Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lynching the Book: Rise of the eBook

In our modern age, every writer must ask the invariable question: to print, or not to print? More than ever before (which, duh, that’s how technology works), writers feel the push towards the eBook. To easy access, to lower prices (often $0.99 for a novel), to commodity.

The commodification of literature has been around for centuries. The Victorians took it to a whole new level in the mid 19th century, thanks to authors like Charles Dickens and serials. Marx and Engel based many of their writings on such divorces between the material, producer, product, and consumer. Even way back when the first book was printed in English (The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye) on William Caxton’s printing press in the 15th century, books became consumable. Tyndale’s English Bible followed shortly thereafter from Guttenberg giving Christians access to religion in the English language. Give another hundred years or so, and the fledgling printed book grew into a product that nearly every individual had access to in some form, either obtaining money enough to purchase or to rent from the new founded Libraries.

Medieval Age: the time of Gower and Chaucer, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, only royalty or the very top echelon of the rich had access to books. Only they could afford the expensive vellum, the hundreds and hundreds of monk hours spent painstakingly copying a book word for word, accompanied by gilt pages of Illuminated text. Books were uncommon. Seven hundred years ago, books weren’t just books, filled with words to read, ponder, and discard. They were pieces of art. Objects asking for interaction. And those that remain, such as the Ellesmere Manuscript and the Book of Kells, are invaluable treasures horded in museums.

2014: ‘publishing’ and ‘printing’ have changed. Technological advances in press machinery allow printers far more room for creative variance. The invention of the digital press (inkjet and laser printers) has made it possible for anyone to print anything they want, whenever they want. Those FedEx print shops are everywhere. Add the internet’s influence for the last 25 years, and that makes for a completely new world of printing and publishing. Where once writers were at the behest of a skilled typographer willing to print their work, or hoping some big publishing house would accept a manuscript from a previously unknown author of no publishing history, writers now have the ability to publish when and how they want. And not just physical text, but PDFs we try to pass off as books. Electronic documents that replace the heft of hundreds of pages, the smell of fresh paper and glue and book cloth; documents that can be passed around like STDs between various electronic devices quicker than it takes to read a few sentences. And people can access these documents whenever and wherever they want. No more hassle with carrying books around, no hurt backs and straining at fonts that are too small. Whatever you want, right in your hand: on your phone, or iPad, or Kindle, or Nook, or laptop, or whatever. You want it? You got it.

Places like CreateSpace, however, try to bridge the gap between this drive away from the printed volume. A print on demand approach. No wasted paper, or ink, or time, or money, or anything really. Rather than print hundreds, or even thousands, of books, a publisher (or author) can simply upload their text to a database, and whoever wishes to purchase it (if any) with one click and a credit card number, can get a book in a week or so. Not only that, make sure you have your PDF/eBook version to go along with it, just in case (again, at no charge). And if no one buys the book, the publisher/author won’t lose any money on unpurchased books. It’s almost a perfect avenue for self-publishers (which is a topic for another post). Without funds to support printing mass quantities of a book, the now destitute writer can bring their work to the masses at no cost (aside from hundreds of hours producing the work itself), while bypassing the time wasted waiting for someone to finally ‘accept’ their work. No more hoping a store will pick up your book if it happens to be published, because now it’s available online, in nearly every country, almost instantly. The consumer can be fed with perfect ease.

So what? you may ask. Where’s the down side?

Let me tell you a brief story.

