For everything there is a season, and a time for
every matter under heaven.
Conversation became more animated as my wife and I neared the movie theater. From all we had read and heard, the film we were about to see would be memorable. The Artist is an intriguing throwback to an early twentieth-century genre of moviemaking associated with Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford. Would we really be able to sustain attention and interest in a contemporary reprise of such a passé form of entertainment?
The Artist follows the fortunes of silent movie star George Valentin as he struggles to navigate the transition to talking movies. The film is deftly crafted, with a sure-footed narrative line strengthened by restrained use of pathos and humor. The question of whether the film would gain and hold our interest evaporated minutes into the viewing. We were not surprised when The Artist later won five Oscars.
At a critical point in the story, studio executives invite Valentin to join them in watching a new talking movie. It is an obvious attempt to win the silent screen idol over to what the executives believe is the coming era in the film industry. Not long into the showing, Valentin leaps up and storms out of the room declaring emphatically, “That’s not a movie!”
That scene, that phrase, and their larger context were unsettling in their familiarity. As someone whose working life has been occupied with editing magazines and books, it was impossible for me to watch Valentin’s story without recalling technologically and culturally driven changes now facing the world of print publishing. How often have I heard others say, and even said silently to myself, “An e-book isn’t a book!”
In our better moments, we acknowledge that books have not always existed in their current form. The widely available print book is a breed whose pedigree can be traced to the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Yet for many of us, print books and culture seem eternally united. Books have been trustworthy companions waiting patiently on personal or community library shelves to offer us a word of encouragement, wisdom, or technical know-how. And, like any good friend, they are pleasant to be with. To feel the heft of a substantial volume in your hand, to smell the beckoning hint of unfamiliar mindscapes emitted by its pages, to notice with quiet contentment the subtle design decisions concerning typography, page layout, paper texture and opacity that enhance the content—all this and more confirms the conviction that words splayed across an e-reader screen cannot represent a real book. Instead, they are simply part of a content aggregation.
Really? Perhaps the new forms books will assume as a result of the digital revolution will have their own distinctive charms. I think of a coworker who not ten years ago typically travelled to events he was leading with an extra suitcase impossibly heavy with books he might want to consult. As more and more titles appear in digital formats, he will be able to make similar trips with a virtual library in his briefcase. Or consider the many enrichments an enhanced e-book might offer the spiritual seeker—embedded audio clips of sacred music or video segments of renowned teachers speaking about the subject of the chapter (if there are still chapters), links to a vast spectrum of graphics or supplementary literary sources that enlarge on the theme of the paragraph (if there are still paragraphs), perhaps even a holographic evening with the author describing why he or she was moved to write this book (if, with the phenomenon of crowd-sourcing, there is still an author).
Recently my editorial colleagues have been discussing the possibility of releasing digital books serially. With the technology available to us, we could publish one chapter of a book every week or two on a whole variety of e-platforms. Actually, it is an old idea. Historian Robert Darnton notes how in the mid-1600s publishers began to break up book-length texts into shorter bites. “The new typographical structure implied a new kind of reading and a new public: humble people, who lacked the facility and the time to take in lengthy stretches of narrative.” Does this description bear a resemblance to that of some contemporary readers living fast-paced lives whose attention span has been influenced by immersion in the Internet and other digital environments? If so, then perhaps the transition to a new kind of book will allow publishers to provide a new reading public with resources that appropriately meet its needs and interests.
For everything there is a season. What do you think?
John S. Mogabgab
Special Projects Editor