back from the never-dead: media gives book second life

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A favorite bookshop: Montclair Book Center

The first time I heard that books could die I was ten. It was 2004. I liked to carry big books around and had already read (but not necessarily understood) The Hobbit by that age and had a book protector that I put on all my hardcovers (there was a handle for portability). It was only a matter of time, I was told at some detestable family party, before all people did was watch TV and go see the movie version of every story that could have been a book. Probably, I fussed with my bookmark and mumbled something about how people would always love books because—just because they would.

Since then, I have read countless versions of the same article with different slipping statistics tolling the bell for the printed book, picking out the casket: death by television, computer, e-Book, smartphone. But recently, there has been a shift in the narrative. Just a month ago The New York Times ran an article online called “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead.” The article focuses on the 10% decline of e-Book sales in the first five months of this year, and announces the failure of Netflix-inspired subscription services to hook digital readers. But this phenomenon goes unexplained. I couldn’t exalt in the announcement that the book lived unless I could be told why.

My eight-year-old self was not so far off the mark. LitHub posted an article last week called “Why the Printed Book Will Last Another 500 Years” that actually mentions The New York Times article but does not shy away from the why. Books will survive, author Adam Sternbergh asserts, because they are different than the record, cassette, and CD in that you still get the same song just in a different package. But the experience of reading a book is part of the package, so that reading a print book and finishing it “with a satisfying thud” feels different than reading on a computer, where all text blurs together.

I worked in a bookstore called Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights where the staff hand-picked one book a month for customers who had subscribed to their Reading Year service. I was responsible for wrapping the books in brown paper and string and sealing the package with red wax. Sending hundreds of these books out during my time there made me realize that the book was a luxury experience, much like Sternberg attests. Unwrapping a personal book in the mail with a handwritten notecard from a bookseller creates a memory that the digital age can’t download.

A Mr. B's Reading Year Book, wrapped by yours truly.
A Mr. B’s Reading Year Book, wrapped by yours truly.

And most people focus on the physical aspect of the book as experience without delving so much into the voice of books now. Another pre-mortem mourning ceremony is often held for the publishing industry as a whole, an inevitable casualty in the war on print. However, Johnny Temple, Managing Editor and Founder of Akashic Books, gave a talk to a circle of interns this summer about the publishing world. Of course he had to answer to the book’s imminent death. He disagreed with it entirely. People like to reminisce about the good old days of publishing; it is a popular past time. But really, who was being published then? A majority of white men. Today, there are a multitude of voices from all over the world that weren’t being published in the so called golden age of books. Publishing, Temple continued, is the most exciting and diverse it has ever been. Those voices are being published now. The book—pristine hardcover and well-worn paperback—is turning out a sequel because our printed, handheld hero still has a story to tell.

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zines, zines good for their art

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The first time I heard the word “zine” about a year ago, it had to be explained to me. Had never heard of a zine, had never seen a zine, could not tell you why someone would want to make a zine. But when I did learn what a zine was (for all those in my former position, I will leave the definition here), I wanted to get my hands on one. But the problem was, I was nowhere near un-cool-cool enough. Think Bender in The Breakfast Club. Un-cool-cool. Suburbia (at least the suburbia I know, spliced open by crisscrossing highways) simply does not have zines. Urban punk art crazes do not occur in suburbia, not even the non-gated sort of sad commercial parking lot suburbia around me. You have to get into the guts of the city for that. Still, I was determined to figure this whole zine thing out.

Recently, I went on a quest to Boston Zine Fest in order to hang out with the uncool-cool kids. I wore an oversized denim jacket and stuffed the deep pockets with petty cash, because I figured even a credit card swipe machine would be too official for the laid back zine scene (which was all hype; lots of people took cards). And while I had to painfully introduce myself to multiple zinesters as “new at this” in order for them to explain to me what was happening in their scattered stacks of colorful booklets, I was living the dream. I was picking up zines and looking at them in a room full of people who probably read zines all the time. They were un-cool-cool enough to simply know where the zines lived in real life.

