Wading through the year-end newspaper and magazine digests of politics and culture usually makes for dreary reading, and last year was no exception. Some writers struggled to wring a drop of good news from the decade. Others strode to the bar and leveled indictments. Either way it was a bad patch, an impossible task. Glossing ten years of history in snippets of 300 or 500 words, the writers performed an exercise bound to turn any observation about a low, dishonest decade into the perfect expression of it.
Seeking some solace I picked up a book, and in a matter of minutes I read the following passage:
Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.
The sense of impoverishment before an overabundance of information; of helplessness before the need to spot relevant material in a slurry of ephemera; of vertigo provoked by the realization that "the present" is becoming overwhelmingly, annoyingly accessible—many of us, I’d wager, have had these reactions after reading those year-end digests or spending just a modicum of time online. Now anyone is free to print whatever they wish. This could be someone kvetching about blogs, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or Twitter, and in not 500 words or 300 but nine. Except it wasn’t. The jeremiad was the handiwork of Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, writing to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471, less than twenty years after the invention of the printing press.
This anecdote does not suggest that past is prologue but rather underscores the importance of thinking historically, of taking a long view when trying to understand changes in deeply engrained patterns in literary culture. I stumbled upon Perotti’s plaint in Robert Darnton’s essay collection The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009). Rejecting the commonplace notion that digital technology has ushered in a new era, "the so-called information age," Darnton argues that every age in which a new technology has altered forms of writing and communication has been an age of information, and that in every such age "information has never been stable." There is continuity to the history of technological transformations, Darnton suggests: what is everpresent is the experience of rupture. Anthony Grafton, another historian of the book, makes a similar point in "Codex in Crisis," from his recent essay collection Worlds Made by Words (2009): "The current drive to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical projects in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up, but in one more in a series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive and flourish." The point impresses because one of its implications is that a technological innovation, whether the printing press, the telegraph, the television or a digital device, though it delivers information in a new form, is not necessarily the root cause of problems with—or controversies about—reading and writing that have arisen in its wake.
I’d like to talk about a meltdown, one that’s occurring not on Wall Street but Grub Street, that storied realm of writers, booksellers, bohemians and hacks. Though the problems on Grub Street are slight compared with the hardships that have befallen millions of people thanks mostly to Wall Street, they are matters of cultural importance. On Grub Street, for nearly a decade, and especially during the past four years, people have been wailing, rending their garments and otherwise voicing their displeasure over the deterioration of books coverage in the United States. (The meltdown on Grub Street coincided with the release of the Kindle in 2007, but the gales of anxiety and gusts of delirium stirred up in book publishing by digital readers are a different story.) The laments have focused mostly on newspaper books coverage because, rightfully or not, it has long been regarded as an accurate barometer of the delicate climate of literary life. Who hasn’t heard someone in a bookstore or a friend ask, "Have you read that novel the Times Book Review raved about"?