Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Death or Transformation?

I’ve been reading a lot these past few weeks about the amazing rise of the eBook, and the death of reading, writing and literature as we know it.

Amazon ebook sales topped traditional hard-copy format. The future of the book is so precarious that it requires a think-tank to monitor its demise. And nearly everywhere I look are blithe predictions about what reading and writing will and won’t be in years to come.

In a recent New York Times essay, Kathy Roiphe opens with, “For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation”. How can anyone committed to the work of writing avoid complete paralysis when we are regularly slapped in the face with words like these?

Years ago, back when The Age was New, I learned to read Tarot cards. One of the most startling cards in the traditional deck is the Death card. Death in most developed societies is something scary, ominous, to be avoided as surely as the plague itself. Indeed, the Death card shows a classic image of the Grim Reaper.

Death

Death comes to all, but where does it lead?


But Death in Tarot and in many mystical traditions is not a sign of ending but of transformation. It is far less a card to fear than a card to accept with girded courage knowing that learning comes through change.

Right now there’s no denying that the literary world is experiencing a dramatic shift. The bastion of commercial publishing is as hopelessly unstable as an alpine snow cliff in spring. For those rooted in these institutions, the ground is no longer safe to stand on, no longer certain to hold the weight of our hopes, expectations or needs.

But if we can step back from ourselves just a little, we might also realize that we are witnessing a birth. Something new is growing out of the impending rubble.

I have no idea what that something is or where it will lead any of us. I’m not in the business of making predictions and, honestly, tend to get bogged down in anxiety myself. But somewhere amidst the panic, I’m reaching to embrace this half-formed creature that will lead us all slowly, word by word, creative thought by creative thought, forward whether we like it or not.

I’m looking at this transformation with the kind of speechless admiration a mother bears as she watches her child. As parents, we can either stand aloft and criticize every move that our young one makes, intent to crush its spirit and mold it to our expectations. Or we can nudge gently as we observe our child’s natural instincts, helping to navigate pitfalls and avoid dangers, but still encouraging the child’s desire to explore, examine, create. The first method certainly helps maintain the status quo and preserves an established line of power and control. But it also squelches and malforms. The new creation, like a sapling caught beneath overcrowded trees, grows twisted.

Creativity in whatever form needs a bit of light, room, and air to grow. Maybe I can’t understand it. Maybe I’m one of those grand old trees. But I’m trying not to panic, hoping not to strangle this new life to save my own. I’m lucky I’m not a tree. Loosely rooted where I stand, I’m willing to move aside and leave a little space for the new wonders growing around me.

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The Future of the Book, or To Kindle or Not to Kindle

As we all charge steadily toward perfecting our work on paper, I am continually distracted by repeated reports on the fate of publishing in an increasingly technological world. Amazon’s Kindle is the latest in an extended parade of electronic devices and strategies that are injecting change into the lumbering beast of traditional publishing.

Joanne Kaufman’s recent NY Times article, With Kindle, Can You Tell It’s Proust?, shows just one minor aspect of the inevitable transformation, made more inevitable by these difficult economic times and the diminishing place of the written word in an over-worked and easily distracted society. Her article focuses on the tangible transformation of the glorious object called the book with its power to define us and elicit affinities among impassioned readers. With the physical book’s absorption into the Kindle’s non-descript white tablet, we are obviously losing something that had previously spoken volumes to the observing world.

To Kindle or not to Kindle, that is the question.

To Kindle or not to Kindle, that is the question.

But a more pressing aspect of this transformation is technology’s impact on the business model that sustains literary existence. The obvious economic advantages of print-on-demand and digital technologies are beginning to erode the antiquated strategy of sales and returns that have sustained the publishing industry since the last Great Depression. (Also see Why Ebooks Must Fail.)

Whatever the outcome, the world of books is changing in a not-so-subtle if perhaps physically intangible way. What the future holds for anyone who aims to publish is probably not a book made of paper, ink and a beautifully designed cardboard binding. As to how any of us will make our living in this newly digitized world – well, that’s another conundrum entirely.