Whether ‘tis nobler to plunge in and write a few Wikipedia entries on subjects regarding which one has some expertise; and also, p'raps, to revise some of the weaker articles already available there...
Or rather, taking arms against a sea of mediocrity, to mock the whole concept of an open-source, online encyclopedia -- that bastard spawn of “American Idol” and a sixth grader’s report copied word-for-word from the World Book....
Hamlet, of course, was nothing if not ambivalent –- and my attitude towards how to deal with Wikipedia is comparably indecisive. Six years into its existence, there are now something in the neighborhood of 2 million entries, in various languages, ranging in length from one sentence to thousands of words.
They are prepared and edited by an ad hoc community of contributors. There is no definitive iteration of a Wikipedia article: It can be added to, revised, or completely rewritten by anyone who cares to take the time.
Strictly speaking, not all wiki pages are Wikipedia entries. As this useful item explains, a wiki is a generic term applying to a Web page format that is more or less open to interaction and revision. In some cases, access to the page is limited to the members of a wiki community. With Wikipedia, only a very modest level of control is exercised by administrators. The result is a wiki-based reference tool that is open to writers putting forward truth, falsehood, and all the shades of gray in between.
In other words, each entry is just as trustworthy as whoever last worked on it. And because items are unsigned, the very notion of accountability is digitized out of existence.
Yet Wikipedia now seems even more unavoidable than it is unreliable. Do a search for any given subject, and chances are good that one or more Wikipedia articles will be among the top results you get back.
Nor is use of Wikipedia limited to people who lack other information resources. My own experience is probably more common than anyone would care to admit. I have a personal library of several thousand volumes (including a range of both generalist and specialist reference books) and live in a city that is home to at least to three universities with open-stack collections. And that’s not counting access to the Library of Congress.
The expression “data out the wazoo” may apply. Still, rare is the week when I don’t glance over at least half a dozen articles from Wikipedia. (As someone once said about the comic strip “Nancy,” reading it usually takes less time than deciding not to do so.)
Basic cognitive literacy includes the ability to evaluate the strengths and the limitations of any source of information. Wikipedia is usually worth consulting simply for the references at the end of an article -- often with links to other online resources. Wikipedia is by no means a definitive reference work, but it’s not necessarily the worst place to start.
Not that everyone uses it that way, of course. Consider a recent discussion between a reference librarian and a staff member working for an important policy-making arm of the U.S. government. The librarian asked what information sources the staffer relied on most often for her work. Without hesitation, she answered: “Google and Wikipedia.” In fact, she seldom used anything else.
Coming from a junior-high student, this would be disappointing. From someone in a position of power, it is well beyond worrisome. But what is there to do about it? Apart, that is, from indulging in Menckenesque ruminations about the mule-like stupidity of the American booboisie?
Sure, we want our students, readers, and fellow citizens to become more astute in their use of the available tools for learning about the world. (Hope springs eternal!) But what is to be done in the meantime?
Given the situation at hand, what is the responsibility of people who do have some level of competence? Is there some obligation to prepare adequate Wikipedia entries?
Or is that a waste of time and effort? If so, what’s the alternative? Or is there one? Luddism is sometimes a temptation – but, as solutions go, not so practical.
I throw these questions out without having yet formulated a cohesive (let alone cogent) answer to any of them. At one level, it is a matter for personal judgment. An economic matter, even. You have to decide whether improving this one element of public life is a good use of your resources.
At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that Wikipedia is not just one more new gizmo arriving on the scene. It is not just another way to shrink the American attention span that much closer to the duration of a subatomic particle. How you relate to it (whether you chip in, or rail against it) is even, arguably, a matter of long-term historical consequence. For in a way, Wikipedia is now 70 years old.
It was in 1936 that H.G. Wells, during a lecture in London, began presenting the case for what he called a “world encyclopedia” – an international project to synthesize and make readily available the latest scientific and scholarly work in all fields. Copies would be made available all over the planet. To keep pace with the constant growth of knowledge, it would be revised and updated constantly. (An essay on the same theme that Wells published the following year is available online.)
A project on this scale would be too vast for publication in the old-fashioned format of the printed book. Besides, whole sections of the work would be rewritten frequently. And so Wells came up with an elegant solution. The world encyclopedia would be published and distributed using a technological development little-known to his readers: microfilm.
Okay, so there was that slight gap between the Wellsian conception and the Wikipedian consummation. But the ambition is quite similar -- the creation of “the largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and depth” (as the FAQ describes Wikipedia’s goal).
Yet there are differences that go beyond the delivery system. Wells believed in expertise. He had a firm faith in the value of exact knowledge, and saw an important role for the highly educated in creating the future. Indeed, that is something of an understatement: Wells had a penchant for creating utopian scenarios in which the best and the brightest organized themselves to take the reins of progress and guide human evolution to a new level.
Sometimes that vision took more or less salutary forms. After the first World War, he coined a once-famous saying that our future was a race between education and disaster. In other moods, he was prone to imagining the benefits of quasi-dictatorial rule by the gifted. What makes Wells a fascinating writer, rather than just a somewhat scary one, is that he also had a streak of fierce pessimism about whether his projections would work out. His final book, published a few months before his death in 1946, was a depressing little volume called The Mind at the End of Its Tether, which was a study in pure worry.
The title Wells gave to his encyclopedia project is revealing: when he pulled his various essays on the topic together into a book, he called it World Brain. The researchers and writers he imagined pooling their resources would be the faculty of a kind of super-university, with the globe as its campus. But it would do even more than that. The cooperative effort would effectively mean that humanity became a single gigantic organism -- with a brain to match.
You don’t find any of Wells’s meritocracy at work in Wikipedia. There is no benchmark for quality. It is an intellectual equivalent of the Wild West, without the cows or the gold.
And yet, strangely enough, you find imagery very similar to that of Wells’s “world brain” emerging in some of the more enthusiastic claims for Wikipedia. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier noted in a recent essay, there is now an emergent sensibility he calls “a new online collectivism” – one for which “something like a distinct kin to human consciousness is either about to appear any minute, or has already appeared.” (Lanier offers a sharp criticism of this outlook. See also the thoughtful responses to his essay assembled by John Brockman.)
From the “online collectivist’ perspective, the failings of any given Wikipedia entry are insignificant. “A core belief in the wiki world,” writes Lanier, “is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds.”
The problem being, of course, that it does not always work out that way. In 2004, Robert McHenry, the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica,pointed out that, even after 150 edits, the Wikipedia entry on Alexander Hamilton would earn a high school student a C at best.
“The earlier versions of the article,” he noted, “are better written over all, with fewer murky passages and sophomoric summaries.... The article has, in fact, been edited into mediocrity.”
It is not simply proof of the old adage that too many cooks will spoil the broth. “However closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability,” as McHenry puts it, “it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler.”
The advantage of Wikipedia’s extreme openness is that people are able to produce fantastically thorough entries on topics far off the beaten path. The wiki format creates the necessary conditions for nerd utopia. As a fan of the new “reimagined” "Battlestar Galactica," I cannot overstate my awe at the fan-generated Web site devoted to the show. Participants have created a sort of mini-encyclopedia covering all aspects of the program, with a degree of thoroughness and attention to accuracy matched by few entries at Wikipedia proper.
At the same time, Wikipedia is not necessarily less reliable than more prestigious reference works. A study appearing in the journal Nature found that Wikipedia entries on scientific topics were about as accurate as corresponding articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
And in any case, the preparation of reference works often resembles a sausage factory more than it does a research facility. As the British writer Joseph McCabe pointed out more than 50 years ago in a critique of the Columbia Encyclopedia, the usual procedure is less meritocratic than one might suppose. “A number of real experts are paid handsomely to write and sign lengthy articles on subjects of which they are masters,” noted McCabe, “and the bulk of the work is copied from earlier encyclopedias by a large number of penny-a-liners.”
Nobody writing for Wikipedia is “paid handsomely,” of course. For that matter, nobody is making a penny a line. The problems with it are admitted even by fans like David Shariatmadari, whose recent article on Wikipedia ended with an appeal to potential encyclopedists “to get your ideas together, get registered, and contribute.”
