1. Unpacking their libraries
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. … I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood — it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation — which these books arouse in a genuine collector.
— Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Over the decades Walter Benjamin’s charming 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library,” became a kind of touchstone among 20th-century bibliophiles for whom a relocation meant grappling with the alarmingly literal weight of knowledge. More recently it has inspired an elegant little anthology titled Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, which originated as an exhibition at Urban Center Books in Manhattan and is devoted to the book collections of prominent New York City architects. 1 Not surprisingly, the collections are presented in both physical and intellectual terms. We learn the dimensions, materials and manufacturers of the shelving systems, and the number of volumes in each library. We are given black-and-white glimpses of the architects in their home/office library spaces and colorful close-ups of selected shelves, allowing us to read the titles on the spines; each architect shares a list of “top ten” favorites.
There’s no doubt much that could be parsed about the cultural and curatorial politics that always inform such anthologies, and about how the results stack up vis-à-vis generation and gender, not to mention discursive trends and literary sensibilities. (What to make of the curious factoid that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow shows up on more lists than Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture?) But what really interests me here is the extent to which Unpacking functions as a paean to print culture, affirming, in the words of volume editor Jo Steffens, “the importance of books in our lives,” and calling to mind decades of dedicated bookshop-browsing and the enjoyable, books-do-furnish-a-room activities of arranging and displaying. As such it’s in good company. From design practice to academia to publishing, you can detect similar sentiments at work in the apparent reluctance of some esteemed journals to move from page to screen, and in the recent launch of new architecture periodicals in print-only formats. Likewise, the appeal of print-as-artifact is everywhere evident on the website Designers & Books, which to date features 157 designers (from architect David Adjaye to interaction designer Carola Zwick) who collectively recommend 1,764 books (from About Looking, by John Berger, to Zone Books 1/2: The Contemporary City). It seems also a driving factor in curatorial/commercial ventures like Book/Shop, in the Bay Area, which sells not just vintage books with original dust jackets but also “those irresistible things that go along with them,” like reading lamps, handcrafted canvas bookbags, and a “library-scented” perfume — “old English novel, leather and just a hint of wood polish” — created by a Brooklyn-based artist-perfumer.
It’s not hard to understand why the traditional print volume continues to exert such powerful pull among design practitioners and writers. For many authors, the sheer physicality of the object is reassuring — palpable proof of countless hours of intellectual labor. For ambitious practitioners, the publication of projects in large and often lavish monographs has long been an indispensable way to cultivate influence and validate fame — especially in the case of far-flung buildings and unbuilt speculations. Notre Dame du Haut and the Legislative Assembly achieved iconic status due to endless circulation in magazines and books, no matter that comparatively few of Corbu’s admirers actually journeyed to Ronchamp or Chandigarh; OMA’s counter-factual scenario-histories for Berlin and Manhattan established Rem Koolhaas’s early reputation years before the Dutch architect had built anything.
But of course these days — two decades into the rise of the public Internet and the proliferation first of personal computers and then of smartphones and tablets — nothing is certain or static in the worlds of publishing and publications. The stalwart monograph is being made redundant by the easy-to-update firm website, which can provide a more comprehensive portrait of a practice. In early 2010, just two months after the appearance of Unpacking My Library, Urban Center Books was shuttered after three decades as a fixture of architecture culture in midtown Manhattan, part of a wave of closures of beloved design bookstores 2; it’s a measure of how rapidly the digital has been gaining ground that those days seem almost distant. But that’s the way with revolutions; what once seemed strange and unsettling has become — suddenly, or so it seems — ordinary and everyday. Earlier this year the Scholarly Kitchen posted a perceptive commentary that captures the current moment. “The digital publishing revolution is over,” argues Joseph Esposito, who elaborates:
It may seem strange to proclaim that the revolution is over when houses are filled with bookshelves, publishers’ creaky Web sites are hard to find and difficult to navigate, when it is not possible to purchase an e-book on one device and read it on another, and when rigid PDFs, faithfully mimicking the printed page, are passed around like currency, but this has more to do with a misunderstanding of the word “revolution” than any backsliding among the citizenry. A revolution is not realized when all practices conform to the principles of a new order but when the principles take hold to influence and guide future actions. … First the revolution, then the consolidation. This is where we are now, in post-revolutionary publishing: consolidating the alterations and innovations built on the microprocessor.
Or to put it another way: we are at the end of the beginning of the digital revolution; and in this light Unpacking My Library, et al., might be construed not simply as a celebration but also as a cri de coeur, tacit acknowledgment that the printed page, and the worlds it shaped, are giving way to those “principles of a new order,” which are inexorably advancing but only just beginning to cohere. First the revolution; then the consolidation.
2. Disrupting the system
Though Gutenberg’s invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future. … New technologies, however, do not await permission. They are, to use Schumpeter’s overused term, disruptive, as nonnegotiable as earthquakes.
