a year of morning thanks
Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post decided to officially share stories, which means, I take it, to publish--substantially--the same content, at least in part. That move, like the Detroit Free Press's switch to every-other-day delivery or the Des Moines Register's new smaller sheet of paper, is designed to save bucks--which is to say, to save the industry. That's how bad it's getting.
On Sunday, the Post published a lament for the book written most endearingly by André Bernard, himself a former editor at Harcourt. "I can't help thinking that as this year gasps its way to its merciful end," he writes, "something terribly sad is happening, that a vague, general shift in the cultural landscape will alter how or what we read in some still indefinable way." What he's talking about is not the death of an industry, but the death of a kind of religious calling, an caring industry that created masterpieces in a process that sometimes seemed a crap shoot. Bernard goes on to say "that a quirky, creaky, financially insupportable business that in spite of itself produces that most desirable and perfect of objects -- the book -- is perishing, and that we are yet to fully feel the loss."
This screen before me has an insatiable appetite. It's eating newspapers left and right, and books too, or at least, if we believe the eulogy, the book industry. It's transforming not only how content is delivered, but how we read and even, I suppose, why we think the way we do.
Last year, I was working on a novel set in rural South Dakota at just about this time of year, mid-deep freeze. I was more than one hundred pages in before I realized that this contemporary story was lacking one required feature of contemporary life, a feature that would alter the entire story--the cell phone. Much of what I'd written had to be entirely recast because the cell phone transformed the whole story.
Technology has done that, changed our landscapes and changed us. I don't think anyone can argue with that assertion. I am a different human being because of this machine in front of me, a landing strip for the ideas my imagination brings to the screen. The internet links me with people and ideas anytime, anywhere, around the world, and delivers information in such vast quantities that one doesn't really need to leave the chair. Libraries, in many ways, are rapidly becoming dinosaurs.
It's easy to understand why some voices sound like Chicken Little because, with respect to some of our most cherished notions and foundations, the sky is falling; our lives are being transformed. Some things are being left behind, and one of them (may our own Ben Franklin rest in peace) just might be the daily newspaper. And the book. I've got no crystal ball, but right now there's an identifiable death rattle in the way those industries are breathing.
But honestly, I don't think the sky is falling, even if the weather, out here and everywhere, is changing dramatically. Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist, but I don't think so.
But let's say I'm wrong and we're becoming some deviant, decadent culture worshipping at the shrines of celebrity and power. Let's say the Barnes and Nobles of the world will soon close their doors. Let's say Ray Bradbury was right about most things in Fahrenheit 451. Let's say libraries soon become, at best, museums.
Even if all of that is true, this dark winter morning, I know this much at least, down here the darkness of the basement, I've still got a keyboard.
Just now, after reading André Bernard's eulogy for the book, I'm almost ready to cry. Yet, if I listen closely, I swear I can hear the cry of the phoenix bird, rising from the ashes.
And I see no reason to stop typing these very words.
The Bayard lament is at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/18/AR2008121803548_pf.html