Well, okay ... maybe. I’ll think about it at least. There’s still something appealing about Wells’s vision of bringing people together “into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity” – through a “common medium of expression” capable of “informing without pressure or propaganda, directing without tyranny.”
If only we could do this without all the semi-mystical globaloney (then and now) about the World Brain. It would also be encouraging if there were a way around certain problems -- if, say, one could be sure that different dates wouldn’t be given for the year that Alexander Hamilton ended his term as Secretary of the Treasury.
Late last week the Association of American University Presses held its annual meeting in New Orleans, or in what was left of it. Attendance is usually around 700 when the conference is held in an East Coast city. This time, just over 500 people attended, representing more than 80 presses -- a normal turnout, in other words, justifying the organizers’ difficult decision last fall not to change the location.
Inside the Sheraton Hotel itself, each day was a normal visit to Conference Land -- that well-appointed and smoothly functioning world where academic or business people (or both, in this case) can focus on the issues that bring them together. Stepping just outside, you were in the French Quarter. It wasn’t hit especially hard by last year’s catastrophic weather event. But there were empty buildings and boarded-up windows; the tourist-trap souvenir outlets offered a range of Katrina- and FEMA-themed apparel, with “Fixed Everything My Ass” being perhaps the most genteel message on sale.
The streets were not empty, but the place felt devitalized, even so. Only when you went outside the Quarter did the full extent of the remaining damage to the city really begin to sink in. On Thursday morning -- as the first wave of conference goers began to register -- a bus chartered by the association took a couple dozen of us around for a tour led by Michael Mitzell-Nelson and Greta Gladney (a professor and a graduate student, respectively, at the University of New Orleans). If the Quarter was bruised, the Ninth Ward was mangled.
It was overwhelming -– too much to take in. More imagery and testimony is available from the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a project sponsored by the University of New Orleans and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
So you came back a little unsettled at the prospect of discussing business as usual. Then again, the prevailing idea at this year’s AAUP was that business has changed, and that university presses are rushing to catch up. The announced theme of the year’s program was “Transformational Publishing” -- with that titular buzzword covering the myriad ways that digital technologies affect the way we read now.
It was a far cry from the dismal slogan making the rounds at the AAUP meeting three years ago: “Flat is the new ‘up.’ ” In other words: If sales haven’t actually gone down, you are doing as well as can be expected. The cumulative effect of increasing production costs, budget cuts, and reduced library sales was a crisis in scholarly publishing. The lists of new titles got shorter, and staffs grew leaner; in a few cases, presses closed up shop.
I asked Peter Givler, the association’s executive director, if anyone was still using the old catch phrase. “Right now it looks like up is the new up,” he said. “It’s been a modest improvement, and we’re hearing from our members that there’s been a large return of books this spring. But it’s not like the slump that started in 2001.”
Cautious optimism, then, not irrational exuberance. While the word “digital” and its variants appeared in the title of many a session, it is clear that new media can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the association has been able to increase the visibility of its members’ output through the Books for Understanding Web site, which offers a convenient and reliable guide to academic titles on topics of public interest. (See, for example, this page on New Orleans.) At the same time, the market for university-press titles used in courses has been undercut by the ready availability of secondhand books online.
And then there’s Google Book Search. The AAUP has not joined the Authors Guild’s class action suit against Google for digitizing copyrighted materials. But university presses belong to the class of those with an interest in the case -- so the organization has incurred legal expenses while monitoring developments on behalf of its members. One got the definite impression that the other shoe may yet drop in this matter. During the business meeting, Givler indicated that the association would be undertaking a major action soon that would place additional demands on the organization's resources. I tried to find out more, but evidently its Board of Directors is playing its cards close to the vest for now.
With new obligations to meet, the board requested a 4 percent increase in membership dues. This was approved during the business meeting on Thursday. (Three members voting by proxy were opposed to it, but no criticism was expressed from the floor during the meeting itself.)
Proposals for longer-term changes in the organization’s structure and mission were codified in its new Strategic Plan (the first updating of the document since 1999). A working draft was distributed for discussion at the conference; the final version will be approved by the board in October.
This document -- not now available online -- conveys a very clear sense of the opportunities now open before university presses. (For “opportunities,” read also “stresses and strains.”)
It’s not just that technological developments are shaping how books get printed, publicized, and sold -- or even how we do research. A variety of new forms of scholarly publishing are emerging -- some of which make an end run around traditional university presses. “Societies, libraries, and other scholarly groups are now more likely to undertake publishing ventures themselves,” the proposal notes, “although they often lack the editing, marketing, and business skills found in abundance in university presses.”
Full membership in AAUP is restricted to presses that meet certain criteria, including “a faculty board that certifies the scholarly quality of the publications; a minimum number of publications per year; a minimum number of university-employed staff including a full-time director; and a statement of support from the parent organization.” But an ever larger number of learned publications – print, digital, or whatever – are issued by academic or professional enterprises that don’t follow this well-established model.
Indeed, if you hang around younger scholars long enough, it is a matter of time before someone begins pointing out that the old model might be jettisoned entirely. Why spend two years waiting for your monograph to appear from Miskatonic University Press when it might be made available in a fraction of that time through some combination of new media, peer review, and print-on-demand? No one broached such utopian ideas at AAUP (where, of course, they would be viewed as dystopian). But they certainly do get mooted. Sometimes synergy is not your friend.
The organization’s new strategic plan calls for reaching out to “nonprofit scholarly publishers and organizations whose interests and goals are compatible with AAUP” -- in part, by revising the membership categories and increasing the range of benefits. New members would be recruited through an introductory membership offer “open to small nonprofit publishers.”
These changes, if approved, will go into effect in July 2007. Apart from increasing the size of the association, they would bring in revenue -- thereby funding publicity, outreach, and professional-education programs. (One of the projects listed as “contemplated” is creation of “a ‘basic book camp’ to orient new and junior staff to working at a scholarly press.” I do like the sound of that.)
For the longer term, the intent is clearly to shore up the role of the university press’s established standards in an environment that seems increasingly prone to blowing them away.
“University presses,” the AAUP plan stresses, “are well positioned to be among the leaders in the academic community who help universities through a confusing and expensive new world. They can enhance the ability of scholars to research, add value to, and share their work with the broadest possible audiences, and they can help to develop intellectual property policies and behaviors sensible to all.”
Of course, not every discussion at the meeting was geared to the huge challenges of the not-too-distant future. Late Friday afternoon, I went to an interesting session called “Smoke, Mirrors, and Duct Tape: Nurturing a Small Press at a Major University.” It was a chance to discuss the problems that go with being a retro-style academic imprint at an institution where, say, people assume you are the campus print shop. (Or, worse, that you have some moral obligation to publish the memoirs of faculty emeritus.)
It was the rare case of an hour I spent in New Orleans without hearing any variation on the word “digital.” After getting home, I contacted one of the participants, Joseph Parsons, an acquisitions editor for the University of Iowa Press, to ask if that was just an oversight. Had academic digitality hit Iowa?
"We routinely deal with electronic files, of course," he responded, "but the books we produce have been of the old-fashioned paper and ink variety.... When we contract with authors, we typically include digital rights as part of the standard agreement, but we haven't published anything suitable for an electronic book reader."
He went on to mention, however, that print-on-demand was a ubiquitous and very reasonable option for small press runs. It was surprising that he made the point -- for a couple of reasons. POD now seems like an almost antique form of "new media," in the age of Web 2.0. I don't recall hearing it discussed in New Orleans, for example, except in passing. At the same time, it clearly fit into the plans of an old-school university press with a catalog emphasizing literature and some of the the less trend-obsessed quadrants of the humanities. It seemed like a reasonable compromise between sticking with what you already know and making a leap into the digital divide.
Anyway, I'm just glad to think there will continue to be books, at least for a while. As a matter of fact, while in New Orleans, I even bought a few. They were second-hand, admittedly, but it seemed as if the shop owner needed the business more than any of the university presses did.
The following is based on my talk at the session on "Publicity in the Digital Age” at last month’s conference of the Association of American University Presses. For a report on the meeting itself, please check here.
