Twinsburg Library Presentations on the Future of Books

This past week, the Twinsburg, Ohio Public Library held a special event that featured Donald “Mack” Hassler among a number of other guests to discuss the future of books. I didn’t go to the discussion, but I did hear about it through the grapevine by way of a conference-call email from Mack. One of the folks covering the event for the blogosphere was Tim Zaun, who wrote a very excellent synopsis of the gathering here, which includes an outline of the arguments that each guest speaker made on the future of books.

Reading Zaun’s reporting of the event reminded me of things that I had written in the past on the future of books here and here. In the past, I felt a tension between digital books and pulp books. Each have their own unique and promising properties. However, my thinking has changed somewhat after having played with an Apple iPad.

Actually, I fell in love with the iPad on the several occasions I’ve had to play with one. As much as I lament the loss of the physical book artifact, I cannot ignore the power that a computer affords a reader over a text. There’s so many cool things that you can do once the text is in an electronic form. The thing for the future is to make sure we insist on our rights as readers to the full text and power over the text besides reading. If we’re going to switch to a new mode of reading through computer technology, reading and the things we do with texts should change and transform into something new. I am afraid that ebooks will just be another fight as it has been with the RIAA and MPAA regarding the transformation of their industries. The FCC’s allowing media to control your TV, stereo, etc. with the output block bit is only one example of how big media wants to control what you see and how you may see it. I don’t want this to happen with books. At least for now, the debate seems to be taking place in the marketplace–there is competition and multiple players–all healthy things, but as we’ve seen with other media, a state of affairs that can change very quickly.

I do hope that I can own an iPad in the near future, but graduate life as it is, may prevent this from being an immediate possibility. Perhaps one will fall out of the sky, but I hope that it has some kind of descent assist. The psychic trauma of finding a destroyed iPad would be too much to bear.

Robert Jackson on The Future of the Book and the Future of Academic Libraries

On October 28, Robert H. Jackson visited Kent State to give a talk in the Read Special Collections Classroom on the 10th floor of the Library on “The Future of the Book and the Future of Academic Libraries.”  Mr. Jackson is a lawyer by trade, and a recognized collector of books and tribal art.

Mr. Jackson argues that there is something special about the physicality of books, and what books mean to us that will help keep them around for at least another hundred years.  However, he admits that books are part of a technological process for the presentation and maintenance of words via text.  He charted his way through scrolls, codex, printed word, and the electronic revolution.  It’s the latter that he has some concerns about regarding the conservation of our textual archive in the future.

He bills himself as a collector of information–information that is inherently unstable and fleeting.  He catches concrete pieces of information before it’s lost and left to deteriorate.  The electronic revolution has problematized the collection of information for book collectors as well as library special collections.  First, there’s no longer manuscripts of creative works.  He noted that even John Updike has given up the typewriter for the computer word processor.  Obviously, writers draft their work in word processors, but the author has to be mindful of the writing process to produce files that would resemble what we consider manuscripts.  I imagine, more often than not, authors draft their work in one file or in chapter files, but the act of word processor writing lends itself to continual revision–subtle changes that are skewered for meaning by scholars but lost in the digital age.  Then, if special collections or a collector is presented with digital manuscripts, how should these be preserved?  What if they are on 320K 5 1/4″ floppy disks, or another difficult to read medium?  What about the rate at which computer storage changes–anything cutting edge now will be difficult to read in 5 or 10 years.  Another problem involves author letters and correspondence.  Most communication today is done by email, but there is often no special care taken in the preservation of these emails.  Furthermore, how should emails and other digital communications (think:  myspace, facebook, twitter, aim, etc.) be preserved?  

This problem of preservation is primarily one presented to library special collections.  Mr. Jackson has some canny observations about the trends in libraries and their special collections.  He views the library as the core or heart of a campus.  The library has its own gravitational field about which the rest of campus rotates.  It’s a place of learning–students and professors go there to work, study, and interact.  However, a shift occurred beginning in the 1990s where computers were used more in the library setting than books.  Now, we get the majority of our research from what he calls indexes, or perhaps more appropriately, databases.  However, I get his point that there has been a shift from the content to the proliferation of content indexing, and the use of finding where content is stored rather than delving right into the content itself.  

