Does Anybody Else Out There in the ‘Blogosphere’ Feel Uneasy After Reading These Two Quotes from The New York Times About Books and Reading? – By Neil Baldwin

Some start-ups choose an ambitious approach to the notion that books require too much time to read. Working in collaboration with an author, editors at the New York start-up Citia take a nonfiction book and reorganize its ideas onto “digital cards” that can be read on different devices and sent through social networks…”The ability to commit 10 or 15 hours to a book is going to be an increasingly fraught decision,” said Peter Meyers, author of Breaking the Page and Citia’s VP for editorial and content innovation, “so we need ways to liberate the ideas trapped inside them.” — “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind.” The New York Times, 12/1/13.

Technology is starting to give authors data that is more precise and thus potentially more helpful: “If you write as a business, you have to sell books,” said Quinn Loftis, a successful self-published writer for teenagers. “To do that, you have to cater to the market. I don’t want to write a novel because I want to write it. I want to write it because people will enjoy it.”    — “Tailoring Their Books to Readers.” The New York Times, 1/6/14.

As followers of The Creative Research Center know, we are all about giving over this platform to colleagues in academia and the arts here at Montclair State University and around the world, students, like-minded friends. I  have not “blogged” as much as I thought I would when I launched this site nearly four years ago because I’ve so enjoyed soliciting and publishing the ideas of others.

That said, as a lifelong biographer and nonfiction author [ and on Facebook at Neil Baldwin Books] I woke up this morning with the intense need to post these two brief excerpts that I clipped from The New York Times in the past six weeks.

One inner voice is saying: “Get with the program, NB. All media have changed and will continue to change — and to atomize. Stop clinging to your old literary ethos. As long as people keep reading, what difference does it make how, why, or when?”

Then the other contrarian readerly voice says in response to Mr. Meyers:  “But isn’t part of the joy of reading to enter into a sustained world where you are not so much ‘forced’ as induced to slow down and avert distraction, to pick up a narrative because it is continuous, to follow a story made up of words set down in a certain order for thousands of certain reasons?”

Further, the stubborn authorial voice says to Mr. Loftis: “Certainly I want my books to sell! However, if that were the leading edge of my motivation, I know myself well enough to realize that the writing will suffer. I have learned the hard way (there is no other way) that when I let my voice come forth in a structure and form that are constructed over a span of months and years the result is a book I can stand by and that stands for me.”

Like I said…it took me awhile to decide to add to the multitude of discourse flying around the Web about the matter of — or the matter with — literacy in our fragmented world.

What do you think? Where do we go from here — as writers and readers?

Please let me and others know — click on the response icon at the top of the page.


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  • Mike Peters says:

    We live in a market driven society, where financial gain is all important, and art takes a back seat. When you tailor what you do for a given audience, be it a client who commissions your work or towards a specific demographic, you are making something that perhaps looks like art, or sounds like art, but it is really just a commercial product. Sometimes those products do achieve an iconic status rivaling art, and in time may be considered art. After all, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was just a freelance gig for a guy with a paintbrush. It’s complicated.

    Some say that art expresses the voice of the person or people who make it, and great art may appeal to the sensibilities of others, at some point. James Joyce and Vincent Van Gogh did not concern themselves with the marketplace, they did what they did as an expression of their views of the world, as a way to make sense of it to themselves. But did they make any money?

    And then many people make art for themselves, and no one connects to it, and no one cares, or they don’t show it and in time it winds up in a landfill. Is it still art? If what you do is a business and you do what you do to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, then indeed you have to make sure that your work appeals to the people who buy what you do.

    For me, it all comes down to intention. Am I doing something for myself, or someone else? One is not better than the other, just different. You can come from the same creative place, but your intention from the outset will always influence the process and the outcome.

    As far as the time required to read a book, it does require a conscious effort to put aside the time for many of us. Reducing some books to a simplified essence continues our obsession with reducing our existence to mere data points which in the long run will lay waste to our connection with ideas, inspiration and creativity through the fragmentation of narrative. Reading engages our minds like no other endeavor, and to read a book is it’s own experience. And by the way, isn’t what they’re talking about already in existence? I believe we called them Cliffs Notes.

    We live in interesting times.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I have mixed feelings too about both NY Times comments. In my dance history course this past semester, many students were reluctant to use books for research! They prefer internet sources that they can access from their computers. Hopefully more dance books will become available as ebooks that students can easily access. I am fine with ebooks, but I believe that books are valuable and should continue to be valued. At the same time, while I used to give a fairly long reading on Howard Gardner in a different course, I now use a video of Gardner explaining his theory of multiple intelligences along with a shorter reading on the PBS website. I am, I suppose, catering to the students’ apparent need/desire for visual information and speed.

    As a writer of 2 scholarly dance books, I never supposed I was writing for the masses! I always knew that my audience would be limited, but believe what I had to share was important for the past, present, and future in a collected form that a book provides. I don’t know what the future is for this kind of work. The world of publishing is changing in dramatic ways. Wonder how much longer we will even have print newspapers?!

  • Judith Lin Hunt says:

    I am in the midst of reading Malcolm Foster’s 555 page biography of Joyce Cary, immersing myself in the literary and artistic world of the early to mid-twentieth century. There are no ideas that are trapped; therefore, I do not need digital cards to liberate them.

    “There is no frigate like a book.” Emily Dickinson

  • Julie says:

    Faulkner’s Nobel lecture addressed the issue of writing for profit or fame, and is worth reading in contrast to this idea that writing should be approached on a consumer-satisfaction model. But to excerpt what he already said more beautifully, on the value of writing for writing’s sake:
    “…a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” (Nobel Lectures, 1949).
    As well, Schopenhauer has a long essay on the evils of writing for profit or fame (see, but perhaps more modern author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) puts it much more succinctly:
    “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough.”
    I think writers today who write for money are limited to the more popular fiction writer, hopefully not the writer-as-artist. It does connect to my question of whether a writer influences society through their vision and insight into human concerns, which in my view gives the artist-as-writer a rhetorical influence on the world. We can’t influence our world as writers if we are merely trying to please the crowd, instead of upsetting and unsettling the crowd. I hadn’t seen the second article you cite but I heartily agree with your assessment that condensing the ideas of a book misses the point of literature: to escape and divert ourselves by considering and slowly appreciating the power of a literary work. We live in a speedy world and it’s sad that we want the cliffnotes rather than the experience, but sometimes this is the best we can hope for from some readers.


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