For someone whose best waking hours are devoted to the printed page, it can be difficult to think of digital media as anything but a distraction, at best -- if not, in fact, a violation of the proper use of the eyeballs and brain. People who have made careers in print and ink often have a vested interest in thinking this way. The very word "blog" seems to elicit an almost Pavlovian reaction in editors, writers, and academics over a certain age –- not drooling in hunger, but snarling in self-defense.
I share some of this conditioning, having spent the past two decades contributing reviews and essays to various magazines and newspapers. Of late, however, I've learned to move between what Marshall McLuhan called "the Gutenberg galaxy" (the cultural universe created by movable type) and "the broadband flatland" (as we might dub the uncharted frontier landscape of digital media).
Over the past 18 months, I've published about 200,000 words that have appeared strictly online, while also contributing to print publications. It feels as if the difference between them means less and less.
Yet with regard to making university-press books known to the public, it appears that the old gap remains deep and wide. On the one hand, there may now be more opportunities than ever to connect up readers with the books that will interest them. (That includes not just new titles, but books from the backlist.)
So much for the good news. The bad news is that, for the most part, it isn’t happening.
There are important exceptions. Colleen Lanick, who handles publicity for MIT Press, recently had an informative and encouraging article in the AAUP newsletter discussing how some university presses have set up blogs to promote their titles.
But my strong impression -- confirmed by a series of interviews in early June -- is that very few people at university presses have made the transition to full engagement with the developing digital public sphere.
Consider something I learned while talking to a couple of people who run fairly high-visibility venues in the world of what we might call "general interest academic blogs." One is Ralph Luker, the founder of Cliopatria -- a group blog devoted to history, which has been online since 2003. Cliopatria recently announced that it has been visited by 400,000 distinct readers, so far.
The other person was Alfredo Perez, profiled in my column last year. His site Political Theory Daily Review is not, strictly speaking, a blog. It provides a running digest of scholarly papers and serious journalism covering a variety of fields of the humanities and social sciences. The site gets around 2,000 visitors a day, though that probably understates its influence. "Aggregator" sites like PTDR have a way of quietly affecting what gets noticed and discussed elsewhere online.
I asked Ralph and Alfredo how often they receive books from university presses "over the transom" -- that is, strictly on the publisher's initiative, in hopes that their sites would help make it known. As a reviewer, I get several books that way each week, usually in a pre-publication editions that costs the publisher relatively little to produce.
My guess had been that Ralph and Alfredo examined at least a few forthcoming books this way each month. It only stood to reason. but it made sense to ask.
Both of them replied that it had happened just three or four times -- in as many years. They also confirmed what several other people have indicated in conversation: A few academic presses are willing to send a review copy to a blogger who asks for it. But most won’t. Often, publicists just ignore the request entirely.
That might sound like someone keeping an eye on the bottom line -- though it certainly doesn’t cost much to send a courteous e-mail message in reply to a query. In any case, it is a matter of being penny wise but pound foolish.
That realization hit home while interviewing Scott Eric Kaufman, a graduate student in English at the University of California at Irvine. He participates in a group blog on literary studies called The Valve and he also has a personal blog.
The Valve -- which gets around 10,000 visitors a day – has established a fairly amicable modus vivendi with Columbia University Press, which has provided examination copies of several recent titles to Valve members who wanted to devote symposia to the books. Kaufman told me it was not a matter of anyone at the blog having especially cozy relations with the anyone at press. It's as simple as the fact that the publicity department at Columbia will actually answer their requests.
Kaufman also told me about his experience in writing an essay on a recent novel. He provided a link to the Amazon page for it. The bookseller gave Kaufmann a small credit for each copy purchased by someone following his link. He estimates that he sold about 75 copies of the book.
Now, for a trade press (able to issue large print runs and to benefit from economies of scale), selling 75 copies of a given title in a few days would be a pleasant enough development. But it would hardly make or break anyone’s budget.
By contrast, scholarly publishers usually produce much smaller editions, even in paperback. The impact of even modestly increased sales would be much larger.
Providing bloggers with finished hardbacks could prove an expensive proposition, of course. But the prepublication galleys -- which I sometimes get in spiral binding, like a course packet -- would often be just as serviceable.
It would also help if more publishers were inclined to make extracts from their new books available online. For his daily roundup at Political Theory Daily Review, Alfredo Perez is always on the lookout for chapters of scholarly books to which he can link. "Very few presses do it, as far I can tell," he told me.
He also finds that signing up for e-mail notifications of new books from university presses rarely pays off: "They don't send out updates very often," he says, "and sometimes they don't do it at all." Academic publishers are now more likely to put their catalogs up online than a few years ago. But most seem not to have made the additional commitment of resources necessary to get the word out about their books.
Meanwhile, some commercial houses are starting to treat bloggers as just another part of the mass media. Wendi Kaufmann, who covers literary happenings around Washington at her blog The Happy Booker, hears from trade presses regularly. Other literary bloggers have told me the same thing, as have some academic bloggers.
At least one internationally known publisher considers it worthwhile to send out dozens of its titles to The Happy Booker, in hopes that she'll give the spotlight to at least one – the same treatment given to the reviews editor for a large newspaper. "I get a box of books from Penguin every two weeks," she told me.
For any publisher or author trying to get some traction in this landscape, the situation can be confusing. It might be helpful to frame things in terms of what I’ve come to call "the price paradox." In short, the cost of making books known in the digital public sphere is both very small and incredibly intensive.
On the one hand, the monetary outlay involved in making content available online is relatively low. The cost of starting a blog, for example, is quite small -– in some cases approaching zero. And the potential audience is very large.
On the other hand, the expense of actually reaching that audience cannot be calculated in terms of simple bookkeeping. It involves significant investments of cultural capital. Time must be spent learning about the existing array of blogs, online journals, podcasts, etc.
As Richard A. Lanham indicates in his recent book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (University of Chicago Press), the most valuable thing in an "information economy" is not information, which is abundant. Rather, it is attention. Attention is a scarce resource: the supply is limited and difficult to renew. That, in turn, makes it important to be able to tap whatever pools of attention already exist. And doing so effectively requires some exploration.
Perhaps I should quit with the implicit metaphor here before this discussion turns into one big analogy to the film Syriana.... Instead, it's time to consider the practical implications. What does all of this mean to someone at a university press who is trying to get out word about a new title?
For one thing, the emerging situation requires doing some research to find out if a given blog or Web publication is likely to take an interest in the book. And the research involved might not be a one-time thing. Having a more or less standard list of journals to send review copies in any given field was appropriate at one point. But somewhat more flexibility is necessary now.
At the very least, it is worthwhile to spend some time learning to use blog search engines -- and also to get a feel for how various sites link up to one another. Google Blog Search is particularly helpful for making an initial survey of which blogs might be relevant to a specific topic. Technorati indicates how many links a given blog has received from other sites. It also lets you examine and follow those links -- perhaps the quickest way to learn how the conversational terrain is structured.
And when a blogger asks for a review copy, these tools would help a publicist reach an informed decision about whether sending one is a good use of resources.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to learning to move between the print and the digital domains comes from a certain unstated but powerful assumption. It could be called the ham-radio hypothesis. (Having indavertantly offended the Esperanto people a while back, I want to make clear to any ham-radio enthusiasts that the following is not meant as an insult.)
In short, there is still a tendency to think of bloggers, podcasters, etc. as some distinct group that operates apart from the worlds of academia, publishing, or offline culture. To treat them, in effect, as ham-radio operators -- people who possess a certain technical knowhow, and who talk mainly to each other.
The reality is very different. The relationship between online communities and other kinds of social or professional networks is a complicated topic. Scholarly careers will be made exploring this matter.
But it is fair to say that the ability to produce and distribute content online is less and less like being able to talk on shortwave frequencies -- and more and more like the skills involved in driving, or reading a map. You can get along without these skills, but that leaves you dependent on the people who do possess them.
UPDATE. A reader asks if there is a central index of academic blogs. There is no completely comprehensive list, but one valuable resource is the directory provided by Crooked Timber.
“You’re either part of the solution,” as Eldridge Cleaver put it in 1968, “or part of the problem.” It was the one Black Panther slogan that appealed to Richard Nixon. He repeated it four years later, while running for re-election. A catchy saying, then. But also a risky one, in regard to the tempting of fate. (There is always a chance that you are just making the problem worse, simply by assuming you are solving it.)
