It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ,it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…the season of Light,…of Darkness…in short, the period was so…like the present period….”
For good and for ill we, in the western world at least, are in the most exciting time of our lives. I call it Gutenberg Two, because it appears to be at least as revolutionary as the first explosion of possibilities for the distribution of the word. As everyone knows, that earlier age came about because of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.
Oops. "What everyone knows" may not be precisely accurate. According to "About.com.Inventors,” http://inventors.about.com sometime between 618 and 906 the Chinese accomplished the first printing on paper, using ink on carved wooden blocks to make multiple images. In the thirteenth century Koreans printed books using moveable type. Who knows whether Gutenberg knew about those events? Never mind. He wouldn’t have needed that information to create his own invention. Block printing had come into use in Europe, but that was about thirty years before Gutenberg dreamed up the metal press.
Europe had some catching up to do to make the best use of Gutenberg’s work. If you're going to use a printing press, it’s a good idea to have paper, right? Though the Chinese and Egyptians had invented paper centuries earlier, Europeans hadn’t managed that task until a little over a hundred years before Gutenberg came along. So who gets credit for these remarkable achievements? It is not a neat and tidy story, and it's too long for this blog. It's a pretty safe guess that Europeans were not about to give credit to those "mysterious Orientals" for a process that eventually became fundamental to modern life and commerce. However it all began, we are stuck with - or favored by - the printing press and all its progeny, from the Bible to pornography; from comic books to philosophical tomes.
There’s plenty to be worried about and excited about in this age of “foolishness and wisdom.” We’re cursed and blessed. Our endless array of apps enables us to locate lost relatives, spy on neighbors, watch a grandchild’s birthday party in real time, and indulge in virtual sex. If we’re part of the government we can sabotage foreign weaponry systems and swipe and publicize personal, political and corporate secrets. The vast unknown can set off an exhilarating adrenalin rush or envelop us in a dark cloud of dread. Whether readers, writers or publishers, we wonder, “What will become of editors, agents, book designers, newspapers, book stores? What will become of the book?” But it’s the effects of the electronic revolution on readers and writers that I'll be writing about on this blog. Most of us readers, writers, and app users cannot imagine where exotic inventions will lead us next.
I'm a dedicated book reader, and I grieve when I see e-books elbowing neighborhood bookstores out of business. It’s not just the indies that are folding, either. The giant stores have either closed their doors for good or are hovering anxiously near the threshold, wondering whether they can survive. I catch myself prematurely mourning the demise of the book-as-we-know-it. I know it as a few hundred pages, glued-together, and tucked into an inviting cover. The spine fits snugly into my left palm as, with my right thumb, I riffle the pliable pages, savoring the taste of suspense before opening the book to page one. I start reading, entering a new world, turning each page, sometimes fast, impatient to find out what comes next; sometimes slowly, ruminating about complex ideas.
The book as-I-know-it is a friend whose pages I can dog-ear, underline or scribble on, expressing my delight or dismay at the content. When a book has transported me into a fictional world, or deepened my understanding of reality, I'm reluctantly to reach the end of it. When I do finish it, I'm likely to caress the book and lovingly riffle its pages again. I’m pretty sure the day will come when I adapt to reading e-books, but I’m nowhere near ready to abandon my relationships with print on paper. So, like hosts of other writers, I merrily continue the adventure of publishing my book, as if there is not a revolution threatening to engulf or obliterate the book-as-we-know-it.
As a writer I am particularly alert to the effects of the electronic revolution. So far, it seems that neither I nor my friends can get through a day without attaching ourselves to one or more electronic gadgets. Nor can we resist griping about glitches in the performances of those very same apps. Then, when they function well, we complain about how much time we spend - voluntarily - in its thrall. Two things are certain about the electronic age. It’s a “glass” that’s half empty and half full. And it’s here to stay.
A major part of the revolution is taking the form of self-publishing, which some say is, “just another word for ‘vanity press.’” Sometimes that’s true. But I resist the assumption that self-published works are certain to be schlock. Long before the current mass of writers began publishing their own works, plenty of professional authors led the way: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg, Mark Twain, and Bernard Shaw, among others. It’s reassuring to know I’m in good company, and I like the idea of Seeing for Myself on a book shelf between Proust and Sandburg.
I'll be writing more here about the self-publishing phenomenon and my experiences with it - keeping in mind that this blog is made possible in part by electronic age technology. Thank you, Mr.Gutenberg.