A House Without Books

This article originally appeared in Critic Magazine. Illustration by Daniel Blackball.

With the redundancy of the print edition of Massey University’s student magazine in the forefront of our minds, and an unbridled enthusiasm for negotiating the intersection between traditional and emerging technology, Sarah Ley-Hamilton tries to get a handle on the landscape of publishing in an increasingly digital world.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past ten years you will have realised that there have been significant changes in the world around us. You will have heard people banging on about the “digital age,” or the “frontier” or “revolution.” You will have also heard that if you want to move forward in any capacity, then you have got to “think digital” and embrace change and new technology because, well, it’s the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a technology enthusiast; I mean, I’m writing this in a Google Doc, while dictating notes to my iPhone, and streaming Sherlock on Netflix (holla) but I can’t help but agree with Umbridge when it comes to some things: progress for the sake of progress should be discouraged.

Technology plays an increasingly insidious role in our lives and as a society we are becoming more and more reliant on it. With its uses being varied in everything from entertainment and business to education systems and health care delivery, it is easy to see the value that going digital has to offer. But what are the consequences of focusing on technology and losing sight of our more humble origins? Maybe I’m just a romantic at heart, or maybe I’ve levelled up to a full-blown artisanal-product-toting hipster, but I feel that you cannot truly appreciate something in a digital context unless you have first experienced and understood its traditional beginnings.

I volunteered last year at my brother’s primary school to assist with their photography club. While I was positively frothing about the fact that these kids were interested in photography, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what they were actually being offered. They were each handed a bunch of digital point and shoot cameras and given a brief introduction on how to take a good photo (“The object you want to draw attention to should be the biggest thing in the frame” – I mean, seriously?). They were then set to roam free, taking photos of mostly school buildings with the occasional artsy phone line on an angle shot. To my utter despair there was absolutely no description of how in the hell a camera even works, no foray into the history of photography and definitely no DIY pinhole camera extravaganza – which had to be the coolest thing I ever did at school, period.

While I have been known to dabble in the visual craft of photography, my first and longest lasting love has always been for the written word. The power of talented authors to explain complicated situations with ease or take their readers on a journey of discovery across time and through imaginary worlds never ceases to amaze and enchant me. You probably don’t need to see the stacks of books or piles of artfully arranged magazines littered around my room to know that I’m an avid consumer of these printed works of art. The title of this piece actually comes from a quote by German writer, Heinrich Mann, which in its entirety is “A house without books is like a room without windows.” I think my man Heinrich and I may have something in common when it comes to appreciating the stories told within their pages. I’m no fool, though; the stories still tell the same tale when delivered across a digital medium but the all encompassing digital revolution poses a very real threat to the printing presses of the publishing industry, so it stands to reason that from here-on-in my collection will become even more treasured and possibly antiquated.

Recently, I happened across a blog by a young, up-and-coming local entrepreneur, which admittedly I wouldn’t have found without a computer, access to the Internet or the support of a powerful search engine (Bing … just kidding). As I was perusing his site I noticed a post in which he discussed the fall of print media and suggested that the advent of technologies such as Apple’s iPad or Amazon’s Kindle lay to rest the hopes of any author trying to reach their target market through traditional print mediums. Besides the glaringly obvious fact that most of us now have AdBlock installed on our browsers and have been successfully managing to navigate the internet without being drenched in advertisement vomit (except for the ever present pre-roll, dick-move YouTube), I can’t help but agree that technology and readily accessible digital media up the ante when it comes to connecting with an increasingly discerning consumer.

At the bottom of the post I noticed a poll, which consisted of the following:

Will you ever permanently
give up print?

• Heck No –
I love the feel of dead trees on my finger tips

• Yes absolutely –
I want a Mag+ with AR Yesterday!

• Yeah-Nah –
I’m a fence sitter

I answered “Heck No.” But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that the author had completely missed the idea behind print as a medium. I don’t choose to buy magazines solely for the purpose of destroying native trees; I buy them because when I read a magazine, or a book, I enter into a relationship with it – a relationship that goes something like this …

A few times a week I leave the protective warmth of my high-rise office to venture downstairs to the newsagent on the ground floor. In the newsagent, I buy a drink, sometimes a chocolate bar, and I peruse the floor-to-ceiling display of magazines. Like a prospective relationship – I check them out. I pick them up. I flick through them. I smell them. I then chat with the owners of the shop about how my day has been and debate the pros and cons of the magazines I am trying to decide between. If I’m lucky the owners will have just got a copy of my favourite magazine in, or they may have a new one that will be just my cup of tea. Like a first date I only get the opportunity to take the magazine at face value, just a glimpse of what it has to offer. If, and when, I decide which magazine I’ll take home with me, I pay for it, exit the shop and trudge back up to my office as the despair of sitting in front of a computer screen for the rest of the day drifts over me like a stormy cloud.