I think the best way to learn about something is to force yourself to write a paper about it. So there I was collecting zines to take home and examine for my paper. I gravitated most towards the grrrl and grrrl swirl zines because I am not particularly satisfied with Johnson’s coverage of “Women’s Magazines” or women’s magazines on the newsstand. I looked in the index and did not find the word zine, which struck me as odd. But I think things are beginning to look different. I know Ms. has been around since the 1970s, but Bust and Bitch arrived on the scene in the 90s just as zines were hitting the streets. Both of these magazines along with the zine scene (although less prominent now) have survived into the present day. I wonder what their relationship is, if there is a relationship at all? I am curious about their aesthetic relationship, because from just surface level observation I have noticed similar color schemes and image-collages that appear to be in a meaningful dialogue to different audiences looking for similar content. These are the sorts of questions I am looking to answer in my Midterm Paper (stay tuned). But I could very well also just write about zines for my 6-8 pages if there proves to be no correlation at all. Either way, I got some cool new art and even two buttons for a dollar. Maybe after writing this paper I will be ushered officially into the un-cool-cool world. Or just be a really knowledgeable outsider who fan-girls at zine fests.

readers and robots

I never imagined that I would be in the WIRED magazine office anytime soon. I never thought that I would be rolling around with an iPad for a head but this is just what I ended up doing as I read “My Life as a Robot.” I thought about Johnson’s pseudoworld mentality, that the magazine creates a whole new place separate from reality—except that this is reality. WIRED really does use a robot to connect far away employees to the office. But, prior to reading Emily Dreyfuss’s article, this world was certainly not real for me. Dreyfuss brought it to life, however, through her journal format. She, like the reader, is also new to being a robot so that getting her up-to-the-minute reactions make the reader feel as though we are seeing the world through her eyes—or webcam: “The figure leans down and puts a hand out to shake. Helpless, I move the EmBot from side to side using the arrow keys in what I hope translates as a gesture of excitement, rather than malfunction.” Additionally, Dreyfuss’s inclusion of Instagram pictures and videos that show her robot self in motion allow readers access to a previously unimaginable reality. In a world where people can have robot doubles, of course magazine readers would be given a video feed to accompany their reading. WIRED is WIRED for a reason.

So, while Dreyfuss’s article illustrates the real world, its introduction to a newer, shinier, more efficient (with its flaws, of course) version of that real world also reads as a culturally influential statement. Her initial video humorously reads as instruction, like a “how to act if your coworker is also a robot.” Maybe one day we might find ourselves in this situation. Much like magazines “help us choose our kitchen colors and Christmas trees, raise our children and our standards, save our marriages and our money,” (114) they also instruct us how to treat a robot kindly. I couldn’t find a perfect heading in Johnson to describe this type of instruction, like a social acceptability scale, but we all know that magazines teach us to aspire to levels of culture. Johnson does talk about aspirations in symbolic meaning, so maybe that applies. Seeing Dreyfuss’s life as a robot perhaps makes us wonder at the possibility in a “coming to a workspace near you” sort of way.

ad-itionally

The advertisement. The advert. The “ad.” The commercials embedded in magazines. The obstacles we must flip through in order to find our content. Abstractly, this is how I always thought of them. However, in practice, I must actually spend a good portion of my magazine reading time digesting ads and not hating them. Johnson, in “Why Advertisers Choose Magazines” cites a study done by Experian Simons which found that “consumers rated magazines as more trustworthy, inspirational, and life enhancing than television and the Internet, and they were more receptive to magazine ads than those in other media” (48). I know this must be true by the way I hover over YouTube advertisements, waiting for that blessed SKIP THIS AD button to save me. Oppositely, I tend to save magazine advertisements that I adore. There is this one ad in particular by Dolce and Gabbana I have saved on my bulletin board. I post it each year I come back to school. A woman dressed in all black, bag poised at the crook of her elbow, looks over a teeming herd of men, falling all over themselves for her attention. She is parting the crowd, as if to say, “I have somewhere to be and it is not with any of you.” Who wouldn’t want to be her? I didn’t cut out any of the content from that particular Vogue, but I still have this. Which makes me wonder if advertisements have become content as well.

