Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bookmark Now

It has become fashionable in the last few months for writers and literary commentators to talk back when anyone brings up the now infamous National Endowment of the Arts study claiming that the death of “literary reading” is imminent. According to the NEA study, readers of all ages are succumbing to the lure of the Internet, video games, high-definition TVs, and ever-newer gadgets in such large numbers that the entire publishing industry is in danger of being snuffed out. Bookmark Now, a 2005 collection of twenty-four essays from young writers compiled by Kevin Smokler, makes a strong case that the NEA study is stridently misleading.

Smokler has divided this optimistic set of essays into four sections, sections that explore different aspects of the writing experience from the early days of a writing career right through to what writers can expect in the future. In the first section, labeled “Beginnings,” five young writers recall how it was that they turned into writers, something that seems almost accidental for some of them. They may have gotten there in different ways but what they all have in common is that they were avid readers long before they tried their own hand at the craft. My favorite essay from this section is Pamela Ribon’s “Look the Part” in which she discusses everything from those sometimes awful author photos that grace the backs of books to how she only became a “real” writer when she lost funding for her online blog.

The second section, “The Writing Life,” includes seven essays discussing the everyday lives of those for whom writing has become the job that puts food on the table. Dan Kennedy discusses a bad case of writer’s block, something he professes not to believe in, that he got between his first and second books in “Welcome, Grab a Broom.” There are pieces on writer collaboration, including one from Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith, a lesbian couple who trust in each other’s judgment to such an extent that sounding out each other has become an integral part of the writing process for both of them. And the section includes one of my favorites, Glen David Gold’s “Your Own Personal Satan” in which he humorously details his addiction to looking up his own name in Google over and over again.

Section three, “The Now,” is of particular interest because it covers many of the challenges that face both new and established writers today. Of all the essays in this section, it is Tom Bissell who comes down hardest on non-readers in his contribution, “Distractions,” in which he says: “Talk to people who do not read for pleasure. Really talk to them. Notice the panic in their eyes as you steer the conservation to anything related to the larger world; note the anger with which they respond to anything that requires them to step outside themselves. Most nonreaders are nothing but an agglomeration of third-hand opinion and blindly received wisdom.” This section also includes the touching Paul Collins essay, another of my favorites, in which he compares reading 121 years worth of the British “Notes and Queries” magazine to “spending a year in another country, one where I spoke the language but did not know the first thing about its culture.”

The three essays, particularly the piece by Douglas Rushkoff, in the book's fourth section, “The Future,” should help calm the frazzled nerves of writers and publishers alike. Rushkoff points out, for instance, that “…the Internet has been nothing but great for my own writing career, and those of just about every other writer that I know. Even better the Internet serves to disseminate our ideas – which is the real reason anyone worth his or her pulp should be writing in the first place.” He points out the obvious: name recognition sells books and name recognition is a product of having people discuss an author’s ideas and writing. If it takes giving away electronic copies of his work in order to build name recognition, Rushkoff is all for it.

Not all of the essays in Bookmark Now worked for me, but those that did were filled with opinions and facts that make me feel better about the long-term future of books as we know them today. Book lovers will find this one worth their time.

Rated at: 3.5

5 comments:

  1. Now that sounds a like a cool book. I totally gotta get me onea those.

    One thing I keep thing is that such end-of-the-reading-world lore has to be misleading; what do most of us do on the Internet? We read. We read blogs and news and MySpace/Facebook pages. I mean, sure, YouTube is viral, but streaming video has only recently really come into its own (and I still think it's yet mostly used for porn), and most of us are still reading.

    The other thing that the argument, I think, generally fails to consider is that reading has never actually been popular; it began restricted to only a few (the well educated) and the rich, and even still, folks like Dan Brown and Jo Rowling are remarkable solely because they're exceptions to the general rule, which is that most novels don't sell, and really haven't ever sold, more than a few thousand copies (into the tens if they're lucky).

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  2. Sounds like an excellent book that is much needed by the public! Us readers already know literature is far from its death.

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  3. Will, you are exactly right. There are a few, very few, big name millionaire authors and then there is everybody else. Book royalties will not make many people wealthy BUT they will provide a nice living to lots of folks who get to do what they enjoy doing for a living. It's the same in the music business. Those who love what they are doing, and do it for that reason as much as the cash, will continue to do it...Thank God.

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  4. Jeane, we do know it and it is always nice to see someone with a little authority provide the proof that good books will be around forever. I just don't see the electronic media killing off books in the next several generations...hopefully, never.

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