Penmanship, the Engine of Democracy!

writing

Every other day I read something about how books will stop being physical objects and exist only digitally.  Publishing houses are producers of information, not artifact, etc.

I love to read, but you’ll never hear me say that I like to do anything like snuggle up to or get cozy with a book.  But the continued existence of books as objects is extremely important.

From the beginning, at least in the West, books in book form have been subversive. The Gutenberg Bible was subversive.  Common Sense was subversive.  More to the point, the printed word as printed word on paper is an historic engine of unrest, access, and change.  All those pamphlets and papers. These things being swapped and smuggled and shared.  Tyrants burning them.  Schools banning them. People reading them anyway.

We talk so much about going “off the grid” in terms of energy consumption.  We long for it.  Can you imagine not being able to do one of the most basic human functions (read) off the grid?  The concept of a bookless society makes even less sense than that of a cashless one.  Subversion (and I don’t mean violence or lunacy), education, self-improvement without censor, these requires objects that can’t be deleted when political winds change, even as the economy depends on the 1 or 2/3’s of it operating off the books.

I’m not a publishing professional so I won’t pretend to understand all of the economics of the industry, but I know these aren’t exactly fattened times.  I’m not saying the general trend won’t be toward electronic publishing and distribution.  It probably will.  But if we need books, we also need books to be books, physical objects we can hand, physically, to others.  Things we can physically protect and need to.

Of course, much of this discussion is moot.  Let’s imagine a bookless society.  It should be easy to imagine that in this society, some branch of some goverment somewhere manages to track, or, even worse, decide what we read.  Not very far-fetched.  Maybe every computer even gets a patch that scans everything you send to your printer and uploads it to some database.  When the things people want to read are banned, deleted, or otherwise made unavailable, people will pick up papers and pens and start writing.  They’ll make their own presses and they’ll post their bills and broadsides and leave their chapbooks and pamphlets in donut shops and laundrymats and in hotels like the Gideons.  Unless, of course, we stop teaching kids how to make their letters and numbers by hand.  Zaner-Bloser, I hated you, once.  But I love you now.

5 thoughts on “Penmanship, the Engine of Democracy!

  1. Well said, Chris. I’ve always maintained that a bookless society is a natural (or unnatural) disaster away from disappearing from the annals of history. Scary thought that I’m a second away from having never existed.

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  2. hey chris! found your blog after googling “New School Fiction workshop class.” you have a very nice place here. this is john b. from fiction class. my blog btw is: yourheadphones.blogspot.com. see you on monday at ann hood’s class! :)

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  3. Oh, man… don’t get me started on the electronic versus physical book thing, because I could go on for days! :) (And as someone who works in the publishing industry, I can say with all honesty that none of us really understand all the economics of the industry either, at least not in terms of what to do digitally with the printed word and how to make money. But it’s interesting to be in the midst of it, trying to figure it out all together.) Next time we’re together we should jaw on about this one.

    I must preface my next comment by saying that I am a lover of the book in physical form. Being in the presence of books, smelling them, touching them, is an experience that brings me peace, satisfaction, and contentment. I do not get the same physical and emotional feelings from being around my CDs and DVDs. That having been said, I also love new technologies and innovations so I am not inherently adverse to the digitization of the book. I’m just still confused by it, as many, many people are. I highly recommend this article by Nicholson Baker, a noted bibliophile, on the Amazon Kindle: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/03/090803fa_fact_baker (And as a bonus, here’s a transcript of a New Yorker reader chat with Nicholson Baker: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/ask/2009/07/questions-for-baker.html) In the chat, he talks about the “brute persistence” of the book, which is a lovely and accurate phrase.

    The book is really a perfect example of form and function. It is inexpensive, durable, portable, accessible, and easy to use. This is what has kept books in pretty much the same form for hundreds of years. We say, “I love music” not “I love MP3s,” we say “I love movies” not “I love DVDs,” but we say “I love books” and everyone who hears that knows we love both the stories within the physical covers and the physical covers and the pages themselves. Think about it: the way we consume music and photography and film have changed dramatically (discmans to iPods, clunky film cameras to point-and-shoot digital cameras, VHS/Beta to DVD), and consumers have been quick to adapt the new technologies because the new ones are easier to use and also often (not always) provide better quality. But what provides a better reading experience than a book? Maybe it’ll be the Kindle or some other digital e-reader, but despite these devices having been available for years, they still haven’t caught on among the general public. My thinking for this is that books still provide the most convenient, least expensive reading experience for most people. For now. And people just have a very strong attachment to physical books.

    Yes, digitization of books must and will occur. But I really hope that physical books aren’t completely replaced, at least not any time soon. I hope the two can peacefully coexist. Finding a better way for the whole population to access the knowledge that’s in books has yet to be found–remember that not all nations are as developed as ours, so turning all books into digital-only format would deprive huge amounts of the world’s people of information. Think about that and try not to let your stomach sink at the thought of it.

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