In the elevator to my office the magazine and I have our second date. It’s more intimate than the first, as it’s just us. The excitement of getting to know each other better is a little overwhelming. I become flushed and a little out of breath as the elevator doors open and I’m forced to jam my magazine into my handbag and negotiate pleasantries with whoever has reached the office door at the same time as me.

It’s not until I get home, though, that the real relationship begins – the next few hours (months, in real relationship time) are pure bliss. I read the magazine from front to back, top to bottom – inhaling the scent of ink on paper, feeling smooth under my touch, enjoying the noise every page turn makes. I devour it; every detail is scrutinised, every advertisement analysed and all of the inadequacies that the magazine may have are identified. Once I have done this, I will do it all over again. Something might interrupt me – the clock striking 11pm, or the jug finishing boiling, or dinner being served – and the magazine gets put down in its place of honour beside my bed.

It is in this place the magazine stays, for a week or so, for me to freely check back through and make sure I haven’t missed anything. Then it is put on my artfully arranged pile of previous purchases (relationships) as a record of the good times we’ve shared. It’s not a graveyard of trees, empty and lifeless; it’s a library of lessons, of good memories and of cherished moments – a history of then and an inkling of what may
be to come.

As the months pass, I have more brief but intimate encounters with printed materials. I can always feel safe and secure in the knowledge that should I need to use a recipe, reflect on a poignant article, glimpse at a beautiful photograph or illustration, my magazines will be there waiting for me, patiently – always giving, always supportive and always offering moments to escape and remember better or more exciting times. Sometimes, I lend them to friends and family who I think will benefit from the pearls of wisdom among the pages and sometimes like the One Ring, they lay there quietly for years until the right opportunity arises.

My rambling romantic notions aside, it is hard to ignore the pressure that going digital imposes on the publishing industry. If you told me ten years ago that I would be curating a visual discourse through Tumblr or that I would be sharing an insight into my private life with relative strangers via Twitter (and that they would actually be interested in what I had to say), I would have laughed in your face. These are realities and opportunities that technology offers us in our modern day society and, in all honesty, I am still able do all of the things I would do with my printed magazines: I can add bookmarks to my browser; keep track of recipes on Pinterest; and store collections of articles with tools like Evernote. With services like Issuu, blogging platforms such as WordPress or Tumblr and micro-blogging sites like Twitter, the barriers to publishing content are removed, whether it is just for you or for an audience. However, without these barriers to entry in a digital space, the market is flooded with offerings and it becomes more and more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. When it comes to print, it’s no longer enough for you to have an idea and access to a printing press, you have to find a paying, willing audience and market the shit out of it.

In the case of Massey student magazine MASSIVE, its print demise was for largely economical reasons, much like other publications that have met their maker these past years. With the introduction of voluntary student membership in January 2012, MASSIVE’s reliance on the dwindling support of its voluntary student populace among the cries from staff of purse tightening due to apparent “independence,” MASSIVE was left with no choice but to ditch the press and focus on digital pursuits. Despite the outcries, there is a lot to be said for going digital; the economic and environmental implications alone are appealing but the true beauty of digital content creation is its ability to transcend barriers like location and language or having to come up with cash to bankroll your ventures. You no longer need to be a multi-millionaire like Rupert Murdoch or hold a position of power like the head curator at the MOMA to inform the news or share your artistic vision with the world.

As the cost of technology and the barriers to entry slowly decline, I still can’t help but lament the loss of the historical significance that is evident in our traditional processes. Will we still appreciate the pioneering efforts of Johannes Gutenberg and the creators of newspapers and magazines that gave geographically isolated New Zealanders an, albeit, delayed but wondrous insight into a diverse number of cultures and happenings? Is this all to be forgotten? As more of us become comfortable with technology and seek out our news from sites like Twitter that offer us instantaneous feedback instead of the pages of newsprint the day after, we should be mindful of looking to technology to augment not replace our print experiences.

For me, the adoption of technology in the publishing industry can be likened to the internal struggle of a viewer who can’t help but root for the murderous villain in their favourite TV show (Moriarty, I’m yours), even as they destroy the main character. I know that for me, and hopefully for others out there who think similarly, our connection with print media will not be as easily severed. Regardless of what unrelenting digital or technological advances occur in the near or distant future I will continue to seek out rewarding experiences with leafy loves (books and magazines, I’m not in the habit of communing with nature) – it is a relationship that I will endeavour to make last as long as I do. On reflection, I feel that there is room for both print and digital media but when the time co

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s