The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), the world’s largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the English language (around 619,000 entries), got a new Chief Editor last November: Mr. Proffitt. Go read the article if you want more details. In summary, there will not be a printed third edition, which isn’t new news, and was a decision made long before Proffitt took over. There have been two past editions, the first in 1928, the second in 1989. A 20 volume set of everything English. And at a nice price of $995, it’s no easy thing to acquire. It’s why the O.E.D. has been moving to an online database. Yet, even online access to the dictionary will run you a sweet $295/year. If you’re lucky, maybe your library has a subscription. Either way, the O.E.D. will never be printed again, and Proffitt wants to move to a more modern digitized O.E.D, more than what they already have. So here’s the thing: I love the O.E.D. It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful. When I first learned about it in College (which that in itself is a travesty) it blew my mind. It’s the greatest resource, in my opinion, for all things related to the English language and English culture (someday I want to buy one of those 1989 editions). I hope that every language has a dictionary like this. Now to the point. I posted that article on Facebook a few days ago, with the caption: “I know, embrace technology, and the fluidity of language. But still, not sure how I feel.” Here is how the thread went with me and two friends:

F1: What would the point of a 20 volume dictionary be?
Me: Is that a real question?
F2: $$$ and to be an official pompous asshole. Or really, just an asshole.
F1: Yes. You know how I feel about books. I still refuse to get a kindle. But a big ass dictionary? Thats obsolete.
Me: I guess I'm an a-hole and obsolete. I think this dictionary is beautiful, and I would love to have a 20 volume set

Now, I’m not trying to cast my friends in a negative light, or say they’re bad people, because they aren’t. They are brilliant, and have their opinions just as I do. And the thread went a little better from there on out (thanks to the help of another “old soul”). Anyway, I mention this conversation to illustrate the fact that on a whole, we are moving away from the book as an object. An object of learning, of art, of expression, of existing. The book is no longer desired as a means of knowledge, of freedom, of escaping the tyranny of religious dogma controlled by dying old men speaking a dying language; no longer are books the sources of information, true information, because anyone can publish anything they want. And besides, we have the internet now. Books are just paper taking up space and need dusting. They are nuisances, something to avoid at all cost, something that distracts from Tweets and Instagrams and memes and YouTube and the glow of disillusionment (these are generalizations and hyperboles, I know, but you get my point).

The downside is this: there is no touch involved with the internet. That’s its goal: remove the human from our equation of living. Yes, the internet does bring people ‘together’ across vast distances that otherwise would be impossible. And yes, we are able to ‘experience’ the world in a whole new way. But we can’t touch any of it. We don’t really experience anything. Seeing is more than your eyes. We touch to see. We hear and taste and smell, to see. The eBook denounces our other senses, as does the internet (although there are a lot of sounds drifting through webspace). Books, since the beginning of time, have been about touch, smell, and sound (sometimes taste, just ask The Chubbs about her books). Books create a physical experience, both in reading and creation. We interact with books when we read, as do those who write them and bind them. Even when the few books that are still printed are mass printed by machines, removing most of the human element, at some point someone touched the paper, or the ink, or the machines, or at the very least touched the book when it was placed on a shelf in a book store somewhere. People perused that shelf, picked up that book, thumbed through it, and put it back. Or it was purchased.

That connects people.

Art is intended to bring humans together to help understand and explain our world, or parts of it (my personal definition), but the intangible eBook removes humans from the process. There is no sharing of anything. Nothing real. No touch. Or smell. Or sound or taste. Some may say, “It’s the same story either way,” but it’s not. It can’t be.

This move away from the book terrifies me. What have I gotten myself into?

I want to write. And I do. But I also want to publish. Books. Physical books. Objects of material. Corporeal creatures that change depending on how you hold them, how you look at them, what paper they are printed on, whether you tear pages out and burn them or not (don’t do that). But does this new ease of publishing, the expected and demanded access to everything we want whenever and wherever we want it, does it nullify the need for the book? For publishing in general? Does the eBook abolish the historical and modern significance of the typeset text? What point is there in crafting words into sentences, images, feelings, experiences, complexities that even sometimes the writer does not understand? What point to creating when there is no concrete, tactile evidence that your creation exists? only megabits floating somewhere in the innerwebs, entombed in distance servers, alluding to a reality? I don’t have the answer, nor am I looking for one.