Coupled to this indexing is the recent move by Google to digitally store books online.  He believes that it’s healthy to make things available to a wider audience at all times.  What does this mean for the future of books and libraries?  He admits that books are only a stage in a progression of textual technologies, and he sees libraries as becoming even more dedicated to being places of learning.  He sees books falling to the wayside with the growing popularity of serials, which he admits has been a form since the 1500s, but they are undeniably growing in popularity, he says, because they don’t give you all the information at once.  At this point he gave TV programs and Star Wars as examples, but I would add to that the Web, YouTube, etc. He talks of books as having a reliability and authenticity, especially in uncertain times, that other media do not have, or I might suggest haven’t yet attained.  Also, he says that special collections will continue to grow and accrete more library space for the preservation of books.  With this being the case, he argues that special collections should assume a museum-like approach in which books are made available and the collections are displayed for people to easily see.  He wants to see libraries become a destination for people and families in the same way that museums and zoos are today–a destination of rare and valuable books with a “less rarified audience.”  He believes this will happen, because people want to see the real thing rather than a representation of the real thing such as on Google Books.  

This was an enjoyable presentation, and it helped me think more about some recent conversations that I’ve had with Mack Hassler regarding my own marriage/affair with books and technology.  I wish more literature grad students had attended, because this is important stuff for us to think about not only in terms of the shifting academic culture and job market, but with the very artifacts that we hold dear as objects of study.  As it was, I believe most of the folks in attendance were from the Classical Studies Department.  

After the presentation, I was beat and wanted to get home after a long day at the office, but I stuck around a few minutes to talk to Mr. Jackson.  While I was waiting, he told one well wisher that he was going to CERN this week for a private tour.  Apparently, Mr. Jackson has another hobby–quantum mechanics.  He talked about having a tutor so he would be up to speed on things before his trip.  I imagine he’s in Switzerland as I’m writing this–the lucky bastard.  Anyways, I did get the chance to talk to him on my way toward the elevator.  I told him about Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, which I thought was a critique of some of the very things that he said about the digitalization of books.  He said that he had read some of Vinge’s other stuff, so he would add Vinge’s most recent Hugo Award winner to his reading list.  I think he’ll get a kick out of it.

Why Is the Digital Future Only Found in Books?

Awhile back, Mack Hassler and I were talking about online personas and the differences between created personas in traditional print culture and the new electronic media.  Mack pointed out that the real interesting personae come through print culture and he named examples including Swift, Greg Egan, Philip K. Dick, and David Foster Wallace (think “Lyndon”)–all of whom employ internal controversies and different voices.  Philip K. Dick is an interesting example particularly if you consider his last published novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).  It strikes me how much his supposedly strong female protagonist, Angel Archer, is like the author.  After reading Sutin’s biography of Dick, Divine Invasions (2005), there are unmistakable parallels between Archer and Dick, and I draw the conclusion that Archer is a voice for the author–a persona of her creator–PKD.

What does that have to do with the divide between print and computer media cultures?  There’s something to be said about the complexity and the richness of layers, all of which are probably tempered and strengthened by the publication process including acceptance and editing, present in print media–novels and short stories–that facilitates strong persona creation unequaled by electronic media as yet.  We all create online personae through email, social networking, or blogging (among other personal broadcast technologies). Those who interact with us electronically do so via cyberspace, that shared consensual hallucination, and we meet with only what we bring us–our words and stray bits of data including images, sounds, videos, and our reputation.  It is these things that others use to create an image or avatar of ourselves in their minds in order to make sense of our interactions–that’s just what our brains do with the available data at hand.  However, as Mack observed and I agree, the new media has permitted a proliferation of persona creation, but it is by-and-large thinned out in comparison to what we find in print media.

This then leads to my personal conundrum.  Mack said to me, “You’re serious about print, but you’re not serious.”  I am heavily invested in computer technology.  I built a PC specifically for online gaming–not that my grad student responsibilities allow me any time for that–and I recently decided to invest in Apple due to the economic downturn, which netted me their latest and greatest machined aluminum MacBook with a solid-state hard drive.  Despite the hardware underpinnings of my digital life via email, Facebook, and my blog, I rarely read or encounter stories online.  Yes, I read a lot online, probably more than I should considering my other duties, but the one thing that I don’t read online are SF stories.  The stories, the SF, that creates, imagines, and interfaces with the future is largely nonexistent on the medium that those stories take as its object of interest.  If I want to read about cyberspace, I don’t look online, I turn to pulp, paper, and the book for that imaginative immersion.

Where does that leave us in regard to the new media and books?  Considering my recent conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson, there is change in the wind, but obviously no one has the one answer to what that change may encompass.  I’m curious to hear the thoughts of Robert H. Jackson next Tuesday when he presents on the future of books at the Kent State Library.  I know he won’t have all (if any) the answers, but perhaps the face-to-face interaction will be illuminating in ways that online persona interaction is not.

