Out of all the ways people are succumbing to big decade pronouncements this month, the ones that interest me most aren't the Best Of or Worst Of recaps but the prognostications. I always like to hear what people think is going to happen to me… hey, I've been waiting for that jet pack since third grade. And out of all matters hanging in the balance right now—climate change, health insurance—the publishing industry is close to home, wide open, and not as scary as a lot of the others.
The National Book Critics Circle is launching a series of guest posts in response to the question How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? By Katharine Weber's reckoning, it's headed: "Everywhere. Every text will be that much more porous, that much more available, that much more potentially integrated into every other text. These boundaries between communication and literary work will blur more and more." Porosity is invoked in this particular discussion often; this is a good thing in a lot of ways, but Weber also cautions against the noise:
The conversation is going to get louder and louder, and book culture is going to need to figure out a way to define new boundaries if it is going to preserve any distinction between where the conversation about books ends and the book itself begins.
NBCC member and LA Times Book Editor David Ulin is more upbeat about all this accretion, although he doesn't do us any favors by comparing it to the pumped-up Y2K hype of 10 years ago. He has a point—any major shift's outcome is never as dire as the headlines would have us think—but the concerns are real and don't need dismissing. Still, it's good to know that old-fashioned enthusiasm for change is still bubbling in the mix:
What has changed is our sense of text as fixed, not fluid, as something solid to which we can return again and again. That's the influence of the Web, of course, where story has no end and no beginning, and readers are not passive but play a determining role…. Writing and reading are about engagement, about participating in a conversation, and inasmuch as technology can play a role in this interaction, it only draws more people in. How does the screen change things? This should have been the question of the last decade, but it appears it will unavoidably be the question of the next..
He puts a good deal of faith in the idea that more people than ever are reading, and certainly populism is encouraging. But it's not going to carry publishing along in its wake, not on its own. Ulin cites a year-old "National Endowment for the Arts … study that (despite considerable internal flaws) found so-called literary reading on the rise in the United States for the first time in more than a decade; although I dispute the study's methodology, I agree with its conclusions, which suggest that reading isn't going anywhere."
Even more important, though, this past year the NEA put its money where its mouth is in support of a wide range of literary concerns. This is a great list, populated with small publishers, university presses, literary journals, translators, and literacy projects. Recipients are large and small, established and upstarts, all of them contributing to the ongoing conversation in heartfelt, meaningful ways. Forget reading surveys—if the NEA were to ask a representative from each project to weigh in on the NBCC's question and post their answers, I'd happily spend the last few days of 2009, or the first of 2010, reading the results.