I know what I want, and how I feel about books. I love them. They are precious to me. I don’t want to see them disappear, but I fear that they are. And there is nothing I can do about it. No matter how much I fight it, how much I try to remain rooted in my beliefs about the substantial existence of ‘things’, I can’t stop the change. I can write. Hopefully if I publish books, whether through a press or by myself, people will buy them. But it won’t last. Soon, I won’t be able to make a book out of paper and ink, and be able to sell it to, because it doesn’t fit the proper commodity specifications.

And when that happens . . . I don’t know.

Friday, January 3, 2014

This has nothing to do with writing

It’s Friday.

And I was on my way to the grocery store, because that’s what you do when you only work 10 hours a week, when I got a text from the Wife (she had her 28 week check up today):

Baby’s heartbeat is in the 130 range. My blood pressure is 91 over 56 or something around there. The Nurse is guess we’re having a boy :) She said of course it’s just a guess and not a formal medical statement!

My first thought was: great! healthy kid, healthy wife, all is well. And I told her that sounded good (I text: “Cool cool!” because I’m lame). But my brain didn’t stop there and return to the road and driving and domestication. Somehow it made a jump to weak people. Sick people. The frail and dying. Those with countless allergies and syndromes and ailments, those that have to undergo seemingly infinite surgeries to continue correcting physical malfunctions, those who have a dozen orange bottles in their bathroom cabinets to stabilize their deteriorating insides. The Wife and I saw a lot of it from last year. But it’s everywhere, affects everyone’s lives. Now, I know I take for granted how strong and healthy the Wife is, how strong Chubbs the First is, and how strong Chubbs the Second is becoming (so far). In all honesty, we could have had the first at home, and probably this second one in a few months, without any complications. There would be two more people in the world, strong enough to survive it without help from modern medicine. Even my own health. I haven’t been to the doctor in years, and I’m still alive and well (I think). But what about those that aren’t (this is where the weak people thing came to mind)? What about those that would have died without intense medical services, both during pregnancy, birth, and the years after? I know two children specifically of good friends that would have died within the first 24 hours of birth because of serious birth defects. Prenatal improvements save their lives. There are probably a dozen children that I know close to their teens that would have died because of rising diagnoses that lay dormant until their pubescent years. One of my good friends from Grad School should have died at birth (according to doctors), but because of modern medicinal practices and his little baby strength, he miraculously survived.

What I’m about to write may upset some of you; take what I’m going to write in the vein of curiosity at our modern world, not a judgment or suggestion of any kind.

Should they all have lived? I do not ask this as a moral, ethical quandary, because it isn’t. I ask this as a man versus nature dilemma.

How many of us should have died at birth, or even before, but didn’t? Even I shouldn’t be here. I was breech, not coming out, and if it wasn’t for my mother having a C-section, I probably would have died during the stresses of labor. Turns out the Cesarean Section has been around for a long, long time. But the likelihood of survival only 100 years ago was so small compared to now. The Wife’s sister and the wife’s mother would have died during the third trimester of that pregnancy if it were for modern medicine. Her sister had come pre-mature, weighing only two pounds when she was removed by C-section from her mother to keep them both alive. Then for two months, the sister lived in an incubator to build up strength, grow lungs, finish the whole cooking process, before she could taste real air.

My point in writing all this is to ask the question: is the rising generation (of each epoch/millennia/century/decade) progressively lazier, weaker, more pathetic, because of the improvements in modern medicine? Are we creating fragile bodies that cannot, on their own, withstand the difficulties of life? Are we over-protecting sensitive minds from the stresses of normal living?

Are we going against nature?

