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22 April 2011

In Favor of the Printed (on Paper) Word Part One

In a recent New York Times article, "recent" being when I first began writing this post on 5 January 2011, Steve Martin comes out in favor of printed bound books and all that they imply: libraries, references, research, sense of history, provenance. 
The discussion about whether something is art in the small sense (e.g., visual art versus Art in the big sense which includes literature, music, performance...) is ongoing and evolves along with what is poetry and even, what is a book.

In the olden days, booksellers sold serious tomes -- Bibles, treatises, histories, prophecies, epic poems...  Anything else was fleeting and consigned to broadsheets sold for a halfpence on the street corners and outside coffeehouses.  Things in books were dry.  People read the good stuff, like Charles Dickens's serial work, in journals and magazines.  Unless you really wanted a printed bound book for that high falutin room one called a "library," it was a lot less expensive to create your own by saving all the magazine issues or going to the lending library. Most writers aspiring to be published had to pay for their own printings, and cajole their friends to buy copies.  Only the really great and popular writers like poet Lord Byron sold out and even then, that fact didn't make him rich.  Even after the "novel," gained some respectability, there were the truly literary works that were printed on paper with a high rag cotton content and bound in buckram or some other durable covering versus the cheap paper made of wood pulp which you could stick in your back pocket.  So, it became the aspiration of all writers to be published on someone else's dime, printed and bound in hardcover, to be purchased by those who really want to keep or gift a book.  Paperbacks have been for those cheapos who simply wanted to read the contents of the book.  Research and public libraries have their own interesting relationship with publishers, I am sure, although I am not privy to the inner workings, even having worked for two academic years at Vassar's Library and a summer at the Deer Park Public Library (courtesy of a New York State program for college-aged resident students).  I cannot even imagine how Library of Congress works.  I wonder, do authors or publishers donate a copy of their most prized work and inundate the LoC with mountains of titles it does not yet know will become important?  Or, do we as a nation have a budget line item for buying books destined to be great primary resources and literary classics, resulting in librarians needing to make hard choices between purchasing the complete discography of Jelly Roll Morton or the definitive history of telecommunications in the United States from 1828 to present ("present" being whenever the author stopped researching, so that he get on with writing the book)?

Beginning in the late 20th century and progressing (or degenerating) through today, society has gone full circle.  We have people self-publishing, not waiting to find recognition from an established publisher.  We have people publishing their books post by post in their own blogs, as advocated by Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity.*  We have Google, et al., revving up the optical character reading (OCR) software (e.g., searchable .pdf files created by using software made by Adobe) and scanning books and documents deemed important to them to hold for posterity in the "cloud" (or world wide web).


*As a side note regarding creativity, this book has been published in Chinese!  That fact either disputes the idea that the Chinese have no interest in creativity or are indeed stunted in that regard and need a book to help (of course that doesn't explain the fact that the book is written by an American in English.  The Chinese version is written in traditional Chinese characters and the publisher is based in Hong Kong.

Of course, I must explain what I mean by the reported lack of Chinese creativity as well as any of my "tiger mom" references to mediocrity and the misguided idea that the way to boost every child's self-esteem is to say that every child is great at everything, giving awards for basically showing up.  The book I reference is Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which received amazing play from the Wall Street Journal, printing a sensationally controversial excerpt in a Saturday edition. Actually, I am looking back on my blog posts and can't believe I had not written previously about this.  I thought the excerpt was hilarious and suspected it did not fully represent the timbre of the entire book nor presented the whole point of the book -- which was that the author/mother realized that the way she grew up and the way she was raised by her parents actually work on every child and that that fact is not a bad thing.  Meanwhile, some of the firestorm centered around the idea that all this push to straight As, no participation in school plays and three-hour piano practice stunted children's development of creativity (as well as social skills).

To return briefly to my hero Steve Martin and his discussion about researching and preparing to write his latest novel, he basically used the private libraries of several art critics, art historians, art gallery owners and art collectors (two or more of these descriptions may apply to a single person, but nonetheless, it is important to name all of them).  They not only revered art -- visual, creative art, but also documentation.  It is the printed word as well as the beautifully reproduced photographs and sketches of works in records, catalogs, histories and simply journals that allowed Martin to trace provenance, to gain a fuller picture (so to speak) of art history, something he believes has yet to be accomplished digitally or electronically.

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