Sunday, October 26, 2008

The paradox of print culture

From a 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: ""The main trend that's beginning to be important is an interest in print culture," said Shannon McLachlan, humanities editor in the academic division of Oxford University Press."

The irony of this is pretty apparent. As the news media and the CHE itself are forever telling us in breathless tones, This! is! a! DIGITAL! AGE! complete with its own "digital natives." Foundations and agencies that won't fund research for a scholarly monograph, another form we've been told is dead, throw money lavishly at digitization projects so that people don't have to look at all that nasty print. (I would say the purpose is broader access, as it sometimes nominally is, but since most of the projects are locked up behind a subscription wall in one way or another, it seems that the "more access" tag line is just something thrown around to impress the granting agencies.) The print copies get thrown out, sometimes (fortunately) for Nicholson Baker to find, and sometimes, unfortunately, just to fatten a landfill somewhere. People don't read in the same way they used to (Nicholas Carr), if they read at all (Steve Jobs).

But McLachlan isn't wrong about print culture, at least in the classroom. Over the past few years, more and more people seem to be teaching using the original materials--newspapers, magazines, broadsides, etc.--in addition to, or even (since the page images are online) instead of the traditional anthologies. And students respond to--indeed, are excited by--these materials, whether they see them when you take them for a library visit or bring them into the classroom yourself. This leads to some exchanges like the following:

Students, after working with old editions of Harper's, The Cornhill Magazine, The Atlantic, etc. and seeing Henry James, Mark Twain, and such authors represented in them: "You told us that The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction a couple of years ago. Why did they do that?

What to tell them? That The Atlantic did a focus group, or forty, and concluded that no one read its fiction? That the fiction took up too much space, and that, like Tina Brown when she took over Vanity Fair and later The New Yorker, making their principal subject matter Hollywood business scandals, The Atlantic wanted to stop publishing what Brown called "7,000 word essays on zinc"?*

Or so it could print an article about Britney Spears and celebrity and put her on the cover, thus misleading legions of US Weekly fans into buying the magazine?

Or so it could more closely resemble Slate and Salon in its new redesign and editorial focus on lightly-researched personal opinion pieces on popular culture, written in a style that I've come to think of as Internet-speak?

In short, so it could become more like what readers have voted with their feet (or their computer mice) to tell them what they wanted to read (short, light pieces with lots of personal disclosures and a celebrity flair)?

So print culture becomes an exciting object of study at exactly the cultural moment when print and digital media are united in trumpeting its demise, or at the very least, as in the example of The Atlantic, its transformation at the hands of the culture that everyone assumes is obliterating it. This seems to me a tremendous moment for looking at these ideas in the classroom and for engaging students in a genuine way with the past through looking at the present.

[Edited to add: And what did I tell the students? What do you think?]

*Thanks to Female Science Professor for reminding me about this. Brown was talking about The New Yorker, but The Atlantic is a past master of the "zinc" article, too.

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