Throughout history, only the strong have survived. There have been those that slip through the cracks (don’t ask me who, do your own research), but on a whole, the strong are born, live, progress, improve, conquer, succeed, etcetera, and THEN die. Then Penicillin was invented (by accident). A revolution, to say the least. Millions of people’s lives could now be saved because of that simple lump of mold. Jump ahead some years later, and now we have dozens of vaccines to fight against Measles, Typhoid, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Chicken Pox, and more that I don’t know the names of, but that I know my daughter has been vaccinated for. Simple diseases, no big deal to any of us now, because a majority of us have been vaccinated. We had parents who knew better than to believe correlations between Autism and vaccines. We were given a chance to bypass the lesser diseases so we would have a chance at Heart Disease and Cancer.

But people lived for . . . 50,000 years without those vaccines. Some may say: “But they died at 30,” “They didn’t live happy lives, they struggled to survive,” “Think how much better their lives would have been if they had known?” “They all got sick, all the time,” “Epidemics and Pandemics were almost common for them,” and so on. I’m no archeologist, or historian, or anything, but who is to say they weren’t happy? Or that they all died so young, or fell ill at the slightest anything? The fossil evidence that we have is very limited, and can in no way stand as a measure for the entire world and ancient life. I don’t think any scientist or historian has ever claimed such either. But ancient people they lived. They ate, they breathed, they breaded, and they flourished. Even with plagues like the Black Death, population overall continued to grow. Without medicine, people still lived, and lived well. Really, problems like the Black Death, and other diseases, weren’t much of an issue until we stopped hunting and gathering with our families, and started setting up communities where we interacted with far too many people, exposed to germ and bacteria unfamiliar to our immune systems (but that is another post entirely).

Whether you believe in God, Evolution, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is our current course the correct one? All three would come together to tell me: yes, we are on the right course, because we as humans have these magnificent brains (whether through evolution or from God, or a meatball), and it is by these brains that we have been able to manipulate our bodies, resurrect the dead or almost dead, reengineered our genes and bones and muscles and skin to escape the forces of nature, God, or that plate of delicious spaghetti. Through our advanced cognition, we are able to outsmart diseases, infections, tumors, genetic deficiencies, and external injuries. Because we are human, whatever changes we make to nature must be correct. But just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

Jenni with an “I”, a friend from college, wrote this about the Donner party after reading the book Ordeal by Hunger, by George R. Stewart: “I just sat back, breathless, in awe of what these people went through. I could not have done it. Their will to live was so much stronger than anything I've felt in my entire life. That is both my shame and their honor.” I don’t even want to begin a conversation about the Donner Party; read her blog post about it, she covers it well. But I saw something in her words that I’ve always believed: each previous generation was stronger than those who follow. I couldn’t have survived that frigid winter on the eastern slope of the Sierras. I don’t know anyone who could, especially with the conveniences they had then.

Fifty years ago people physically worked hard than we do now, because they had to, they didn’t have the technology that we have today to simplify life. One hundred years ago they worked even harder, because they had to. And you can keep going back like that to the beginning of man.

The reason I ask this question about modern medicine, and all the others I posed, is because I believe I am a part of the weak. I don’t like admitting it, but I’m lazy. I don’t like exercise. Perhaps it’s because I can choose not to do it, unlike manual labor just to survive, i.e. family farming. My mind is weak too, anxiety riddles my brain with “inabilities” to function, and torments my physical body with panic attacks and constant nausea. On all accounts, I should have died years ago, in Mexico, when the subtle anxiety tore through and revealed its seven vicious heads. But I didn’t. Because I had a way out. I had doctors. Psychologists. Medications. Others willing to carry my load for me when I found it “too difficult” to carry. And I know that my situation isn’t even that dire. My life is simple compared to the millions upon millions who suffer from real complications that they have no control over. But I just keep coming back to this idea: are we keeping the weak alive when nature would have rather them never to exist?

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think I want to know. We are constantly making life easier, and allowing the very weak and inept to flourish. I know, it sounds sadistic and hateful, bordering on lunacy. I don’t mean it to, but you have to wonder: are we doing the right thing? Is there some happy medium between Stone Age medicine and Smartphone apps that can diagnose any disease? Where do we draw the line? Or is there a line at all?