Over the past few columns, I’ve pointed to some opportunities and difficulties created by emerging forms of digital publishing. In particular, the item from last week – the one suggesting that university presses might benefit from working out a modus vivendi with academic bloggers -- has generated interest and discussion. The space available online for the discussion of new books is, for all practical purposes, boundless. Meanwhile, the traditional forms of mass media place pay ever less attention to books. The avenues for making a new title known to the public get slimmer all the time. Literally slimmer, in some cases. Recently the San Francisco Chronicle cut its review section from eight pages to four, hardly an unusual development nowadays.
But will urging university presses to think more seriously about blogs (and other new media forms) really offer a solution? Or does it just compound the problem? Hearing from readers over the past week, I’ve started to wonder.
Many presses have very compact publicity departments – often enough, a single person. The work includes preparing each season’s catalog, sending out review copies, and working the display booth at conferences.
“So now,” the weary cry goes up, “we have to look at blogs too? Just how are we supposed to find the right one for a given book? There seem to be thousands of them. And that’s just counting the ones with pictures of the professors’ cats.”
Fair enough. Life is too short, and bloggers too numerous. And let’s not even get into podcasting or digital video....
The great strength of emergent media forms is also their great weakness. I mean, of course, the extreme decentralization that now characterizes “the broadband flatland.” It is now relatively easy to produce and distribute content. But it also proves a challenge to find one’s way around in a zone that is somehow expanding, crowded, and borderless, all at once.
With such difficulties in mind, then, I want to propose a kind of public-works project. The time has come to create a map. In fact, it is hard to imagine things can continue much longer without one.
At very least, we need a Web site giving users some idea what landmarks already exist in the digital space of academe. This would take time to create, of course. More than that, it would require a lot of good will.
But the benefits would be immediate -- not just for university presses and academic bloggers, but for librarians, students, and researcher within academe and without.
My grasp of the technology involved is extremely limited. So the following proposal is offered -- with all due humility -- to the attention of people capable of judging how practical it might be. For it ever to get off the ground, a catchy name would be required. For now, let’s call it the Aggregator Academica, or AggAcad for short.
Assuming a few people are interested, it might be possible to start building AggAcad rather soon. I imagine it going through two major rounds of improvement after that. Here’s the blueprint.
AggAcad 1.0 would resemble the phonebook for a very small town -- with one column of business numbers and another of personal. It would provide a rather bare-bones set of links, in two broad categories.
There would be an online directory of academic publishers, similar to the one now provided by the Association of American University Presses. But it would also have links to the Web sites of other scholarly imprints, whether from commercial publishers or professional organizations.
The other component of the start-up site would be an academic blogroll – perhaps an updated version of the one now available at Crooked Timber, divided broadly by disciplines.
My assumption is that the initial group would be ad hoc, and assemble itself from a few people from each side of town. They would need to work out criteria for each list: the terms for deciding what links to include, and what to exclude. (Perhaps it is naive to place much trust in the power of collegiality. But it might be worth risking a little naiveté.)
The lists would be updated periodically. Meanwhile, the AggAcad team would need to go hunting for the storage space and the grant money required for the next stage of development.
AggAcad 2.0 would provide not just directories but content from and about scholarly publishing. As academic presses make more material available online -- sample chapters, interviews with authors, etc. -- the site would point readers to it. (This aspect of the site might be run by RSS or similar feeds.) Likewise, visitors to the site would learn of the more substantial reviews in online publications, including symposia on new books held by academic bloggers.
At some point, the whole site might be made searchable. (We can call this the 2.5 version.) A reader could type in “Rawls bioethics” and be given links to pertinent books, podcasts, blog entries etc. that have been referred to at the site. The total number of results would be smaller than that returned via Google -- but probably also richer in substance, per hit.
As AggAcad became more useful over time, it would presumably attract scholars and publishers who valued the site. Working on it might begin to count as professional service.
AggAcad 3.0 would incorporate elements of Digg -- the Web site that allows readers in the site’s community to recommend links and vote on how interesting or useful they prove. For an introduction to “the digg effect,” check out this Wikipedia article.
By this stage, AggAcad would provide something like a hub to the far-flung academic blogosphere (or whatever we are calling it within a few years). Individuals would still be able to generate and publish content as they see fit. The advantages of decentralization would continue. But the site might foster more connections than now seem possible.
Information about new scholarly books could circulate in new ways. It would begin to have some influence on how the media covered academic issues. And -- who knows? -- the quality of public discussion might even rise a little bit.
Assuming any of it is possible, of course. I sketch this idea with the hope that people better placed to make that judgment might take the idea up ... or tear it to shreds. Is it a solution? Or just part of the problem? Hard to say. But of this much I am certain: Thanks to AggAcad, there is finally an expression even uglier than “blog.”
The billboard shows a sleek new automobile, the price tag no doubt considerable, though nowhere in sight. Instead, the agency that created the ad has run a single line of text with the image. It isn’t just a catchphrase; it’s a grab at profundity. “A strong want,” the new Lexus motto proclaims, “is a justifiable need.”
The first time I saw the ad, my jaw dropped. Now it just clenches in disgust. (If absolute moral stupidity ever required a slogan, then “A strong want is a justifiable need” would do the trick.) And once the irritation is past, there is the realization that Philip Rieff was probably right when he speculated that a new character had arrived on the scene in Western culture: “psychological man.”
Rieff, who died on July 1, was for decades a somewhat legendary professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. To echo a point made elsewhere, I think the power of his influence greatly exceeded the reach of his reputation. Rieff didn’t want a large readership. He wrote in knotty apothegms -- developing a set of terms that resembled sociological jargon less than it does the private language of some brilliant but eccentric rabbi. With his later texts (including My Life Among the Deathworks, just published by the University of Virginia Press) you do not so much read Rieff as sit at his feet.
But in his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) -- his dissertation from the University of Chicago, as rewritten with the help of his first wife, Susan Sontag -- the knack for aphorisms had not yet hardened into a tic. He was still addressing a broad audience of educated readers, not disciples. And it was in the final pages of that volume that he sketched the concept of “psychological man.”
According to Rieff’s careful reading, the founder of psychoanalysis was no subversive champion of the id against bourgeois society. Rather, his Freud comes to resemble other Victorian sages who tried to create inner order as the established patterns of authority were dissolving. But along the way, Freud also helped foster a new system of values – one toward which Rieff would show deep and growing ambivalence.
The new “character ideal” that Rieff saw emerging in Freud’s wake was no longer inspired by religious faith, or a strong sense of civic responsibility. Psychological man would not even need to cultivate the sort of self-interested self control practiced by his immediate ancestor, homo economicus. (Think of Benjamin Franklin, making himself wealthy and wise by careful planning.) Psychological man need not fret over material security – being, after all, reasonably comfortable in an affluent society. His energies would turn inward, toward the care and maintenance of the self.
Rieff returned to the future of psychological man in his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Its final sentence verges on a prophetic statement, then carefully backs away:
“That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than the by-product of striving after some communal end,” wrote Rieff, “announces a fundamental change in the entire cast of our culture – toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of hope and despair.”
It can be strange to read some of the earliest discussions of Rieff’s work, for there was occasionally a tendency to regard him as cheerleading “the triumph of the therapeutic.” This was wide of the mark. Eventually Rieff did find things to say about this cultural transformation “in the old style of despair.”
He became a cultural reactionary. I mean that term as a description, rather than a denunciation. He saw culture as a system of restraints (what he termed “interdicts”) that prevented the individual from being swamped by the excessive range of potential human desires and behaviors. Thrown into “the abyss of possibility,” man “becomes not human but demonic.” So Rieff put it in reviewing Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
As the historian Christopher Lasch once put it, Rieff belonged to “the party of the superego.” (Lasch translated many of Rieff’s insights about psychological man into a neo-Marxist analysis of the “culture of narcissism” emerging in advanced capitalist society.) And it was the duty of any teacher worthy of the name to play the role of superego to the hilt. “Authority untaught,” Rieff declared in the early 1970s, “is the condition in which a culture commits suicide.”
