In brief: The Internet is a technology, not a medium; People think in pictures; The kids are all right (but you’re old and out of touch); Story is eternal; Libraries will save us all
I’m here, I made it, I’ve got my seat, my macarons and my tea, and there, they are, today’s stars: in the middle, Susan Orlean—the Susan Orlean—to her right, Michael Harris, to her left, Carol Shaben. It’s July 10, an overcast Wednesday night in Canmore’s Communitea, and I’m vibrating with excitement, poised for stimulation.
On offer is Literary Journalism at Communitea: Editors in Conversation. The programme is part of the Banff Centre’s showcase of its Literary Journalism program, and begins with readings by each of the journalists—and non-fiction authors, who are also serving as faculty in the program. It ends with a Q&A that infuriates and inspires me. But more on that anon. First, the readings.
The first reading comes from Carol Shaben. It’s a piece from her 2012 book Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on how well the chosen reading—a look at how the criminal of the subtitle, Paul Archambault, met his end (probably) as a homeless alcoholic on a cold winter’s night in Grande Prairie—reflects the overall tone of the work. There are no homeless alcoholics from Grande Prairie in the audience, so I cannot ask them if how they and their life are presented bothers them as much as it bothers me, and I am too cowardly to ask Shaben what the fuck she was thinking when she likened the word “hero” to the “N” word—and whether a white person ever has any right, ever, to make that analogy? Still. The prose is beautiful, and I see pictures in my head.
The most powerful reading of the evening follows, in the presentation by Michael Harris of the opening of The End of Absence (2014). In this Governor General Award winning book, Harris tackles, from the point of view of “the last generation to remember the world before the Internet,” the implications of the technology on solitude, daydreaming, and free time. In his chosen reading, he introduces us to Linda, a woman born in a small, tech-free Malay village who, after emigrating to Canada, returns home with a laptop to introduce her mother to the wonders of Google. “This can show you anything, everything in the world,” Linda says (I paraphrase Harris’s paraphrasing). Her mother asks, “Can it show me my mother in the afterlife?”
Harris stops the reading; perfect delivery. Do you need to know anything more about the thesis he takes in The End of Absence? No.
Finally, Susan Orlean—author of The Orchid Thief, made into the Spike Jonze-directed movie Adaptation, now do you know who she is?—reads from her newest work, The Library Book, which nominally chronicles the 1985 Los Angeles Public Library fire, but which is above all a love letter to libraries. She presents two excerpts that bracket the book—one from its beginning in which she’s a child getting a taste of freedom and the joy of discovery roaming the stacks of a library unattended, and one from its end, in which, as an adult, she still adores libraries and sees them not just as repositories of stories and knowledge, but as community and relationship-builders. Her relationship with her mother—who died mid-way through Orlean’s creation of The Library Book—and her mother’s influence on the writer comes through loud and clear even in the brevity of the chosen readings.
I’m there to see, hear Susan Orlean, who was one of only two female journalists featured in Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalists, which celebrates the heirs to the “new journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese. Her reading is spectacular—my introduction to Michael Harris and his work an unexpected boon. The Q&A that follows—unstructured and unlead, left entirely up to the whim of the audience—thrusts me into existential angst, which I spend the entire car ride back to Calgary, and a partially sleepless night, processing.
In the morning, several things are crystal-clear (aren’t mornings wonderful?). Ready?
People think in pictures
“Reading is a highly unnatural act,” Michael Harris says in response to a question/statement from an educator who’s finding it harder and harder to get her students to read long, meaty things. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Reading is a highly unnatural act, and lovers and creators of books and other printed word material are most successful—only successful—when their words make their readers see pictures.
Let me say this again, because some printed word lovers are in such snobby denial of this (no matter how much they enjoy obscure French cinema) that you might have missed it the first time: our goal as writers is to make our readers see pictures in their heads. They take our words and turn them into an individually-created, unique-to-them, perfectly-cast visual reel. When our words make readers see pictures, we succeed. When our words stay words, flat and two-dimensional, we fail and reading us is a slog.
This, by the way, is also why video did not kill the radio star. It just gave radio more competition—and, as the explosion of podcasts continues to show, pressure to reinvent itself. Spoken words are the first, the original stories. We learned story, the structure of story, the enjoyment of story—and the purpose of story—in Nana’s lap as pre-literate children. This is also why, printed word lovers, you should always read your work aloud before hitting publish or send—that spoken cadence is one of the things that makes us see pictures in our heads. It’s also the reason we still read Jane Austen but know Ann Radcliffe’s fiction mostly through Jane’s references to her (ditto Sir Walter Scott).
