are becoming more and more common and, some publishers predict, will soon overtake paper books in terms of sales. Like newspapers, it will eventually become too expensive to publish printed books as readers move to the electronic versions. I will miss books when it comes to that.

I suppose I have to cop to being something of a Luddite. I got a computer in the mid-1980s, but I didn’t go on line until long after everyone else had done so. I just didn’t see any need for it—until I did, and then I linked up. I still don’t own a CD or DVD player. I got my first cell phone just last winter because until then, I didn’t see the need. (I still rarely use my cell—which, by the way, doesn’t take pictures, play music, or record sounds.) The truth is, I don’t really like reading on a screen. I do it because it’s now a necessity, but if I want to read a long piece from a website, I often print it out and read it on paper. It’s not that I reject technology. I got a wordprocessor during my first semester in a Ph.D. program because I could see the advantages it provided for a writing-heavy course. I gladly gave up my electric typewriter—I’m not one of those curmudgeons who insists on hunting-and-pecking on an old manual because it “feels right.” I don’t see how any writer, teacher, or student can work without a computer (or the Internet) these days.

But there’s something about a book (and a newspaper) that makes me resist the idea of e-versions. I have a small private library and I can’t imagine living without it. You can’t line bookshelves with e-books. (E-books also don’t have covers that can be little works of art in themselves. Maybe you can’t judge the book by its cover—but an e-book doesn’t have one at all. And can you imagine a coffee-table e-book?) I have books that go back to high school—and I still use them! As useful as the Internet is—and I use it all the time for my work as well as for my amusement—sometimes a book is just the best way to go.

I also use e-mail, both for private and frivolous correspondence and for work-related communication. For speed and efficiency, you can’t beat it and I find it immensely useful and often entertaining. (I have a friend with whom I exchange daily—often several times a day—messages just chatting about this ‘n’ that—stuff we’ve seen or read, thought up, or heard about.) ROT started from e-mails. But when I was doing a lot of research for some scholars at universities outside New York, digging up references and documents for them, it dawned on me that e-mail is basically ephemeral. I know you can save it, and offices and agencies are required to keep significant messages, but electronic communications are just evanescent. What’s more, they can’t be passed along later on to an archive like a library, and an awful lot of that research I did was finding old letters sent from one historically important figure to another. One project on which I assisted was the publication of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. The first two volumes cover correspondence from 1920 to 1957. Would a future editor or biographer be able to find e-mails, tweets, blog comments, and so on from 90 years earlier? Someone saved Williams’s early letters (he was nine in 1920); later correspondence—including postcards, telegrams, and random notes, are in various archival collections in libraries and document repositories around the country. Would e-mails ever end up in those kinds of places where they could be retrieved by writers of the future? My parents have kept some of my old letters from school and the army, but if I ever become famous, would any of my friends and colleagues have retained old e-mails for a researcher to look at? Many e-mail systems don’t even save messages older than a week or so. They’re just erased, gone, sent out into the ether. What will happen to the next Tennessee Williams or Elia Kazan (I helped collect his letters for a scholar, too) or Ronald Reagan (Nancy published his old letters to her)? Those letters are often fascinating and revealing. If newspapers are the first drafts of history, then letters may be the notes for that draft.

I’m not bemoaning “the lost art of letter writing.” I’ve written and received e-mails that are every bit as eloquent as any paper letters I’ve seen. (And not every letter—or everyone’s letters—has literary aspirations. The art of writing letters declined long before computers arrived on the scene.) What I’m questioning is the staying power of electronic correspondence. Even if it’s not erased, it’ll be stored on some obsolete hard drive somewhere, maybe even irretrievable if someone could find it. Technology becomes obsolete—just ask any library or school that still has Betamax videotapes they can’t watch anymore—while paper and ink will always remain accessible. Even if they’re stashed somewhere, someone can find them and read them. We frequently hear reports of hundred-year-old documents that have been discovered hidden away. Will 100-year-old e-mails be available for anyone to reread? I wonder.

