The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The U of Missouri Press is closing, Jennifer Egan is Tweeting

A bad week for publishing, but sometimes it seems like they all are.  First I was greeted with the news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune has cut back circulation to three days a week.  Apparently later in the same day, three papers in Alabama announced a similar move to downsize and reduce circulation.  Apparently being an award winning newspaper that does heroic community service in the midst of the disaster of a century is no longer enough.

Then today’s twitter feed brought me news of another University Press closing.

University of Missouri Press is closing after more than five decades of operation, UM System President Tim Wolfe announced this morning.

The press, which publishes about 30 books a year, will begin to be phased out in July, although a more specific timeline has not been determined.

Ten employees will be affected. Clair Willcox, editor in chief, declined to comment but did note that neither he nor any of the staff knew about the change before a midmorning meeting.

In a statement, Wolfe said even though the state kept funding to the university flat this year, administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

via University of Missouri Press is closing | The Columbia Daily Tribune – Columbia, Missouri.

Plenty has been said about the worrisome demise of daily papers and what the transformation of journalism into an online blogosphere really means for the body politic.  Will the Huffington Post, after all, actually cover anything in New Orleans if the paper goes under entirely.  Reposting is still not reporting, and having opinions at a distance is great fun but not exactly a form of knowledge.

The demise of or cutbacks to university presses is less bemoaned in the national press or blogosphere, but it is still worrisome.  Although I am now a believer in the possibilities of serious intellectual work occurring online, I am not yet convinced the demise of the serious scholarly book with a small audience would be a very good thing.  Indeed, I believe the best online work remains in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the traditional scholarly monograph or journal.  I keep my fingers crossed that this is merely an instance merely an instance of creative destruction, and not an instance of destruction plan and simple.

On a more hopeful note, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the New Yorker tweeting Jennifer Egan’s latest story Black box and am looking forward to the next installments.  I’d encourage everyone to “listen in”, if that’s what you do on twitter, but if you can’t you can read it in a more traditional but still twitterish form at the New Yorker Page turner site.  To get the twitter feed, go to @NYerFiction.  The reviews have been mixed, but I liked it a great deal.  Egan is a great writer, less full of herself than some others, she has a great deal to say, and she’s willing to experiment with new ways to say it.  Her last novel, Waiting for the Goon Squad, experimented with Powerpoint like slides within the text.  And, there’s a nice article over at Wired about the piece, suggesting it may be signaling a revival of serialized fiction.

Let’s hope so, it will make up for the loss of the U of MIssouri Press, at least today.

Remember reading?

An interesting piece from Slate referencing research on the difference between reading online and reading print versions of newspapers.  According to Jack Shafer:

“The researchers found that the print folks “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers”; that print readers “remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders”; and that print readers remembered “more main points of news stories.” When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.”

I’m sure the arguments will be trotted out that people read differently now, not better or worse. But shouldn’t that difference include getting the main point and remembering what you read after you read it?

More signs that the world as we know it has come to an end

Old news, I know, but I thought I shouldn’t let pass the passing of the Washington Post Book World.  All the old arguments are to be made:  newspapers are cutting their own throats by cutting books since, after all, who reads newspapers anymore other than the people who read books.  On the other hand, my own newspaper, the harrisburg Patriot news pays for a weekly column on graphic novels, but can’t be bothered with reviewing books that depend on words.  Alas and alack.  I am the aficionado of lost causes, the lover of things gone by.  Books among them.

Printosaurus

There’s a funny and insightful piece from Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail about being out of step with the times as a thirty something who still reads the newspaper. The occasion for her fretting is a recent piece in the New Yorker on the end of newspapers. An excerpt from McLaren’s ruminations on being an anachronism.

There’s nothing left to do but give up and donate myself to the Newseum of printPrintosaurus journalism, which is about to reopen in multimillion-dollar digs in Washington. They can encase me in glass, under a plaque that reads Female Printosaurus Rex, last known example of the now-extinct species: newspaper columnist.

But maybe the situation is not quite so bad. After all, it seems a bit ironic that all this agonizing about the death of our literary culture has occurred in the pages of newspapers, books and magazines. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in her Harper’s rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, the haute bourgeoisie (also affectionately known, in Web generation parlance, as “white people”) have always revelled smugly in the knowledge that only an anointed minority enjoyed the same privileges they did. In fact, the only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.

Well, I have to say that I take some comfort in the fact that being a paper junkie still links me to other generations. And in observing my kids, it seems to me that things are really not so absolutely definitive as technophobes or digital utopians would have it. To some degree this kind of either/or–either everyone will give up paper or everyone will eventually recognize that digital texts are a waste of good silicon–is a little like what passes for debate on Fox News. Get the most extreme positions imaginable since people seem to like conflicts between clearly defined goods and evils.

Still, my son, 13, gets up every morning and reads the sports page. He even goes out in the morning and gets the paper if his trusty dog…er, I mean his parents…haven’t brought it in yet. He also reads an extraordinary amount of old fashioned books, wedging it in around the extraordinary amount of time he spends skateboarding and watching YouTube videos. My daughter facebooks more than I care for her to, but she also reads quite a bit and enjoys good old fashioned books.

In some ways my kids are unusual, but they aren’t unique. I suspect that books–even good old fashioned print books– are going to end up somewhere on a continuum of entertainment and educational choices. No longer dominant but still important. Same for newspapers. Just as television didn’t bring movies to and end, and movies didn’t bring novels to an end. More a menu of choices rather than stark divisions.

I am interested in McLaren’s take on Ursula Le Guin. It does seem to me that the readers of “serious” fiction, alongside “serious” readers of fiction–two groups that are by no means coextensive–have always been an influential minority. Maybe what’s at stake in a reading crisis, then, is not so much the sense that no one will read books anymore, but that books are losing the aura of necessity. Even if serious reading has always been the province of a minority, book readers have had the pleasure of social prestige. People always felt like they should read more even if they didn’t. Now, however, that perception has passed.