Speaking of spoken word and radio stars—Michael Harris is a fan and creator of podcasts, but questions from the audience and some of the answers to them cast them as a “new kid on the block” (and that’s a direct quote). People! Podcasts are almost as old as blogs, indeed, the internet. People have been trying to find ways to use the internet to distribute audio since our new year zero (that is, the birth of the internet). The word was coined in February 2004 by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, and you could upload and download podcasts to Apple’s iTunes since 2005. Compared to the book, the newspaper, radio and even television, the podcast is a younger medium, I’ll grant you. But new kid on the block? Only if you’re living in 1999.
The kids are all right
Which, actually, based on their questions, a large chunk of the Wednesday audience might have been, and while I hate to accuse my idols of being out of date, the presenting journalists could be accused of the same, especially when the Q&A moved—as it inevitably does when old people start talking—to “what’s wrong with kids these days” and a discussion of the differences between the internet and books.
Let me demolish the first point immediately and quickly. There’s nothing wrong with kids these days, except that they are living in a world the complaining old people created, but which no longer operates by the most of the rules these some old people want them to follow. Young people (all people today) are expected to process too much information, much of it irrelevant, are exposed to too much stimulation, much of it damaging, and are subject to too much future uncertainty, none of it of their making—and they are dealing with this shit situation in the best way that they can.
And if they don’t want to read long, dense, BORING articles, short stories, and books—it’s up to their creators to make their work engaging, powerful, immersive and evocative—to make their audience see the story they tell in words… in pictures.
Want to engage them in a topic they’re not interested in, and that you have to deliver because it’s on the curriculum? (They’re right, you know. It’s probably not relevant. What do you, with your 1990s education, know about the world they’re going to face in the 2030s and beyond? Dick all, sweetheart. Dick all. And the curriculum you’re delivering was probably created by someone educated by the 1960s. Or earlier.) Give them podcasts, TedTalks, YouTube videos, and blogs as starting points. They will read the “dense” stuff that requires deep concentration when it is engaging, necessary, and relevant to them. There is no merit in reading a fat boring book just because it is a book any more than there is any merit in enduring a six-hour miniseries on the history of button museums in Europe just because it’s on the History Channel (My three least favourite words: “It’s educational!” Gag).
Susan Orlean speaks quite engagingly against the fetishization of length and the mistaken view that a 20,000-word feature is better than a 7,000-word feature which is better than a 2,000-word feature which is better than a 750-word column simply because one is longer than the other. (From the point of a view of journalists who get paid by the word, of course longer is better. I love and miss 7,000 word features—nobody’s commissioned me for one since 2008.)
Let me speak passionately against the demonization of youth. People, in general, prefer the easier thing. Hutterites use laundry machines, not washing boards (and the Amish have a blog—seriously, check out AmishAmerica.com). And old people have always complained about young people. Step carefully when you do so, my icons and silverbacks of the Establishment: when you start to complain about young people today, it means you no longer understand the present and so the future will leave you far behind.
The Internet is not a medium
As it is leaving behind those people who speak of the internet as a medium. The thrust of that particular aspect of the Q&A riffed off Susan Orlean casting a book as a finished, static product, compared to the flowing, ever-changing—almost uncapturable—nature of the internet. A visually evocative metaphor—I see the river of headlines, fake news debris, cat video rafts, memes on tubes, careening towards me, past me, smashing the dams totalitarian governments try to put up around it, oh, yes! A visually evocative metaphor, but wrong, so wrong when, at the heart of it, the Internet is seen as a medium—and that was how Orlean, and apparently everyone in the audience saw it.
Slow processor that I am, I nonetheless tried to speak up here, on the verge of apoplexy, but they were all too busy discussing the static/non-static nature of the two media—books and the Internet—and everyone was taking for granted that the Internet was a medium.
It’s not. The internet is no more a medium than the printing press is a medium. They are both revolutionary technologies that made new media possible and knowledge more accessible and more easy to disseminate by new and old media alike.
The internet is amazing, and it continues the democratization of knowledge and the elimination of cultural gatekeeping and exclusivity that widespread literacy and the printing press began. It is a radical technology, an enabler—a creator and a destroyer, and yes, it brings with it a lot of crap, but we had haters, Fox News, The National Enquirer, scammers, badly written books, and poorly researched news stories and outright hoaxes long before we had the internet.