Stephen R. Donaldson at Kent State University

Stephen R. Donaldson, the well-known SF and fantasy author of the Thomas Covenant series, visited his alma mater today, Kent State University.  Before the glitz and glamour of professional writing, he was a graduate student at Kent State.  He earned his MA in English Literature here, and he began his PhD in which he was studying the works of Joseph Conrad.  Now, he’s an award winning author, and Kent State library curates his manuscripts and papers.  

This afternoon, Mr. Donaldson met with about 10 to 15 students and faculty in the NEOMFA office in Satterfield Hall.  I made a point of driving into campus today just for his visit, and I was very happy that I did after listening and taking part in the enjoyable conversation.

During the conversation, Mr. Donaldson talked about how he made a point of studying authors whose works he liked and respected in order to figure out how they did things rather than going into a creative writing program to hone his writing skills.  In particular, he commented on his studies of Joseph Conrad and Henry James.  When asked about The Mirror of Her Needs (1986), he mentioned some of his influences in the writing of that novel were Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which has a great respect and love for but not Arthurian legends in general, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  

When asked if any of his books might be made into movies, he didn’t think that would happen.  He said that he would get an ego boost if it did, but then feel let down when the film didn’t replicate his work honesty.  He went on to say that movie adaptations of books are reinventions or recreations of the works that they take as their object.  In his case, a director that makes one of his books into a movie would be creating something that was theirs, and that’s okay.  As an example, he talked about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Essentially, Peter Jackson created something new that isn’t the same thing as Tolkien’s novels–that if you read the novels you will feel something different than what you feel when you see the movies.  Why is that so?  It has to do with the differences in media.  In books, you can get into the head of a character, which you cannot do in a movie.  On the other hand, movies are able to combine sound effects, special effects, visuals, cinematography, and music–all overlaid one another–to create something different than what you get in the linear word-by-word world of books.  It’s not to say that one is better than the other, but rather they have different strengths and weaknesses.

When asked about completing a book, he remarked that, “It’s a lonely place at the end of a book.”  I knew that there was a lot of housekeeping tasks including copyediting, proofreading, etc. that take place after the manuscript is finished, but Mr. Donaldson said that there was a real “so, what have you done for us lately” attitude by publishers to authors when I book is done–meaning, when’s your next book going to be ready?

I asked him what his thoughts were on the recent court case between a Harry Potter lexicon writer and J. K. Rowling and her publisher.  Mr. Donaldson said that he wouldn’t take the time to deal with something like that if it came up in regard to his own work, but he talked about why Rowling and her publisher got pissed off in the first place.  Had the lexicon author, Steve Vander Ark, approached Rowling’s publisher with the idea rather than skirting them and approaching another publisher then there would have been the possibility of his lexicon coming out.  As it was, there was a broach of professional courtesy and the attempt at circumvention of the rights of the author and publisher.  Also, the money issue, which is a non-issue for Rowling and her Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of money, but it would have been a more real issue for her publisher.  So, had Ark made the proposal to the publisher with a stipulation that the author could give final approval of the factuality of the lexicon entries then he would have been on much stronger ground than putting it out through another publisher, RDR Books.

His last thought before leaving for his next scheduled stop around campus was that, “storytelling is our number one survival skill.”  Stories take on many different aspects of our lives from the mundane to the more fantastic.  I think this is even more poignantly made clear in the documentary that I recently saw called Darkon, which is about live action roleplayers, or LARPers, in their game and “real” lives.  I agree with Mr. Donaldson’s idea, because it’s the stories that we tell that make meaning for and about our lives.  And, it’s for that reason that I feel that I’m drawn to the study of SF and the stories that we tell about the only literature that, as Mr. Donaldson pointed out, “presupposes the future.”

I didn’t have an opportunity before his alloted time was over to mention this, but his elucidation of the decline in book sales across the board reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with Mack Hassler.  I am definitely integrated in a technological circuit, but I turn back to books to find the stories that I’m interested in.  Furthermore, the stories about technology are in books–pulp–paper.  Mr. Donaldson didn’t have an answer about the future of narrative forms and media (who could?), but the fact is that it appears, particularly with Border’s recent announcement to decrease SF and Fantasy stock in its brick-and-mortar stores, the current SF/Fantasy boom-bust cycle is on the bust side of things.  I don’t know how much this has to do with changing reading habits, non-reading habits, online and gaming culture, or the economy’s continuing nosedive trend.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see, or if I’m feeling entrepenureal, perhaps I’ll take it in the next big direction.

Many thanks to Mr. Donaldson for taking the time to speak with us today, and thanks to the folks that made his visit possible.  We sorely need more author visits to Kent.