His later writings are, in effect, a series of coroner’s reports. “We professionals of the reading discipline,” he stated in My Life Among the Deathworks, “we are the real police. As teaching agents of sacred order, and inescapably within it, the moral demands we must teach, if we are teachers, are those eternal truths by which all social orders endure.” And Rieff made it pretty clear that he did not think this was happening.
There are plenty of conservative publicists in America now. There are not many conservative thinkers, proper, worthy of the name. Rieff, for all his crotchety obliqueness, was one of them.(By the way, the ratio of philosophers to propagandists is hardly any better on the left.)
In scrutinizing the logic of contemporary culture, Rieff indirectly revealed some of the dark secrets of U.S. politics -- which has been dominated by the right wing for at least a quarter century now. The therapeutic has triumphed in the red states as well as the blue. Any reference to how Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush proved themselves as great leaders by “helping America feel good about itself” confirms that psychological man is often happy to vote Republican.
But more than that, Rieff is of lasting interest for upholding an exorbitant standard of seriousness. The Feeling Intellect, a collection of his essays published by the University of Chicago Press in 1990, is rather awe-inspiring in the range and intensity of its erudition – though you do have to look past the strangely cultish introduction by one of the author’s devotees, Jonathan B. Imber, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College.
And his early polemic in the culture wars, Fellow Teachers, is some kind of cranky masterpiece. (It is now out of print.) One passage in particular has left a strong impression, lingering in my mind like the voice of a testy grandfather telling me to get off the Internet.
“Our sacred world must remain the book,” he says. “No, not the book: the page.... To get inside a page of Haydn, of Freud, of Weber, of James: only so can our students be possessed by an idea of what it means to study.... Then, at least, they may acquire a becoming modesty about becoming ‘problem-solvers,’ dictating reality. Such disciplines would teach us, as teachers, that it would be better to spend three days imprisoned by a sentence than any length of time handing over ready-made ideas.”
Reading this again, I feel guilty of a thousand sins. Which is, of course, the intent. There are qualities and opinions in Rieff’s work it is difficult to admire. But studying him has at least one good effect. It teaches you to think about the difference between a strong want and a justifiable need -- and to keep a safe distance from anything tending to blur that distinction.
Digital publishing has been a hot topic for some time, but it’s received a good deal of attention as of late thanks to a series of recent developments. This year’s meeting of the Association of American University Presses, for example, devoted a panel to the subject. Meanwhile, Rice University has just announced plans to launch the first all digital university press. In a slightly different (though related) context, rumors abound that the next generation of Apple’s immensely popular iPod will possess the ability to download, store, and read book content.
Clearly, the movement toward digital content delivery is gaining steam. And, as such, it is not surprising to read that the technology’s more vocal enthusiasts are forecasting nothing short of a revolution in academic research, teaching, reading, writing, and publishing once it becomes ubiquitous.
Over at if:book, the collective blog of the "Institute for the Future of the Book," commentators have had a great deal to say about the immense transformations that digital delivery and online publishing will effect on the academy and academics.
Particularly instructive is the institute’s "MediaCommons," a "project-in-progress" aimed at "exploring the future of electronic scholarly publishing and its many implications, including the development of alternate modes of peer review and the possibilities for networked interaction amongst authors and texts." In support of this goal, the if:book collective spent a good deal of time this past spring meeting, brainstorming, and discussing the possibilities of a "new model of academic publishing.” They even "wrote a bunch of manifestos" (apparently, the irony of resorting to such a 19th-century device as the "manifesto" was lost on them). Still, when one filters out the soul-deadening jargon about "authentic learning opportunities," "self-reflexivity," "mediated environments," etc. that permeates their posts, it’s clear that the blog’s authors and readers are thinking creatively and earnestly (although rather pretentiously) about the prospects of the digital age in transforming academic writing.
To this end, if:book is making considerable noise about Mackenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY, a "monograph" (their scare quotes, not mine) hosted by the institute that goes beyond even the relatively newfangled notion of the e-book toward a new über-standard in digital publishing: the "networked book." Wark’s in-progress project (an “exploration” of whether computer games may “serve as allegories for the world we live in”) is being undertaken entirely online, enabling interested readers (and more than a few gamers) to post continuous live commentary as Wark uploads drafts to the Web. Such an approach, if:book contributor Kathleen Fitzpatrick has announced, creates an “openness and interconnection” that will "allow us to make the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product; readers will be able to follow the development of an idea from its germination in a blog, though its drafting as an article, to its revisions, and authors will be able to work in dialogue with those readers, generating discussion and obtaining feedback on work-in-progress at many different stages. Because such discussions will take place in the open, and because the enormous time lags of the current modes of academic publishing will be greatly lessened, this ongoing discourse among authors and readers will no doubt result in the generation of many new ideas, leading to more exciting new work."
In the end, transparency, interconnectedness, and immediacy will emerge strengthened by the new digital regime.
Then again, there are obvious downsides to such an approach. GAM3R 7H30R1S7 Wark has already received nearly 400 comments. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the time devoted to responding to those commentators (learned, not-so-learned, and dumb-as-a-post) is time not spent on other, profitable, scholarly pursuits. In any event, one suspects that this is not a model that would transfer well to, say, scholars writing about neoplatonic epistemology or the symbolic meanings of Malawi's Chongoni rock art.
Still, projects like MediaCommons and GAM3R 7H30RY raise an important question: Will digital content delivery and the emergence of e-books and “networked books” bring about a revolution in the way that scholars research, write, and communicate their ideas?
But, then again, perhaps not.
I’m not entirely sold on the claims being made by the most fervent advocates of digital delivery. As is often the case when a technology is still in its infancy, enthusiasts tend to exaggerate a technology’s ultimate impact in transforming culture and society. Frequently, proponents fail to contemplate (because it is often impossible to foresee) the obstacles and unintended consequences that inevitably surface as efforts are made to popularize a favored device among the masses (trans-oceanic dirigible tours or flying cars, anyone?). It strikes me that, at present, the transformative potential of digital publishing in academe is being oversold and, in many cases, misunderstood.
Just as digital publishing and new technological delivery systems will make possible the broader dissemination of academic writing, so too, will they make possible the broader dissemination of non-academic texts and visual content. Purveyors of the types of academic projects esteemed by if:book will continue to face stiff competition for attention and audiences should “iReaders” become as popular as iPods. If historians of science and technology have learned anything, it’s that new technologies have the capacity to change the world for good or for ill. Or, not at all. [I am prepared to bet a great deal of money that the development of an iReader, for example, will prove much less of a boon to academics than to purveyors of porn and self-help guides.]
Similarly, the emphasis that contributors to if:book seem to place on the “transparency” of scholarship and “immediacy” of publication made possible by digital delivery misses a very important point. There is much value to be found in not releasing one’s ideas to peers and public while those ideas are still half-baked. In many respects, the instantaneous delivery of “new media” writing is at odds with the solitude, meditation, and patience that are the hallmarks of traditional scholarship. Perhaps this is less true in if:book’s favored field (media studies), but it is manifestly not so for such disciplines as history, philosophy, and the like. Nor should it be. One can build a convincing case that, in the current age of instant analysis, self-absorbed “experts,” and ubiquitous 24/7 live blog feeds, the last thing that the academy needs is to embrace transparency and immediacy.
This is not to say that the effects of the digital revolution will not be profound, only that they are likely to be different from what enthusiasts currently believe. As yet, very few scholarly monographs have been "born digital." While it's clear that given the on-going economic pressures faced by academic publishers the movement toward digital delivery will continue (if for no other reason than it may cut costs for cash-strapped university presses), how this will all play out (for good, for ill, or for naught) is not currently clear. It will be clear eventually, but only after it has already taken place.
I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to the efforts of if:book enthusiasts to consider and to explore the potential benefits that digital content delivery may bring to academic research and writing. If:anything, I am in favor of the growth of electronic publishing. After all, my own monograph is being published as part of the History E-Book Project.
Still, digital disciples would do well to temper their exuberance. They should at least begin to consider the many ways in which a move to all digital content delivery will adversely affect the academy and academic researchers.
