A belated report on last year's book fair -- quick, before it's time for the next one ....
My first event involved getting tickets in advance. It's always wonderful to me that a writer can command a sellout audience. In this case it's even more amazing because the stage was shared by a pair of science writers: James Gleick, author of the landmark book about chaos theory that did as much to popularize the concept as anything else, including Jeff Goldblum's character in that Jurassic Park sequel, and whose intriguing new work is called The Information; and Dava Sobel, who had just published her biography of Copernicus titled A More Perfect Heaven.
Reviews of both books are too abundant to need repeating here. I'll just add that Gleick made me want to know more about Claude Shannon, the "father of information theory," who was a contemporary of Alan Turing and swapped ideas with him during World War II. In Sobel's presentation I was most taken with her account of inspecting the original manuscript of Copernicus' book, with it's famous diagram of the sun-centered solar system. She noticed a tiny pinhole in the center of the sun, the place where the point of the great man's compass had pierced the page while he drew the concentric orbits of the planets. If that doesn't give you goose bumps, then you're in the wrong room.
During the question session that followed, I appreciated Gleick's point that science "is about uncertainty, not truth," that it is as much about asking questions as giving answers. Let's please keep this in mind when debating Darwin with the people who don't understand him. Which reminds me that Sobel mentioned a notable parallel between Darwin and Copernicus: both of their theories were widely accepted before they were actually proved, a sure sign that they were ideas whose time had come.
Another interesting point was raised about online sources of information such as Wikipedia versus traditional authorities like the Britannica that are falling out of use. (Anyone want to buy a used encyclopedia? No? It weighs about 90 pounds and was out of date the day it was printed. Still no takers?) The questioner feared we will end up only with sources we can't trust. But Gleick expressed the hope that we are in a transitional period where we have not yet learned to vet and trust the new media, which are ephemeral through the necessity of constant update.
He is, he says, predisposed to be "optimistic without justification." And perhaps that's how he could respond to a query about the looming "singularity," when machines will take over the earth, by saying simply, "by the time they take over we will be so attached to them that we won't care." Incidentally, there is another theory about the singularity which says it has already happened and we didn't notice.
All This And Noir
After these weighty matters I made my way to the bizarre and noisy tent where Akashic Books was previewing New Jersey Noir, the latest in their series of story collections that demonstrate there is a dark side to every locale on earth. I couldn't pass this up because one dark side of my own past is that, like the panellists, I also hail from the Garden State -- so called, I believe, because they created Newark and left the rest of the land comparatively unscathed.
The panel included former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, native of Long Branch, casually clad in a black T-shirt that became him, and Alan Cheuse of NPR fame, substituting for Joyce Carol Oates who couldn't make it. Alas, my notes don't tell me which of them repeated the old gag about how they say their ABC's in New Jersey. ("Fuggin A, fuggin B, fuggin C ...") Which kind of shows how informal the whole thing was. But Pinsky did wax poetic when he spoke about depicting "the beauty of the broken, sordid, and low class" -- material which they found in abundance right there at home.
What's China Doing Here?
This tent was right across from another, larger one featuring China. Yes, the country. I confess to being nonplussed by this exhibit, which was like walking into one of those places at Walt Disney Epcot where the various wares and cultural oddities of some foreign place are on display -- except here none of it was for sale, which left us all wondering what we were doing standing around and looking at shelves and tables full of Chinese export bric-a-brac. No answers were forthcoming. But I guess since our Chinese friends are everywhere, doing everything, they might as well be here too.
If You Can Read This, Thank Your Reader
The last presentation I went to was on ebook publishing, a topic dear to me as both a reader and a hopeful author. Back in the 1990's I once asked a publisher at a writing workshop what impact he thought digital media and Internet distribution were going to have on his business. His appalling answer was a single word: "None."
As evidence, he asked, "Would you curl up in bed with a computer?" I was dumbstruck. Even though there were no ebook readers in existence back then, I already knew people who were perfectly happy to take their laptops to bed with them. How could this guy not see the writing on the wall in giant letters?
Fast forward about 15 years and it's all history -- but history that is still unfolding, as purveyors of the written word, from newspapers to magazines and books, continue to deal with the biggest disruption since the invention of the printing press.
I was very impressed with the chipper young Canadian woman representing Kobo. You may recall that they had a brief affiliation with Borders Books just before the chain went bankrupt. The Kobo reader was going to be Borders' answer to the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook -- but Borders just got there too late and too many dollars short. B&N proved they were nimble enough to get into this game, but Borders just couldn't make it.
In the aftermath of the Borders collapse, I was concerned about Kobo, who were making a very nice collection of reading devices every bit the equal of the Kindle family, but with the added virtue of supporting open standards like PDF and ePub as opposed to proprietary ones like, well, Amazon. But my concern might have been premature. Kobo managed to get a major investment from a company said to be "the Amazon of Japan." They have a very serviceable (and completely open) tablet that sells for under $200 and a thriving online bookstore. So we'll have to see how it goes.
Another feature Kobo offers is unique. Kobo Pulse is something they call "social reading," a way to instantly share your take on what you're reading with your online buddies who are similarly equipped. A show of hands revealed this optional feature was not universally appealing to the audience, which tended to split along predictably generational lines. Us older folks were squirming in our chairs and thinking "oh no, not that," while the younger ones were all like, "I'm down with that."
Whether this "gamification" of reading will take hold and eclipse the traditional reading experience is something we will have to watch as it develops. On the one hand, media companies are salivating over producing "books" for the iPad and its ilk full of embedded videos and interactive features. On the other hand, I note that writers like Neal Stephenson can continue to churn out 900 page novels the immersive experience of which beggars anything Hollywood has to offer.
So the jury is out. Maybe the next chapter, so to speak, will be written, as it were, at the next version of the Miami Book Fair, coming in November.