Parallel Transitions: Manuscript-to-print, Print-to-Digital

I ran across this video on YouTube a couple of days ago, and I thought it makes some nice, summary comments related to the many public/pundit anxieties currently circulating about the ebooks and the inexorable death of print books. What’s cool about this particular piece is that it demonstrates how many of those anxieties eerily echoes common fifteenth and sixteenth century jeremiads about the dangers of the printing press. Here’s the short, context-setting piece that opens Charlie Rose’s roundtable discussion with Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Friedman, Tim O’Reilly, and Ken Auletta:

I wonder if Charlie Rose showed this opening piece to his guest before the conversation? Given his reputation, I assume that he did. The video does such a great job of framing many of the roundtable comments which immediately ensue, especially those of Jonathan Safran Foer. In the clip to the right, Foer responds to some smart comments from Freidman about books/ebooks being merely formats for texts, the ubiquity of screens/devices, and there always being a market for physical books (note). I’m a big fan of Foer’s. He’s written popular and critically acclaimed books, but he’s also an outspoken, often polarizing cultural participant (as opposed, merely, to “commentator”). So I’m surprised that I find some of his comments a bit short-sighted and myopic. The idea that new reading experiences will be more public and faster aren’t, I think, off-base. However, I don’t think there’s any reason to think those experiences will supplant the intimate and deliberate experiences Foer sees as at stake. His attitude is similar when talking about “resist[ing] the temptations” (note the jeremiad rhetoric?) of new media elements. What he fails to acknowledge (and what Tim O’Reilly quickly reminds him) is that all of these changes are happening in a historical continuum. We’re going to figure out what sorts of technologies are going to make books better. But we’re going to do that by taking some risks. Which means failing consistently. Until we get it right. Which means making some bad books, or making some bad texts and mis-calling them books. And then stumbling onto some absolutely stunning text. And it will be a book. But not like books from fifty years ago. It might be something like the recent “The Silent History,” or the New York Times’s long form feature “Snowfall.”

I guess I just want to say (as many times as I need to say it) that I’m excited for what books are about to become. The physical forms they’ll take. The reconceptualization of their cultural purpose. And how they’ll continue to affect my life in ways that movies, television, or music have yet to match. And I also want to add that I’m not worried about print books. I love what Tim O’Reilly said about digital technologies forcing traditional print books to become beautiful again. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I think I’m pretty realistic about how difficult and slow this transition is going to be. How many false steps we’ll take. But I’m excited to be here in the middle of it. Watching. Looking for a way to participate.

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(Note: My apologies to Jane Freidman here. She’s so smart, and she’s shown real courage in publishing some risky books, especially of Foer’s. I know I’m only showing one side of this conversation, but I’m still figuring this out. How to quote video material while still allowing for some context.)

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