Guy Eggers might have said it best last night, or at least most succinctly, when he told the crowd (and it was a big crowd) at Micawber's Bookstore, "You want good content--good things to read." How a person reads--on a Kindle or an iPad, on a book or a Nook--is, ultimately, less important.
E-books, said Patrick Thomas, editor of Milkweed Editions--"that's just another format. It's all reading."
Eggers, co-editor of Thirty-Two Magazine, Thomas, and several others were addressing the issue of how our reading habits have changed in a digital world. The consensus seemed to be that, well, we are still reading, avidly, and print is doing fine, and content is the more interesting question after all.
(Though it's true that a panel of bookish people talking to folks gathered in an indie bookstore might have had a wee bit of optimism fueling their opinions. The discussion was sponsored by Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, more book-lovers.)
The panel moderator, MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs, got things rolling by asking the crowd how many folks owned a smart phone: Nearly every hand shot up. How many own an e-reader or tablet? Again, most hands.
"And how many of you read predominately from a digital device?" Not one hand raised, and Combs said, "God bless you all."
Caroline Casey, marketing director of Coffee House Press, and Thomas of Milkweed Editions both talked about how their publishers have embraced digital as an opportunity to do things differently and reach out in more directions. Thomas said, for example, that Milkweed's online catalog includes authors reading aloud from their forthcoming books--something that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. (You can take a listen here.)
And Casey talked about how Coffee House is reinivisioning itself not just as a traditional publisher of books but as an arts organization that connects readers and writers in a multitude of ways--through readings, events, exhibits and experiences, both real and virtual.
"We decided that our role was to connect readers and writers whether or not they buy the book," she said.
All of the participants agreed that turning their backs on digital would be futile. "You don't want to hold off the technology by saying you're stealing from us," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's. "The music industry did that to great failure. For me, the thing is to fight against the idea that books are dying. That is not true."
With the digital world still in flux--there are no standard platforms for e-books or e-magazines, and devices are changing all the time--print offers stability. While Thirty-Two Magazine does have a website, they do not offer e-versions of the magazine and instead rely primarily on print--gorgeous print, high-quality paper, a magazine you can carry around and read and touch, said co-editor Katie Eggers. Creating digital versions for all the various e-readers would be prohibitively expensive--at least as expensive as creating a print version, she said.
Most panelists predicted a widening split between print and digital, with readers continuing to buy print copies of books they admire and want to keep and re-read, and with digital eating up the bulk of more disposable books--romance, mysteries, soft porn and other books that people read once, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.
Thomas said it's not uncommon for readers to buy an e-book as a convenient, less-expensive way to sample a book--and then, if they like it, go on to buy the book in print. "Quality really trumps some of the aspects of ease that e-books bring," Thomas said. "E-books are great for ease."
But for something you want to keep, there's nothing like a beautiful book. (Weyandt held up Milkweed's "Things that Are" by Amy Leach and Coffee House's "Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow" by Andy Sturdevant as examples--both beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover books.)
And in the Twin Cities, where three of the four major literary presses live (and the panelists joke that they're going to force the fourth, Copper Canyon Press, to relocate here some day) and where libraries are vibrant and readers are everywhere, the health of the printed book is particularly robust.
"We see ourselves fighting a culture that is always telling us we're gonna die," said Weyandt. Not true, he said, and all in attendance last night almost certainly agreed.
When I travel, I like to scope out the other passengers' reading material. This is getting harder to do. The last time I flew, back in May, not one person in the gate area was carrying a book, at least not a visible book. One guy had a newspaper (God bless him). Everyone else was peering at screens of various sizes--phones and tablets and the occasional e-reader.
They make it so hard to snoop.
It might be that people in transit prefer digital devices because they're lighter weight than books. (Although, of course, no flight attendant will make you put your book away ten minutes before landing.) Or it might be that all of those people I saw read on devices all the time. Who knows?
This whole madness about the changing world of reading--how we read, and where, and on what, and how we think about what we read--will be the topic of discussion Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
The panel discussion, "How We Read Now," will be moderated by MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs. The panelists will be Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore; Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Books; Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions; Katie and Guy Eggers, founding editors of Thirty-Two Magazine, and yours truly.
The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at Micawber's, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul. Come on by and help us figure out this new complicated world.
Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."
Wednesday (Sept. 18) is the first day of nearly a month of readings, at coffee shops, bookstores and cafes across St. Paul. If you can't make one, surely you can make another.
It's the St. Paul Almanac Literary Festival, a joint venture of the smart folks at the St. Paul Almanac, and the equally smart folks at Cracked Walnut. Cracked Walnut did something similar in the spring, hosting a reading a day for 21 days. Now, with the help of the Almanac, they're going themselves four days better.
Writers who contributed to the 2014 Almanac (on sale now, because, of course, it's almost 2014) include Joyce Sutphen, Carol Connolly, Ethna McKiernan, John Jodzio, Margot Fortunato Galt, and Jim Moore (though there are many, many others).
You can catch them at readings at J&S Bean Factory (6:30 p.m. Wednesday), Subtext: A Bookstore (7 p.m. Sept. 21), Khyber Pass Cafe (7:30 p.m. Sept. 26), and places in between. Check out the full schedule at the Cracked Walnut page.
A week or two ago, I posted here a long list of prominent writers who are coming to town to speak at various reading series—Talking Volumes, Pen Pals, and the others. But that, of course, was only part of the list of writers you can go listen to around the Twin Cities area.
So here’s a second list—not comprehensive, by any means, but a list of some of the more notable writers who will be speaking at 10 Twin Cities bookstores this autumn. It’s an impressive list—Sue Grafton, Alice McDermott, Jhumpa Lahiri and Louise Erdrich, Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Harding, local favorite Garrison Keillor, Jamie Ford and Jesse Ventura….
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