Besides, the “book book,” that old-fashioned delivery system consisting of wood pulp, ink, and glue has proven to be a remarkably resilient and rather useful technology itself. It is not going to disappear anytime soon (or, perhaps, ever). Moreover, its perceived “limitations” may, in fact, turn out to be real strengths when it comes to preserving the contemplative attitude, dispassionate study, and patient reflection that are essential to lasting scholarship.
Scott W. Palmer
Scott W. Palmer,Â a historian of Russian culture and technology, is an associate professor at Western Illinois University. He blogs in the Avia-Corner, at Dictatorship of the Air.
Working as an archival assistant at the Library of Congress about a dozen years ago, I had the memorable and never-to-be-repeated experience of discovering a letter by Thomas Pynchon. It was written early in his career, when his aversion to the public spotlight was known only to friends -- rather than being, as it is now, a somewhat paradoxical claim to fame.
Pynchon has never given an interview. The most widely used portrait of him is taken from a school yearbook. (He was a member of the Class of 1953 at Oyster Bay High, on Long Island.) The biographical note accompanying Against the Day -- his sixth novel, to be published next week by Penguin -- lists only the titles of his earlier books and the fact that one of them, Gravity's Rainbow, won the National Book Award in 1974.
The NEW novel itself is long (not quite 1,100 pages) and dense, sometimes brilliant and sometimes tiresome, and occasionally very silly (the cameo appearance, for example, by Elmer Fudd). It is also remarkably resistant to capsule summary. Oh, what the hell. Here goes anyway: Against the Day is a historical novel about the secret relationship among dynamite, photography, and multidimensional vector spaces that treats the emergence of the 20TH century Zeitgeist from a clash between revolutionary anarchism and the plutocratic Establishment. See?
To discuss the book adequately would demand a seminar lasting four months, which is also the ideal period required for reading the book -- instead of the four days it took one reviewer, who then promptly had a mild nervous breakdown. Something about Pynchon's work incites academic commentary. At least four scholarly books have already been devoted to his last novel, Mason & Dixon (1997). Even someone who enjoys him without feeling the itch to exegesis will probably feel driven, at some point, to do supplemental reading. Partway through “Against the Day,” for example, I found it urgent to go read an encyclopedia article on the history of theories regarding ether, the substance once thought to permeate even "empty" space.
Pynchon doesn't simply drop references to (now-discredited) scientific concepts. Rather, he builds them into the imaginative architecture of his work. While reading his novels, some part of one's attention is inevitably kept busy drawing up a list of remedial reading assignments.
With Pynchon, then, we have a unique combination. He writes maximalist fiction -- each page covered in the stuff of his supersaturated brain -- while maintaining a minimalist public profile. That is no small trick, given a culture industry constantly driven to manufacture celebrities out of practically nothing. (Pynchon himself has pushed the paradox a little further by lending his voice to "The Simpsons," in a bit available here.)
The situation has had some curious effects, even among academics interested in his work. Maybe especially among them.
In the early 1990s, the story began circulating that Pynchon had published a large number of letters in a small-town newspaper in northern California under the pseudonym of Wanda Tinasky, a homeless and perhaps mildly deranged old woman with a strange sense of humor. Learned people argued about Pynchon's possible authorship with great passion and total seriousness. Covering the debate for Lingua Franca, I spoke with one estimable literary scholar who did not so much answer my questions as deliver a formal and exactly worded declaration, as carefully prepared as an official diplomatic statement about nuclear testing in North Korea.
It was all plenty strange. The debate over authorship turned out to be a lot more interesting than the letters themselves, which were eventually published as a book. While there must be a few die-hard Tinasky-ites still around, the matter is now largely forgotten. (For an update, check out this interesting Wikipedia article.)
But one small detail from the debate, mentioned almost in passing by someone I interviewed, has stuck in mind over the years. It seems that Pynchon, while living in California in the 1980s, had a driver's license. Not such a big deal, in itself, of course. But researchers knew this because one of them had acquired a copy of it (through what sounded like rather dubious means) from the database of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
As one of the "Proverbs for Paranoids" in Gravity's Rainbow says, "You hide, they seek."
As it happens, I was not actually seeking Pynchon when I came across an actual letter by him, sometime around 1993. It seems to have gone undiscussed in the secondary literature in the meantime. Consider the following, then, a modest contribution to the collective enterprise of Pynchon scholarship and/or stalking.
The discovery occurred while I was processing a collection for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Archival processing is an activity often best described as sorting dead people's mail. In this case, that was quite literally true. The deceased was Stanley Edgar Hyman, a contributor to The New Yorker and a professor of English at Bennington College, who died in 1970.
He had been married to Shirley Jackson, of "The Lottery" fame. Chances are, the library accepted his papers mainly to get hers. A senior archivist concentrated on organizing Jackson's manuscripts and scrapbooks. But I was more than content to get the job of going through the boxes of her husband's literary remains.
While not particularly well-remembered now, Hyman occupied an interesting place in American cultural history. His book The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism (1948), provided one of the standard postwar surveys of critical theory. (Irving Howe once compared reading it to taking the elevator at Macy's department store: "First floor, symbols. Second floor, myths (rituals to the rear on your right). Third floor, ambiguities and paradoxes....")
Hyman had been a student of the sui generis cultural theorist Kenneth Burke. And both were, in turn, friends of Ralph Ellison, well before the novelist published Invisible Man in 1952. All of them had spent time at Bennington, drinking hard. Then they went home and wrote him fantastic letters. My job was to sort them, of course, not read them. But, well....
Then one day, in a mass of miscellaneous items, there turned up a short letter of two paragraphs, typed on a piece of graph paper. It was dated 8 December 1965, and was signed "yours truly, Thomas Pynchon." At that point, he had published a handful of short fiction and one novel, V., which Hyman had reviewed, favorably, when it appeared in 1963.
Eyes wide, I read as Pynchon turned down the "flattering and attractive" offer to come teach at Bennington. He did so, he said, "with much pain, don't ask where" -- explaining that he had resolved, two or three years earlier, to write three novels all at the same time. Pynchon hinted that it was not going well, and called the decision "a moment of temporary insanity." But he also said he was "too stubborn to let any of them go, let alone all of them," and thought that teaching would distract him, "given the personal limitations involved." He thanked Hyman for the invitation, and also praised Hyman's analysis of V. as "criticism at its best."
It was modest. It was polite. A few months later, he published The Crying of Lot 49 -- maybe one of the novels driving him to distraction, maybe not. Unfortunately there were no more letters from Pynchon in the collection -- nor did this one provide any indication where he was when he wrote it. (The return address he gave was that of his literary agent in New York.)
As a clue into the mystery of Thomas Pynchon, then, it seems like a pretty small thing. I hadn't thought about it at all in a long time, in fact -- until a stray reference in his new book brought it back to mind.
As readers will soon be able to see for themselves, Against the Day certainly feels like a man writing two or three novels at the same time. Whole dissertations will be written about how the different parts and layers create a consciousness-bending structure in four-dimensional spacetime. But it was the passing mention of a two-dimensional surface that gave me a slightly deja vu-like feeling. At one point, a character reaches for "a block of paper quadrilled into quarter-inch squares."
Graph paper, that is, exactly like the kind Pynchon used for his letter. More than a coincidence, but less than meaningful? Like Oedipa Maas at the end of Lot 49, I'm really not sure.
Last week, the Borders chain -- which in 30 years has grown from a single used bookshop largely serving students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to a global empire, with stores in the U.K. and Australia among other places -- announced that it would be undertaking a major restructuring. Its new strategic plan will (in the words of a press release) “revitalize, refocus, and ultimately reinvent the company to achieve its mission to be a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment.”
So much for the usual nourishing corporate baloney. When you see that many “re-“ formations in an official statement, it’s a pretty reliable sign that steep cuts are planned. And so they are, in the wake of losses of more than $73 million that Borders suffered in 2006. Over the next year or two, Borders will close nearly half of its remaining Waldenbooks outlets in shopping malls (having already shut down a fifth of them in 2006) and scale back its overseas operations. It will also end its relationship with Amazon – clearing the way for “the debut of a new proprietary e-commerce site in early 2008.”
One provision of the new strategic plan is a call for “increasing effectiveness of merchandise presentation.” The press release does not give details, but somehow it bring to mind an image of life-size animatronic displays of Ann Coulter and Al Gore waving copies of their books.
