Talking with Writers: A Talk

Books As A Service

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“It’s maybe not the first to succeed that matters, but the first one to attempt”

Would Amundsen, I wondered, have crossed by balloon if Andrée had not attempted it first? Was Amundsen doing anything but redeeming an earlier failure? Does his story exist as anything other than a shadow of that earlier failure? It’s maybe not the first to succeed that matters, but the first one to attempt—in whose imagination all subsequent attempts, failures and successes, are contained.

From a sublime essay by Colin Dickey “Above The Ice: Grief and Adventure on the Path to the North Pole” in The Paris Review. He’s speaking of polar adventurers, but he could also be speaking of writers, artists, and entrepreneurs.

“The Book” isn’t Going to Change, the Book is the Great Enabler of Change

Theater didn’t become something else when film came along (notwithstanding its use in, say, Piscator in the 20s or the Wooster Group in the 90s), so I’m not sure why we expect the book to change now, or then, or in any of the previous thens when we’ve announced the book must inevitably change in the face of X new sexy technology. When film technology arose, theater was a kind of scaffolding, or armature, upon which people could test out the possibilities of what film technology afforded. As the form matures, the scaffolding comes down. (Theater is also part of the scaffolding of role-playing games too, and therefore of MMPORGs, but we don’t claim Dungeons and Dragons is the harbinger of change for theater)

Computers and the network and mobile and 3D printing etc are all various technologies that we’ll use to make money and to make personal or cultural expression, and we’ll use various armatures too, like books and also movies and newspapers, to make new things. And then those scaffoldings come down.

If I were to use the metaphor catalyst, I might be making my point clearer. The book will enable the bringing into being of other forms, without it itself needing to change. That form may draw to a greater or lesser degree on the exact affordances of book, but to the extent that is less a book, that doesn’t mean that the book has changed more. Bookness is not a zero sum game. Some forms will have more book DNA in them than others, of course, and we can and will debate that, since that, clearly is what we humans like to do.

So you’ll see I get a bit mystified that we insist the book is changing, when what is happening mostly is that new things are growing, inspired by the things we have now. Perhaps the reason is that we’ve had the book longer than anything else, and so it has been used as a catalyst for so many things, for film, for TV, for computers (library), for the internet (browse, page)?

I’ve always felt we take the book too much for granted, and perhaps one of the ways in which we do that is by always anticipating its becoming-something-elseness, rather than enjoying its useful stability-as-metaphor-to-enable-other-thingsness.

The urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.

In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.
— D.W. Winnicott (Via Jen B. MacDonald.)

Donald Winnicott has always made my heart go pitterpat.

Let me be clear, in offering this quote, that I speak not of the notion that artists wish to create in splendid isolation in the attic. What Winnicott hits on here is the passionate ambivalence of creating the self. That that ambivalence might also play itself out in other aspects of the creator’s life should come as little surprise.

“I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came…”

Apologies for virtually vanishing for so long but I’ve been inspired to get back in the saddle by the good people at Sonnet Media offering to to a little re-boot of this site.

I know for the big-chunk-of-text-by-somebody-else I’m about to post here that I should really be doing this on some Tumblr, but permit me my old fashion. I post this largely because Clay Shirky has influenced my understanding not just of the social, economic and cultural effects of the Internet but of social theory in general. His approach, his mode of questioning, his willingness to confront awkward implications is one I seek to learn from. So to watch him begin to make an account of tertiary education (in The Awl), where he himself makes a living, is quite thrilling.


I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.


And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.


Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.


Mostly, we’re doing the best we can. (Though some of us aren’t, as with bottom-feeding scum like Kaplan U and Everest, but those institutions are just asset-stripping student loans.) But our way of doing the best we can is to keep doing what we’ve always done, modifying it a bit with stuff we make up as we go along. Just like most people inside most institutions. Some years that works out fine, but we haven’t had so many of those years recently.


For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students—millions of them—the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.


The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.


Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.