— Jason Epstein, New York Review of Books, March 2010
Consolidation sounds so tidy, so crisp; but as Esposito writes: “there will be a bloody mess while the final vestiges of the old order are rooted out.” Whatever the body count, we know that as we navigate from a print-centric to digital-dominant world, we will be traveling into unknown territory. Here at Places, as at publications everywhere, the uncertainties aren’t mere abstractions; they’re both urgent and ordinary. We are truly betwixt worlds, and as editor of a web-based journal, I’ve again and again felt the truth of William Gibson’s familiar observation: “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” In my experience the distribution — contrary to popular perception — is less generational than temperamental. Some of our authors — digital immigrants as much as natives — move readily among the many platforms of contemporary publishing, from the hard copy to the web to the app to mobile to social. One afternoon a member of Places’ board told me, as we stood in his studio looking at a wall of books, that he’d be happy to see every last one of them digitized (hinting perhaps at a future anthology: architects and their e-books.) Yet often enough the conversation with contributors will center on the relative merits of print-versus-digital, and an author will confess anxiety about the perceived limitations of online publication — some lingering unease that without the totem of the hard copy, the text will not fully or legitimately exist in the world.
Actually this conversation happens less and less often; but it still happens, and the focus on the hard copy — on the object — is natural enough. You can hold it in your hand and admire the design, feel its weight, appreciate what Nicholson Baker has called “a beautifully browsable invention that needs no electricity and exists in readable form no matter what happens.” But in the contemplation of the object, you do not necessarily consider the many systems — the intricate and overlapping networks of publishers, editors and proofreaders, of designers and typographers and printers, of marketers and distributors and transporters, of booksellers, libraries and archives — that have been activated in its service.
All of which is to underscore that the heart of the matter is not the printed page versus the electronic screen; that what is being revolutionized is not simply the print publication but more broadly the larger systems within which it has played such a central and glorious part. For of course the Gutenberg revolution was not just the machine with hand-cast moveable type invented in the mid-15th century by a metalsmith in the Rhineland; the real revolution would be the astonishing new worlds — the new structures of knowledge, patterns of thinking — that would follow in the decades and centuries afterward. “More than any other device,” writes Lewis Mumford, in Technics and Civilization, “the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local.” 3 Here is British historian John Man, in his brief biography of Gutenberg: “Hardly an aspect of life remained untouched. … Gutenberg’s invention made the soil from which sprang modern history, science, popular literature, the emergence of the nation-state, so much of everything by which we define modernity.” 4
Print and its systems dominated for so long they came to seem not just the marvelous flowering of a technological achievement but practically a teleological inevitability. But just as moveable type would make obsolete the medieval scriptoria where monastic scribes labored for weeks upon single books, so too Gutenberg’s invention is now giving way to the creative destruction of an arguably more powerful technology. And ultimately it won’t matter much whether any of us prefers print to pixels; just as it didn’t matter whether early renaissance readers preferred illuminated manuscripts to mass-printed books.
So by now it’s plain that the digital revolution in publishing means much more than retooling an enterprise from printing to coding; digital is our system — our new galaxy, our new extensions, in McLuhanite terms — and the new normal — or perpetual beta — that’s emerging would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Instantaneous processes and global connectivity are altering timetables and expectations (some astute critics argue they are also scrambling our brains 5): operations that once required industrial facilities and distribution warehouses, container shipping and long-haul trucking, can now be accomplished with a CMS and a keystroke. Old publishing models based on scarcity and expense, on copyright, authority and expertise, are being upended by new ones based on abundance, affordability, access and collaboration. The ease of e-publishing is empowering authors to forego the traditional gateways; the feedback loops of social media are collapsing the distance between authors and readers; and the explosion of so-called user-generated content, from blogs to tweets to citizen journalism, is demystifying the whole apparatus. In design journalism the publication of projects no longer needs the green-light from magazine editors in faraway cities. Self-publishing platforms like Architizer have democratized the process, and mainstream periodicals are adapting the approach; of the 2,300+ projects you can browse on Architect, two-thirds were not chosen by the editors but rather uploaded by the designers themselves.
Meanwhile the massive amount of freely accessible online content is at once creating and atomizing audiences, even as it threatens the livelihoods of publishers and authors alike. Copyright law is being debated and rewritten; paywalls are proving porous and problematic; the library community is rolling out projects like the Digital Public Library of America; and Amazon continues to imperil not just the local bookshop but also the once-dominant superstore, even as independent booksellers, in an odd but heartening turn of events, are mounting web-based fundraising campaigns to pay the rent on the storefront — an implicit admission, perhaps, that their purpose is as much civic as commercial. Likewise in academic publishing, the changes are shaping up to be radical. Peer review processes are migrating online; the open access movement is gaining traction; digital humanities researchers are using computational media and information technologies to structure dynamic new methodologies and projects. Resources are increasingly web-based, and scholarly pursuit requires less frequent flying and more high-speed broadband. As part of the research for his book, John Man visited the British Library, which owns two original Gutenberg Bibles, and was surprised to learn that few scholars these days request access to the extraordinary artifacts: in 2000 the Bible was digitized by the Humanities Media Interface Project at Keio University, in Tokyo, and as the librarian told Man: “The digital version is so superb that it satisfies almost all researchers.” 6
3. Subsidizing the future
Good journalism has always been subsidized.