Perhaps things won’t go quite that far. But it’s clear that moving beyond the familiar, pre-digital model of book buying is on the Borders agenda. “A new technology-heavy concept store that has been in development since late 2006 will open in early 2008,” according to an article in The New York Times. “Borders also promised to introduce ‘digital centers’ in its stores that will allow customers to buy audio books, MP3 players, and electronic books.”
All of which goes into the file for an essay that might be called – with a nod to Anthony Trollope – “The Way We Read Now.” If you doubt that Borders has had a profound effect, not just on the book trade, but on how readers interact with one another and with texts, then keep an eye out for a remarkable new documentary called “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore.” It has been making the rounds of film festivals and been screened at libraries and bookshops, and a trailer for it is available online.
When a DVD copy of the film arrived a few weeks ago, it sat on my desk for a while before I found the will to pop it into the player. That hesitation reflected a suspicion that "Indies Under Fire" would prove to be an exercise in Michael Moore-style muckraking, with plenty of sardonic editorial commentary stomping all over the documentary format. (That sort of thing has its uses, of course, but a viewer really has to be in the mood.)
My misgivings were misplaced. Jacob Bricca, the director of “Indies,” has taken a far more subtle and balanced approach to showing the effect of Borders on small independent bookshops. Through interviews with the owners, staff, and patrons of five West Coast stores -- most of them eventually put out of business following the arrival of the chain in their neighborhoods -- “Indies Under Fire” makes a strong case that the explosive growth of Borders over the past two decades has undermined community institutions that can’t readily be replaced.
The shops that Bricca portrays in the “Indies Under Fire” are perfect examples of what Ray Oldenburg , a sociologist at the University of West Florida, has dubbed “the third place,” with home and work being the first and second. A life spent shuttling between those two poles is, in important respects, only half a life. Third places are genuinely social venues -- areas where friends and strangers can meet, mix, talk, argue, pair off, and otherwise create new connections. Oldenburg discusses the third-place concept in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon House, 1989).
The passionate attachment to their neighborhood bookstores expressed by patrons in “Indies Under Fire” makes evident why they qualify. The relationship with a store includes personal associations that mingle with public space. It is the place where one met certain people, first started reading a favorite book, or heard a local author talk about her new novel.
“People are saving two bucks on a book by buying at a chain store or on the internet,” says one person interviewed for the film, “but they’re going to lose this larger resource, this community resource they have. So the circle of reading gets smaller -- it’s just you and the book and your computer screen.”
But the documentary also gives employees of Borders a chance to make their case -- and it's perhaps a stronger case than anyone on the indie side would want to admit.
Protesters complain that Borders is imposing cultural uniformity across the United States by destroying small businesses. (Some anti-corporate activists, as we are told by one person hostile to the chain, will go into a newly opened branch and quite literally vomit.)
The representatives from Borders respond that the stores are competitive for the simple reason that they are attractive and well-stocked. And they have a point. As with most bookstores, Borders makes a great deal of its money by selling whatever the public is demanding at the moment. But even its least well-stocked stores tend to have a decent selection of work that will only appeal to small audiences. Unlike certain other chains one could mention, Borders has (for example) a philosophy section where you can find Judith Butler and W.V. Quine, rather than gallons of "Chicken Soup for the Soul."
An indie advocate who speaks in the opening of the documentary says that a great bookstore is one that doesn’t just have the title you are seeking. It also carries books you never knew existed, but that you discover you need.
Well, by that definition Borders may well qualify as a great bookstore -- painful as this is to say about an engine of soulless corporate monoculture.
What makes last week’s news of restructuring worrisome is that all the talk of “right-sizing” and “reinvention” might translate into reduced inventory, plus a heavier emphasis on sure-fire bestsellers. And the changes sure won't address one situation that the documentary doesn't mention: The Borders work force is almost completely non-unionized.
The DVD for “Indies Under Fire” is not listed in the Borders catalog. But you can purchase a copy here .
This week’s Intellectual Affairs is an open letter of sorts. It is directed in particular to university librarians and to people at academic presses. Even scholars who occasionally try reaching out to the non-academic public may want to read it.
Let’s forgo this column’s usual essayistic-shambolic approach and be very blunt. I am writing this as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), and am mainly addressing people who belong to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).
On behalf of my colleagues, I am making a plea to you for solidarity. We are in trouble. We need your help.
Over the past several years, the economics of daily newspapers have become much more complicated and many paper owners have felt that their profit margins weren't large enough. Coverage of books has been one of the easiest things to cut. And the cuts have tended to come early and often. They have taken the form of various measures, including shrinking the space available for reviews and interviews; reductions of freelance budgets; and the increased use of syndicated material. Most book pages have always had very small staffs. Now it is rare that more than one editor handles the reviews full-time, and in many cases the entire section has been closed down.
Such cuts are usually explained as a matter of economic necessity – the decisions framed in terms of meeting the perceived interests of the public. But the reduction or elimination of book coverage has occurred even in cities where readers clearly want and expect it.
Perhaps the most striking example (the case that, for many of us, revealed the shape of things to come) is that of The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2001, the editors decided to shut down its freestanding book supplement – shifting its diminished literary coverage to the back of the paper’s entertainment section. A strong protest went up from readers and bookstore owners in the Bay Area, with its large literary and academic communities.
And so the book section was saved, if on a smaller scale – at least for a while. Last year the section was cut by two pages, then cut again recently. “We used to run something like 15 reviews a week,” said its editor, Oscar Villalon, in August. “Now in a good week we run about 10, but we've had as few as six.”
More recent developments elsewhere are equally discouraging. The Los Angeles Times is now combining its book supplement with the opinion section. Last week The Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated the position of its book-review editor as part of a “staff reorganization.” It is worth mentioning that Atlanta, which recently hosted the conference of the Associated Writing Programs, is listed the country’s 15th most literate city (well ahead of New York, as it happens). Other examples abound.
Needless to say, there have always been severe limits on the depth and range of literary coverage at newspapers. (After 20 years of reviewing for them, I realize that as well as anyone.) But book pages have a modest but significant role in constituting regional literary communities. They are part of a local public sphere that often includes – don’t forget – scholars who review books as well as write them.
Perhaps online media will take up the slack? Let’s hope so. But the destruction of the remaining “reviewing infrastructure” at American newspapers is a bad thing for authors, for readers, for booksellers, and for publishers.
So I am addressing academic librarians and university-press folks, now, because they – because you, rather – seem well-situated to grasp an important point.
We have something in common: It is very easy for others to take what we do for granted. As far as most civilians are concerned, printed matter is generated by parthenogenesis, then distributed across the land like the spores of a ripe dandelion, transmitted by the wind.
We know better. We do what we can with our shrinking budgets – secure in the knowledge that the work itself is worthwhile, if not always secure in much else.
This week and throughout May, the National Book Critics Circle will be trying to raise some public recognition of where things now stand – and to create some pressure to reverse the trend towards downsizing and elimination. We have about 700 members. Not all of us are editors or reviewers for newspapers. But we do see the book pages at newspapers as part of the cultural ecology, so to speak. Halting their destruction seems like a necessary thing.
What can you do? I asked John Freeman, the outgoing president of NBCC, who responded by naming some very specific actions that would be helpful.
(1) Sign the petition to reinstate the book-section editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
(2) Write to your local newspaper’s publisher to express support for its book coverage. And if your paper doesn’t have such a section, ask why not. “It always baffles me,” as Freeman says, “why university towns like New Haven, Durham, Champaign-Urbana and Iowa City have virtually no book pages in their papers.”
(3) Talk to your local independent bookseller. Local literary scenes are often undercut by the power of superstores and the reliance of newspapers on “wire” copy about books (that is, material issued by syndication). Smaller bookshops are rallying points for opposition to these trends.
(4) Review books for your local paper. This requires developing a voice that may sound rather different from the one you might use when reviewing books for a professional journal. An easygoing style doesn't always come easily. But it can be enjoyable to acquire and to practice, and newspaper ink has addictive properties.(“The more the academy engages with the public through reviews,” Freeman told me, “the better chance we have of connecting tradition with culture, and judging new works of art accordingly.”) And if you already review, consider becoming a member of NBCC.