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Johnson points out that advertisements were not always this way, and he takes us on a history field trip to show it. Some publishers wanted to “keep their magazines unsullied by advertising” (55). Harper’s, for example, turned down an $18,000 ad for the back of their magazine. This was at the turn of the 20th century. But how about the ’70s? This weekend, I was in an antique shop just outside of Portsmouth, Maine when I found a vintage magazine section. I came away with the 1976 Hundredth Anniversary Issue of The Harvard Lampoon. All white cover, practically perfect condition, five bucks. I had it set aside to look at its ads for this class, and I was surprised to not find many in the center of the magazine itself. I could not be sure if this is because it is a special edition or if it is because The Lampoon, being a literary-content based magazine, found ads to be tacky. The Harvard Lampoon has relegated their ads to the back of their magazine, much like Schribner’s did with their six ads in 1929 (55). Lampoon features only eight ads forty-seven years later.

Because Lampoon also fabricates farcical ads of their own (Bored of the Rings, one dollar at the Lampoon Castle), most of the advertisements assume a jocular tone. An advertisement for the Boston Colonade Hotel boasts: “Only the Atlantic separates us from the other grand hotels.” They then feature a profile about the spunky-looking maid pictured below: “If you think Priscilla’s approach to cleaning too teutonic, look at the gentler side of it. The way she turn down you bed in the evening and fluffs up the pillow.” The ad itself is very wordy but that suits the publication at hand, attempting to persuade the reader to see a real advertisement as content. The magazine’s present call to advertisements on the website maintains a comical attitude: “If you place an ad with us, we can promise that your advertisement will be examined by thousands upon thousands of the best-looking, most intelligent, and least stingy humans ever to have breathed on this planet.”

I thought The New Yorker might serve as a similar comparison to the vintage Lampoon, because it is also content heavy. It is no surprise that The New Yorker features ads in the middle of its current issues. For reference, I have the August 31, 2015 issue. Unlike Lampoon, however, The New Yorker offers an alternative brand of advertisement that exudes luxury. I chose an Eileen Fisher ad for comparison. It stands at odds with the content as well, not attempting to blend in like the Boston Colonade does. There are no words besides the brand name and the website in clean white against a black backdrop. A blond, unaccessorized woman clutches a beige cardigan close as if windswept. Minimalism. Rather than attempting to be part of the magazine, this ad pulls the reader away more like IMG_6253the commercial sensibility I had spoken to before. Yet, the sophistication and allure of The New Yorker does not render this ad out of place. Perhaps it becomes content in the way it supports the dream reader: intellectual, well dressed, utilitarian. That has its own appeal.

Toby Lester: back to the future

Toby Lester’s writing is a dance that I am not familiar with. I am currently taking a History of Journalism in America course in which we spend a lot of time deconstructing journalistic technique. Lester’s articles “The Other Vitruvian Man” and “Armchair Travelers” both conflate the past and present in an untraditional way. As a reader, I feel as though I am in the past which strikes me as funny but also as riveting. When Lester quotes Petrarch in the opening of “Travelers,” I feel as though Petrarch is his casual subject: “‘Each famous author of antiquity who I recover,’ he fulminated.” Additionally: “But reviving them, Petrarch quickly realized, wasn’t going to be easy.” The un-distancing of the past engages me about a subject matter I might otherwise take little interest in. Rather than examining Petrarch’s writing in a history textbook manner, the reader is up close and personal with his thought process. Similarly, that Lester approaches the new Vitruvian Man sketch from a personal relationship creates a refreshing dimension to historical journalism that I would not expect. We are able to look over Sgarbi’s shoulder at his research and access a past perspective through trained eyes. We see him “discover, to his amazement” the sketches, and we can follow his hunch about Leonardo and Giacomo Andrea collaborating. It is very “inside baseball” but “inside the historian’s office.”

Some questions I have for Lester might be:

  1. How did you break into this genre?
  2. How do you feel your writing on historical subjects differs from the writing of others?
  3. What was your first job out of school? It is on everyone’s mind…
  4. How are your days structured now? What kinds of things are you working on at the moment?