Amazing, radical, powerful—but not a medium. This is not just pedantic semantics. It’s a critical distinction. Seeing the internet as a medium and not a technology is the misconception that is still killing traditional publishing and print news media.
(Think about it—a book is a book whether it’s been meticulously copied by hand on sheep skin parchment, come off a 16th century printing press, or popped out of a Print-on-Demand Espresso machine. It’s still a book when I read it on my ereader or my phone.)
Not a medium, not a medium, not a medium! A technology. A technology that makes possible the dissemination and presentation of, for the most part, the old media: static pictures, moving pictures, sound, words…
Libraries will save us all
Libraries got this. Perhaps not all of them—there are social dinosaurs everywhere—but the good ones for sure got this immediately (I see the Calgary Public Library—the second most used library in North America, by the way–as really leading the way here). Just as they made books on tape and then on CD, and also videos and DVDs, available to their patrons, they looked to the internet as a technology that would enable them to better fulfill their mission of making knowledge (stories) available to as many people as possible, as effectively as possible. They invested in apps and operating systems that made loans of ebooks and digital audiobooks possible almost before there were ebooks (i.e., before traditional publishers stopped living in 1999 and made ebooks available). I know this, because at one point, in 2011 or so, on my very first ereader, I had read just about every single ebook the Calgary Public Library had in its system.
Libraries recognized that people don’t just come to libraries for physical books. They come, as Susan Orlean notes, for stories, For knowledge—and for community and for connection. They come to come together over story, whether as isolated mothers dragging their barely sentient toddlers to story time at 11 am every Monday or as freshly laid-off or retired seniors looking to rebuild a post-working life social network via workshops on podcasts (try it, Mom!) or the mysteries of the internet (it’s not a medium, Dad!).
If you want to save the world, rich people, invest in libraries. Parents and grandparents, if you want to make sure the kids today turn out all right, make sure they know how to use libraries.
Because libraries saw the power and potential of the internet to deliver more stories and more knowledge to more people, they will be here tomorrow. Because book sellers, traditional publishers, and newspaper tycoons didn’t—because they saw themselves as static, established and powerful, and the internet as an upstart “medium—a competitor they could snub and ignore instead of a technology they could and should harness—they are perishing.
And people like me, who used to make a decent living writing for the old media have had to reinvent ourselves ahead of our industry, and leave it behind.
My former editors moan, constantly, about our desertions to the corporate world, to public relations agencies, to new business ventures made possibly by the (not-so-new) internet. But they can’t afford to pay us to stay. And while I love, love story–I’m not independently wealthy and I need to sell my words to those who will pay for them, ya?
(My former editors are, increasingly, jumping ship themselves. They love their magazines and newspapers, as much as they loved their first typewriters. But, like, they gotta eat. And pay for their kids—still 1990s style, if not 1960s style—education.)
Story is forever
What will save us? Frankly, we need to save ourselves. We can—as some folks on Wednesday night did—moan about how hard it is to be a writer, a journalist. (It was never easy. Just stop.) Or we can embrace the potential offered by this (not-so-new) improvement on the printing press and look for the opportunity social democratization of stories offers us. And ride it.
The good news is that whatever else might be dying, whatever might be under threat now, whatever might be changing—stories are safe. Susan Orlean highlights this point beautifully several times.
Stories are safe. And not just because of libraries. Because while not every human being loves to read (and that’s ok)—every member of the species Homo sapiens is wired for story. Hunger for story is constant, and the part of our bio-evolutionary make-up that makes cultural transmission possible. The medium, the method of delivery will change—is changing. The nature of the stories we want and need will change –is changing, must change if we are to survive changes to our culture. But our hunger for story? That will last until the apocalypse, and, if any of us survive, beyond.
The next Banff Centre Literary Journalism talk is on Wednesday, July 17, and features Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is one of the most astounding non-fiction books I have ever read.
I’ll be there, vibrating with excitement, and you should come too.
Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben
The End of Absence by Michael Harris
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Suggested Follow-up Reading:
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Story by Robert McKee
(These are targeted at fiction writers, but the principles are all the same.)
And also, while we’re lauding librarians:
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktoo by Joshua Hammer
All books available at the Calgary Public Library.