(5) Whether or not you join NBCC, please make its blog Critical Mass part of your Web-browsing routine. Over the past year, it has become the “blog of record” for literary and publishing news. And insofar as book-folk have a rallying point in dealing with the changes at newspapers, Critical Mass is it. Freeman says it will have updates on efforts to challenge cuts at The Raleigh News & Observer, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The L.A. Times.
At this point, the future of newspapers is very uncertain. It is all I can do to suppress the (admittedly cliched) thought that we are striving to preserve a claim to occupy a few deck chairs on the Titanic.
But uncertainty may also represent opportunity. Newspapers now often gear their cultural coverage at some “youth market” – quite vaguely and patronizingly conceived – that editors treat as having an attention span registering in milliseconds. So you get in-depth reports on "American Idol," perhaps. The wisdom of directing scarce resources in that direction is not unassailable. Other media can cover such things faster and, if this is the word to use, better.
Newspaper publishers may yet understand that they have readers who expect something else. And it is necessary to remind them, from time to time, that such readers exist. It seems important to do so before it’s too late. Things are now at a tipping point, also known as the point of no return.
It is the mark of a jaded appetite that its taste for excitement grows more demanding all the time. The thrill isn't gone. It's just harder to find. This is usually taken as a sign of decadence. There is a weariness to it -- the sense of having experienced and remembered too much.
But suppose a taste for sleaze is combined with an extremely short attention span, and no sense of the past at all. Could that be a sign of decadence, too?
I ask out of puzzlement at some cheap kicks on display, lately, involving the life and work of some prominent thinkers. Sure, controversy is the spice of conversation; and when the names are sufficiently well-known, the line between gossip and cultural critique may grow ambiguous. But in each case, people are expressing shock at "revelations" that aren't revelations at all.
Perhaps this is the result of naivete? Maybe, but it could just as well be a sign of extreme boredom.
My misgivings started last year, while various articles appeared during the centennial of Hannah Arendt's birth. Her work has had a long shadow. Arendt denied that she was a philosopher, preferring instead to call herself a political theorist -- one whose attention was turned to the public world of action rather than the vita contemplativa. Even that distinction is endlessly debatable, to say nothing of her analyses of Nazi terror, Marxist revolution, and American society. At the time of her death in 1975, it was not obvious that she would loom as one of the major figures in American intellectual history during the 20th century. That point, too, might have been controversial; and there are still arguments to be made about whether her influence is a good thing or a problem. But her importance (either way) would seem hard to deny. So far this year, we've had two new collections of her work, Reflections on Literature and Culture (Stanford University Press) and The Jewish Writings (Shocken Books).
But the impression one might well have taken away from the discussion last year was that the single really important thing to consider was the fact that Hannah Arendt had, in late adolescence, entered an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger.
Now, this was not news, to put it mildly. Ever since the publication of Elzbieta Ellinger's book Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995), it has been analyzed and quite thoroughly clucked-over by countless people, made into the subject of a novel, and even put on stage in a play called "Hannah and Martin" -- a title suggesting their romance now ranks with Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Iseult. (Either that, or Americans are comfortable calling even the most severely highbrow German mandarins by their first names.)
And in fact, Ellinger's breathless little book did not really break any new ground even when it appeared a dozen years ago. At the time, I scratched my head at the uproar -- having learned about the affair in the mid-1980s from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, which Yale had published in 1982.
But Young-Bruehl's biography was not at all sensationalistic. Nor did it treat the romance as the key to Arendt's entire life and thought. Evidently Young-Bruehl hasn't learned a thing over the past quarter century, because her most recent book, Why Arendt Matters, also insists that the ideas should be discussed on their own merits. That's no way to stir up a controversy.
Another combined experience of deja vu and "so what?" came in the wake of the recent appearance in English of the whole of Michel Foucault's History of Madness, published by Routledge. It was accepted as a doctoral thesis by the Sorbonne in 1960 and published in France the following year.
FoucaultÂ’s abridged version has long been available under the title Madness and Civilization,Â” translated by Richard Howard. His first major work, it is lyrical and sweeping even in the more compact version -- an account of the emergence of the "Age of Reason" through the psychiatric policing of public space. For Foucault, the insane asylum is one of the cornerstones of a new cultural order emerging between the 17th and 19th centuries. Locking away the mad, subjecting them to control and to study, bourgeois society sought to contain the irrational and reassure itself of its own perfect rationality.
An exciting book, and one that found its first audience in English among the "anti-psychiatry" movement of the late 1960s that challenged the authority of the mental-health establishment. That movement is often blamed for the release, a couple of decades later, of many thousands of psychotics to wander homeless in the streets. Well, maybe. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that legislators studied Foucault's work and found in it a perfect justification for cutting social-service budgets. Ideas have consequences! But I do tend to suspect that the barking men and dead-eyed women haunting my neighborhood are more the "consequences" of free-market economic doctrine than of Parisian structuralism.
Be that as it may, the resurfacing of Foucault's book in unabridged form has been an occasion for a closer look at its claims. In March, the Times Literary Supplement in London ran a very critical review pointing out that Foucault's command of the historical evidence concerning the treatment of the insane in the past is unreliable.
The critic, Andrew Scull, is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Some of his review is a bit over the top. The impulse to denounce the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s is, like the tendency to mock hippies, quite understandable; yet both are largely unnecessary and should for the most part be avoided.
But many of Scull's complaints hit their target. Foucault drew on out-of-date or otherwise questionable sources. Even then he sometimes cited them inaccurately, and in the case of medieval references to "ships of fools" (boats filled with madmen) he construed a literary allegory as literal social history. "What interested him, or shielded him," writes Scull, "was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong."
This critique set off rounds of defense and counterattack. One line of response is that Foucault was far more of a philosopher than a historian. (Which is, of course, just a familiar variation of that trusty move in scholarly shadowboxing, "the interdisciplinary shuffle." If questions come up about his interpretation of Descartes, one could respond that Foucault was really more historian than philosopher.) And then there is the special license available to genius qua genius. One blogger complained, for example, that it was unfair to judge History of Madness by the normal standards of historiography. Instead, it should be understood instead as a text through which Foucault engaged in an act of self-creation.
Well how nice for him.... Even so, the work takes the form of a work of historical scholarship, rather than of speculative fiction -- so there's a natural tendency to evaluate it by standards appropriate to the genre of the monograph. This shouldn't be controversial. But what makes the situation even stranger is that none of these complaints about Foucault's scholarship are new.
A quarter century has now passed since two American researchers, Winifred Barbara Maher and Brendan Maher, published an article in the journal American Psychologist showing that Foucault's insistence that there were literal "ships of fools" rested on a misreading of a couple of 16th century books. Other work testing Foucault's generalizations about a move toward "confinement" of the mad beginning in the 17th century against the historical record found that his claims don't hold up. The development of the asylum as a social institution was much slower than his account suggests, with no dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration accompanying the rise of bourgeois society.
Next week's column will take up a third case -- one that may be sadder than either of these, though the individual in question is not quite so well known as Arendt or Foucault. In the meantime, it's worth asking if the taste for scandal and indignation in intellectual affairs hasn't entered an awfully louche phase.
Even after two decades, I remember well the effect of the news about Paul de Man's collaborationist writings during World War II. He had been my professors' professor, and I had produced my share of papers sedulously mimicking his way of unpacking a literary text. The revelation, once it settled in, felt like a punch in the stomach. And it's been a dozen years since my editor at Lingua Franca mentioned an article in the pipeline by some guy named Alan Sokal who was going to reveal a hoax he had pulled at Social Text. That felt a little different; guffawing was involved.
In each case, it really was a matter of something unexpected happening. If the experience created a sensation (a literal sensation, physical and emotional) that was in part because it was a disruption of routines. But there's something far too pre-programmed about the half-hearted sensationalism regarding Arendt's love life or Foucault's imaginative way with historical data.
In the 19th century, Walter Pater declared that "all art aspires to the condition of music." Maybe now we should update that to "all reality aspires to the condition of reality TV." But even by that standard, it is hard to take some recent bits of controversy as anything but bored surfing through reruns.