Applause to Sarah Clark, Drunken Boat‘s intrepid Assistant Managing Editor, for resurrecting my adolescence. Her recent blog entry might have single-handedly bulldozed all previous and future Drunken Boat blog entries as the best there ever was. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and with my hand curled into a hungry fist, I willingly offer my veins.
When I become defensive about traditional art and media, my first instinct is to say that, “back then”, we weren’t having these kinds of conversations. The landscape wasn’t being altered. I had a happy-go-lucky upbringing filled with books, magazines, newspapers, and art was still a thing that you had to go to a museum to see. But if nostalgia is truly a powerful drug, then its hallucinatory effects do a superb job of distorting reality, because the truth is that some form of art and media has always been endangered. In the 1950s, widely regarded as television’s “golden age”, the previous generation of the day lamented the death of radio and even film. But as director James Cameron demonstrated back in December, movies are alive and well. As for radio, though it exists in drastically limited capacity, its followers are devout, and so far there are no signs that the FCC will cease acknowledging its merit.
Fast forward from TV’s golden age. In the early 1990s, America Online is on the rise at the same time as old internet protocols like IRC and BBS are enjoying what would soon become the last days of their dominance. In 1995, by way of aggressive marketing (3.5-inch diskettes, anyone?) America Online has all but put the country online in such a way that they don’t even need to state the obvious anymore, so instead, they become known simply as AOL. Toward the end of the 20th century’s last decade, Napster would change the face of music and leave everyone wondering about the fate of compact discs and album cover art.
Now, here we are again, our world rocked by new technologies that rolled out starting with the iPod and culminating into the Kindle. These achievements have made it easier for us to keep in touch, conduct business, listen to music, and read a book. Yet the conversation is still the same: what about the old ways?
When I was growing up in the 90s, I embraced AOL and Napster. Along with others of my generation, I fancied myself an agent of change. CDs and listening to music using a Walkman were things of the past; now, it was all about MP3s, file sharing, and Nomads. I was young, impatient, and imprudent: eh, we don’t need the old ways! But now, as we move from the hope and glory of the arrival of the 21st century, and march forward to do the hard work that makes up the real meat of this journey into the future, I have to ask myself: have I become the Old Guy?
Although technology does not bring a twinkle to my eye like it did in the 90s — I refuse to buy an iPad, on the grounds that, well, I just don’t have the money and am now too old to beg my parents to buy it for me (and, of course, I now finally understand the terrible positions I put them in when I was a kid) — I am not a total luddite. In fact, I do have an iPhone, and most of my personal writing projects rely on the iPhone’s convenient global communication features. The plane upon which I rest is a compromise between reality and nostalgia: whether we like it or not, the future is here. At the same time, I have the right to become the Old Guy: he who sticks up the walking cane of his fist and cries, “Save the books, you young whipper snappers!”
And so, one Sunday morning, I found myself at Borders near AT&T Park. For me, the ballpark is church. I do my writing at Borders, where I can see the ballpark and regard it as the altar that I pray to for inspiration. Devotion to baseball: Old Guy quality number one. Next on that list is the fact that I was reading the thick Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. We live in a world where you can scroll through pages of books and entire newspapers with just one finger. Who puts up with sojourning through a hefty Sunday edition anymore? Well, I do, because a Sunday paper is not cold, distant, and soulless. My own soul connects with every crispy page, every vibrant photograph lovingly printed on a carefully designed column scheme. An iPad will never afford me the simple joy of reading an interesting article about the financial crisis, only to have it interrupted with a visually loud ad about a local used car dealer.
It was on that same Sunday morning when I perused this opinion piece about the fate of book covers in today’s digital world. And it was when I finished reading the article that I came to this final conclusion: yes, we are having the same kind of discussion all over again, but no, the Kindle, awesome and promising as it may be, will never replace books and book covers. Not really, and not if I have any say about it. I’m stubborn, you see. And some would accuse me of being in denial. But here’s some good news: I’m no lone wolf, have yet to become the crazy old panhandler stowing away on the city bus. When it comes to my defense of the old ways, I am not alone.
The May 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker features a hopeful ad. Entitled “Magazines: The Power of Print”, the ad copy proclaims: “Barely noticed among the thunderous Internet clamor is the simple fact that magazine readership has risen over the past five years.” That’s right, folks. Print media isn’t dying, and if my thunderous devotion to the old ways matches the aforementioned clamor, then print media won’t be on life support for very long, either.
But the best anecdotal support about the preservation — or rather, the survival and longevity — of the old ways involves a recent trip I made to the bookstore. The bookstore. Not Amazon, not iBooks. Not Borders, even, or some big chain, but a local shop. There, I got my hands on a unique and used copy of a book that I’d previously checked out at the library. (The library!) This particular edition of Malamud’s The Natural is graced by a cover credited to one, Karl W. Stucklen. When I went to pay, the bookseller, herself a girl probably no older than I, admitted that she had never read the book. “But I love the cover,” she said sincerely as she rang me up.
You will never be able to say that when you read a book on the Kindle. And the fact of the matter is that I was about to show you both Mister Stucklen’s cover and the New Yorker advertisement — but I can’t, because my scanner is broken, and Google’s vast image search apparently does not extend to Mister Stucklen’s cover. See? Technology only takes you so far. This Kindle, that iPad… they make just one breath in the passing wind.
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