The proliferation of digital technologies in the last decade has created an unprecedented interest in the art of the book, its history and culture, past and future, and while studies have shown that people are reading “more” in terms of quantity, I’m not convinced that they’re reading deeper or broader, more tactfully, consciously, skeptically—dare I say imaginatively—than in the days when the codex ruled the earth. Typographic literacy has endured a parallel proliferation as well. It wasn’t long ago that specialists trained in the areas of printing and graphic design were largely responsible for setting standards for book production, and while the jury’s still out on how to interpret the domestication of the black art now that any office worker can discern between Times New Roman and Georgia, or Helvetica and Arial, it is clear that a new form of literacy has emerged from the remediation of the book. Bookstores are vanishing, funds for public education are all but nonexistent, and the homeless and unemployed are the most loyal patrons of the public library. The means and definitions of literacy are changing and shaping what and how we read more vigorously than we may realize, complicating the role of the author as producer, cart and horse alike.
The frenzy of activity spurred by the fusion of social media and the smart phone has made the idea of private correspondence, personal and professional life, mass media, and even the boundary between interior and exterior lives uncertain, at best. The experience of seeing a concert is secondary to the act of recording it, commenting on it, broadcasting and asserting one’s presence, as if to prove “I was there.” Marshall McLuhan saw it coming. Susan Sontag and Paul Saffo, too. And while it may appear that I’m going down the luddite’s dirt road to the land of peace and plenty, I would argue that the impetus for compulsively Tweeting at a concert satisfies an important, if not innate, part of human nature that has persisted since the beginning of writing and art itself—consider the recently unearthed Aboriginal work of art created 28,000 years ago in an Outback cave in the Northern Territory rock shelter known as Nawarla Gabarnmang. The desire to read and write, be it with charcoal or an iPhone, share in the same desire to understand and be understood, to communicate in and across time, to augment perceptions of the past, present, and future.
A friend of mine broke her leg when she stumbled down the subway steps reading Ulysses (1922) on her iPhone on Bloomsday. Another friend’s seven-year-old autistic son has dazzled me with his intimate knowledge of Tom Phillips’s Humument (1970) thanks to the iPad app. Look in the business section of The New York Times any day of the week and you’ll find an article about publishing. In turn, ask anyone on the bus for his or her opinion about eBooks, the future of the library, or the effect of new media on cultural literacy, and you’re bound to get a strong response. Debates about publishing and the future of the book have never been more commonplace, provocative, complex, or uncertain than there are right now, and there’s never been a more interesting time to engage with the art of the book.
“Publishing” is often understood as synonymous with the “publishing industry,” but in my teaching and writing, I prefer to use the term inclusively in order to put independent publishing, and self-publishing (including blogging and other forms of networked grassroots communication) in dialogue with the more traditional commercial media outlets. Personal and interactive media have absorbed or trumped traditional mass media providers, and those that have survived the “big switch” (as Nicholas Carr calls it) have done so by incorporating the paradigms and principles of emerging media technologies. As Jerome McGann has asserted time and time again, for 500 years, our primary tool for studying books was—you guessed it—books, and of course this extends to the marketing and distribution of printed works as well. Although always somewhat obscure...