It’s not just e-mails and such that are in this predicament, of course. Websites in general are ephemeral, too. I can’t attest to the worthiness for preservation of anything I post on ROT, but let’s imagine that it’s worth keeping. In 50 years, will anyone be able to find copies of my old posts? I’ve published a few articles in on-line periodicals which don’t have paper editions. There’s no question about the legitimacy of such publication as a career credit, but will the articles still be accessible for someone doing research in 10 or 20 years? (Believe it or not, a few of my essays have been cited by later writers. But those citations were from printed journals.) Even the more prominent Internet writing, like Slate or Politico: will anyone be able to research old articles on those sites in half a century like I can with old newspapers, Time magazines, or books? It doesn’t feel like any of those outlets, which do contain serious writing and opinions that should have some bearing on histories of our time written in the future, will be available for consultation and research. (I certainly can’t put a copy of the e-journal on my shelf among the small collection of my published essays, can I?)

I’m not making allusions to the dubious provenance of on-line publications in contrast to paper ones. We all know that there are dangers in using Internet information as a reference. Books and printed periodicals have the cachet of editors and fact-checkers, though we also know from many recent revelations that that isn’t a guarantee of accuracy or even honesty. I’m only contemplating the permanence, the lasting availability, the future accessibility of on-line writing versus the paper kind. Libraries keep old books and periodicals we can get to when we want them. There are archival collections that contain the letters and papers of the Tennessee Williamses, Max Lerners, and Elia Kazans and scholars, writers, and historians consult their holdings all the time. Who keeps electronic publications? Where would I go in the future to work with the e-mails or e-publications of a current figure I want to write about? Nancy Reagan kept her husband’s letters; who’s keeping Barack Obama’s private e-mails? My dad collected and bound the letters he and my mom exchanged during World War II. Who’s keeping today’s courting couples’ electronic love messages? A friend once sent me a copy of a wonderful memoir his grandfather wrote covering his life as a frontier lawyer for the first 60 years of the 20th century. Today that chronicle would be written on a computer and, unless the author printed a copy on paper, it would exist only as electronic blips on some disk somewhere. I donated my copy of the reminiscence to the NYPL so that someone interested in that bit of Americana can find it in the local history division; what would happen to a latter-day counterpart?

There’s a lot more to my feeling of impending loss when I contemplate the shift from paper books to e-books. On Sunday, 30 May, the New York Times ran two pieces dealing with this very topic, a column by Peter Khoury (“In Ink on a Flyleaf, Forever Yours”) and an editorial by Verlyn Klinkenborg (“Further Thoughts of a Novice E-Reader”). (Klinkenborg had also published an earlier “Editorial Notebook” essay, “Some Thoughts About E-Reading,” 15 April.) These got me thinking about books, e-books, and why I like the paper kind so much. We all recognize the useful attributes of electronic publications: the portability; the searchability; the immediate access from anywhere, even miles from a bookstore or library, in the middle of the night or a fierce snowstorm. I use Google Books on line and other electronic editions of published materials. I use the on-line editions of not only newspapers from far away, by my own New York Times because it’s sometimes more convenient than the print edition I get at home (such as for cutting-and-pasting quotations or e-mailing short articles to colleagues). But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t miss the paper copy of books and newspapers if they should disappear in favor of the electronic versions.

Khoury’s main point is that we’d lose the pleasure of finding a book with an inscription on the flyleaf, a personal sentiment from one person to someone else. Khoury called this “the personality that authors—and the people who give books to others as presents—sometimes leave for posterity.” Sometimes, it’s a first-edition inscribed and signed by the author, a sort of visceral connection between us and the creator of the work. You can’t have that in an e-book. “[W]here would the extra personality that comes with an inscription go?” asks Khoury. On my last birthday, one of my cousins gave me a couple of theater-related books. You can’t give an e-book and write a personal note inside the cover so that the sentiment expressed remains part of the book forever. In fact, you can’t really give an e-book to someone else at all—unless you want to give up your e-reader as well, a rather expensive gift in the end. You can’t even lend someone an e-book without giving up the reader as well. I exchange books with friends often, sometimes for long periods. (I have one book now that’s a loan from a friend who gave it to me months ago. I couldn’t keep his e-reader that long.) I used to lend books to students; I wouldn’t do that if I had to give them my expensive reader, too. What a sad loss—no more books as gifts, no more loans, no more personal notes inside. It’s not even about the books. It’s about the human connection, the “collaborative discourse” that we lose. “That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture,” writes Klinkenborg.

