Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ruminations on The Machine

Someone recently told me I'd have to become “one with the machine” if I wanted to solve the technical difficulties of binding a 776 page book properly. Very well. I realize that this will require facing my discomfort with all technology post-1901 (since all good, homey things were available then: the awl, gas lamps, the science of evolution, Seattle). I’ve always liked books as aesthetic objects, something to handle and display, though according to Ted Striphas, author of The Late Age of Print, I’m still being swayed by the middle class consumerist fantasy of stocked bookshelves as a sign of elevated society, a je ne sai quoi of prestige.

In Striphas' words:
“...the widespread private ownership of mass-produced printed books as home was crucial to the formation and professionalization of the middle class, its entrée into modernism.”

Sometime in the middle of the 20th century when Christmas really took off, the book industry benefited from the “conspicuous consumption”of educated households where books were part of the object-ambiance, not just for reading. There were even "mimic bookshelves" for those low of purse. Striphas acknowledges that this is a cynical picture; it does not do justice to the influence of those knowing, deep spines confronting us from across the room.

For instance, on my bookshelf Mr. Casaubon of Middlemarch (one of my favorite cautionary cranks) scowls at, on the one side, T. S. Eliot’s The Uses of Criticism and, on the other, hot-tempered Roberto Bolanos’s The Romantic Dogs, a lusty collection of poetry from his early twenties. Baroness Blixen of Kenya (Out of Africa) raises her eyebrows at the teenage Marguerite Duras of Cambodia (The Lover), while Mrs. Dalloway nervously arranges her flowers and sighs at the voracious appetites of the British Empire. Every few months my eye is caught by Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 and I wonder again why he couldn’t have born it one more day–a Jew escaping France before the German occupation gets stopped at the Spanish border and commits suicide in his hotel room, the night before Spain opens its borders to refugees–. Granted I could have looked this all up on Wikipedia in fifteen seconds flat, but the resonances would not be so tangibly stirring on the shelf in my living room all day long, catching my flighty thoughts and deepening them.

But we all have to admit the book industry is in a crisis and Striphas has a good point that it is no longer conspicuous consumption that will save the publishing industry (though we at the bookstore wouldn’t mind a good try!). Something like the music industry's horror-struck encounter with Napster in 2000 is happening to publishers who with the hurricane of new digital options are being forced to confront a longstanding problem: you can’t just sell a book once, watch lamely as it it passes from hand to hand, circulates in the library, and surfaces again and again in used bookstores and websites through the years without earning you one extra penny, and expect to pay your editor’s and production team’s bills. In order to survive, publishers have to find a way to capture those fees for use.

Striphas brings up an eerie example of a William Gibson novel, Agrippa (Book of the Dead), which was an early "electronic book", a physical book encasing a floppy disk which would erase itself upon the third reading or so. Luckily the targeted readers were nerdy enough to love that kind of thing. Not all of us will be so tickled by the future of "controlled consumption," as we learn to lease the contents, rather than own a book outright. What is the essence of "book" after all?

Perhaps the Espresso Book Machine is targeting savvy, (dare I say nerdy) readers in its own way. It is a neat hybridization of digital and glue-and-paper print technology, and I often like to have a good chat with a customer before I hand him/her their steaming, sizzling Print On Demand title (At which point we dutifully repeat “hot off the press” together. Every time.) But I am also curious what people think is going to happen next. Will we as readers be satisfied with the unreal pixels of E-books? How important is browsing in a physical space, bumping up against other readers, and stumbling on that new obsession with Serbian folk songs or the Googleification of Everything? And my burning question, how long is someone willing to wait for my glue pot to heat up so I can make the next damn book? More adventures in Print On Demand coming soon.

tell all your friends!