Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Brainer

I tend to be contrarian, which is perhaps another way to say I'm jealous of people who get credit for saying things I've wanted to say. I find the ways that they are just a little bit wrong. Take this guy, for instance, who talks about how books will disappear beneath reading as a social activity. He goes way further than those who worry that electronic publishing will ruin the book culture by undermining the economics of it, just as has already happened to news media.

I own a Kindle now, and even gave one to my daughter who also didn't want to like it. Even at her tender age, she worries about nice things going away. But the thing I differ with Bob Stein about is that what will change will not be the nature of reading. It will be the economics of reading, along with everything else.

Words worth reading, after all, represent the intense investment not just of time, but of one's self and cumulative learning. They are by their nature static and permanent, and in most ways represent the better part of oneself. The part that is edited and better than sincere and rendered up with care that others might enjoy it. Well, except for narcissistic blogging, which is just plain uncivilized. Sorry, but it's true.

If I were a true blogger, I'd write about stuff I was already known for, or knew enough about that I would be worth reading on a given topic. Then I'd be moving in the direction of social reading, building up my cred and becoming noteworthy enough to be able to make a living on my persona. I could give talks or publish books or get appointed to a nice college, or get paid by a periodical. Instead I'm just another narcissist.

Social reading is so much like conversation - it's here and now and current. Its promise on the positive side is that it might take away the copyright privileges of bogus institutions like the Ivy Leagues, say, which reserve such outrageous right to predetermine who is worthy of attention. People can become known as worthy of attention even without credentials. Which, of course, has its bad side too.

I was taken a bit aback the other day when a young fellow of my acquaintance announced that he would be getting his textbooks at some grey-market site whose name I can't remember, quipping something which amounts to "copyright is theft." Or maybe that's just the way that I would put it. Surely in the case of college textbook publishing, it sometimes seems the case. I'd love to know if his position is well thought out, or just some sort of street-smarts credo. The trouble is that lots of young people don't seem really to enjoy the kind of heavy conversation I'm still into. Even talk is social now to the point of shorthanding predetermined responses.

But imagine if, as Bob Stein predicts, the value of text actually does decrease to zero. What will be the harm? We will move in the direction where China remains and always has been. Those who take the trouble to reproduce texts make a little bit of money on the product, whatever form it takes. Readers pay attention to authoritative sources. Authors get nil, other than position in society, which has been a function of literacy for as long as there has been China. Prove yourself in writing, and we'll give you position. Not bad, actually.

Wouldn't it be nice if we stopped rewarding beauty so extravagantly, or sports prowess, or even intelligence of the sort analogized by computers. Rewarding actual work wouldn't be so bad. Paying writers to write, based on their demonstrated ability might be a better model than to reward the popularity contest of the publishing market as currently construed. Do we really think that music is better by virtue of the recording labels? There are only a few bestsellers, and the rest of the writing world can just go pound salt. Really!

If the value of text reduces to zero, the value of actual writing may skyrocket in ways quite different from those in evidence right now. Which puts me in the mind to talk about healthcare, but I'll spare you that for now . . .

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