Klinkenborg’s principal theme, in both his editorials, is different. He writes about the feel of a paper book, its physical existence in your possession. “I love the typefaces and the bindings and the feel of well-made paper,” he says. And I couldn’t agree more. Holding a book, owning a book, is something. It’s palpable and warm and somehow alive in a way that holding a little computer screen or sitting in front of a big one just isn’t. Turning pages is a kind of positive act that clicking a button on a screen isn’t. As Klinkenborg observes, “The book is the book, whereas, in electronic formats, the book often seems to be merely the text.” (The same, by the way, is true of a newspaper.) Running my hand down the page of even the cheapest edition of a paperback is somehow satisfying, getting a feel for this object with which I’m about to enter into a relationship. You can’t do that with a computer monitor.

With many books, I do have a sort of conversation when I read. I make marginal notes, little comments that are a sort of dialogue with the author. I make comparisons to other experiences, references to other books or articles, ideas, thoughts, connections. One example of this is the four sections of my remarks on Kirk Woodward’s The Art of Writing Reviews that I published on ROT in November 2009. The basis of those comments were my marginalia from reading the book; I just typed them up and cleaned up the grammar and syntax for public consumption. One of the books I used to lend to students is my copy of Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. A few years ago, I had to buy a lending copy because my original one had so many notes and highlights in it, it was unreadable by anyone other than me. (It also started to fall apart from use, like my copy of Harold Clurman’s On Directing, now held together by a rubber band! Those books are not just texts; they’re part of my life.) That kind of symbiosis isn’t possible with an e-book. You can’t make marginal notes on an e-reader or a computer. “Reading is a subtle thing,” says Klinkenborg, “and its subtleties are artifacts of a venerable medium: words printed in ink on paper. Glass and pixels aren’t the same.”

Klinkenborg also makes a point about the look of a book, the words printed on a page as compared to the pixels on a screen. No wordprocessed or electronic document, no matter the selected font, will ever look as good as a printed book, he insists. Books, he suggests, are beautiful—and, of course, that’s true because bookmaking is an art. E-publishing is a technology. The value of an e-book is what it can do beyond presenting a text to read. As Klinkenborg declares, paper books “do nothing. . . . [W]hat I really love is their inertness.” Like a painting, a sculpture, or an architectural masterpiece, a book’s value isn’t in what it does. It’s in what it is.

Probably I’m a fuddy-duddy. (Okay, no doubt I am a fuddy-duddy.) I was born long enough ago that books (and newspapers) were just they way I grew up. Paper and printer’s ink were all there was. Hell, photocopiers didn’t even come along until I was in college—and the really useful ones that copied onto plain paper and could handle illustrations and photos didn’t exist until I was in grad school. Klinkenborg makes this same point: I grew up reading books, not texts. “The difference,” as he asserts, “is important.” Those of you who came along later and began sentient life with computers and e-books, and didn’t have the formative introduction to the printed word may see all this as a silly resistance to letting go of obsolescent technology. I don’t have any special attraction to horses and buggies; I grew up with cars and airplanes. I was 14 when the first man went into space. I don’t bemoan the effect TV’s had on movies and theater—I grew up with television. So maybe some of you see electronic publishing and e-books the way I see those other technological advancements. That’s fine; I’m not trying to turn the clock back. I just know I’ll miss the feel of a book in my hand when I read, the way it lies open on my lap or on the desk, how I mark my place with a bookmark. I’ll miss putting my bookplate in the front of a new book. When I finished writing the chapter on Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale for Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, I went out and found a copy of the 1964 volume that first published both plays together. It was my gift to myself for completing the work. What a perfect reward! (I got that book at the old Gotham Book Mart, but the area near where I live used to be chockablock with used bookstores. I used to love to browse through them once a month or so just to see what treasures I might find.)

A final thought, borrowed from Verlyn Klinkenborg because he nailed it: “The question isn’t what will books become in a world of electronic reading. The question is what will become of the readers we’ve been—quiet, thoughtful, patient, abstracted—in a world where interactive can be too tempting to ignore.”

Indeed.

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