— C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, “Post-Industrial Journalism,” 2013
None of this is news, I know. The transformations of publishing — and here as elsewhere I’m defining publishing broadly, along a spectrum from daily journalism to periodical literature to books — is itself one of the central stories of our day, and it’s being energetically debated also in think tanks across the country. Yet in most discussions of the digital future there’s a crucial distinction that usually goes missing. The anxiety is not really about the strength of publishing as a creative or cultural or intellectual practice; not about any decline in the ranks of ambitious authors — or content creators in general — or committed publishers. In fact by those standards this is a pretty amazing era, the “glory days of American journalism,” as Matthew Yglesias argued in a controversial piece on Slate. Sometime in the past half dozen years it became clear that the early warning and worrying — that the web was unsuited or inhospitable to careful reflection or complex ideas — was unfounded. The Internet and its multiplying platforms have turned out to be a generous and flexible venue for serious journalism and rigorous inquiry as well as for the presentation of illustrative material. And by some measures it’s an even better venue than print; not only because of the depth and richness of hypertext but also because of the unprecedented connectivity of the most efficient distribution system ever invented: long-form narrative, rigorous investigation and complex visualization will never rack up as many page views as adorable house pets, but on the web they’re accessible as never before.
The anxiety about the future is instead almost entirely about the strength of publishing as a commercial enterprise and economic proposition. Here the alarms grow louder all the time, especially in periodical and daily journalism. Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan predicted: “The classified ads … are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.” 7 The press has not quite folded, but unquestionably that “alternative source” has been found. To put it mildly; the Internet, with its hundreds of millions of sites and multiple screens and pinpoint analytics, is pushing advertising rates to new lows all the time. In their recent report for the Tow Center at Columbia, titled “Post-Industrial Journalism,” co-authors C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky do not equivocate: “Advertiser support, the key source of subsidy for American journalism since the 1830s, is evaporating. … Publishers’ power over advertisers is evanescing … and more signs are pointing to the trend increasing than reversing.”
Clearly there’s a conundrum here: on one hand, the capacity of the Internet to structure, sustain and enhance the production of news, information, culture and knowledge; on the other, the threat that it will eliminate the sources of financial subsidy for that production. Yet even as we monitor the flickering pulse of U.S. publishing, it seems important to recall that the business model was never all that powerful — that beyond a few flush players, most print media were thin-margin operations. In academia, the non-market basis of scholarly communication has long been a fundamental assumption. But some of our most prestigious and putatively commercial periodicals have for years been functioning as actual or de facto non-profits, with editorial operations supported by foundations or angel owners or fabulous bequests or corporate patronage or more recently one of Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommates. And in the latest and strangest turn of events, the founder of Amazon has joined the ranks of legacy-media benefactors. (Cue up the old joke: “How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a big one.”)
As the authors of “Post-Industrial Journalism” point out, “Good journalism has always been subsidized”; it’s always been subsidized because subscription and sales revenue typically covered barely one-quarter of the cost of producing work that’s carefully researched, strongly argued and beautifully written. And if some forms of subsidy have been relatively direct, like advertising or underwriting, others have been indirect and, on a practical level, all but invisible — like the bare-bones editorial budgets that have both created and long exploited the expectation that authors will be underpaid or unpaid. Earlier this year there was an intense online debate about what Nieman Journalism Lab characterized as “the ethics and economics of paying (and not paying) freelancers.” It’s an important story but also an old story. In fact you could write an alternative history of American letters about what economists would call the externalization of costs in serious publishing, with chapters devoted to the countless authors whose writing lives were enabled by day jobs or screenwriting gigs or family wealth or — especially today — university appointments.
In other words it’s been plain for a long while that serious publishing has marginal commercial value; that the time-intensive production of rigorous journalism and ambitious literature — beyond the rare and unpredictable breakout bestseller or viral article — is a risky bet in a transactional marketplace. Certainly most of the works on the top-ten lists in Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books are notable not because they amassed profits for their authors or publishers but rather because they generated creative force fields that charged the culture. In 1962 Robert Venturi wrote his influential Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture — which would propel the rise of architectural postmodernism, and which appears on the top-ten lists of Stan Allen, Henry Cobb, Liz Diller/Ric Scofidio, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves — enabled not by a publisher’s advance but by a grant from the Graham Foundation. Meanwhile he’d been formulating his ideas for years, starting with a year in Italy funded by a Rome Prize and continuing during his days as an instructor at Penn. The 1966 publication, by the Museum of Modern Art, was further supported by the Graham. More than a century earlier, in 1851, Herman Melville published Moby-Dick — which appears on the top-ten lists of Steven Holl and Tod Williams/Billie Tsien — to mixed reviews and weak sales. The poor reception devastated the 32-year-old author, and by the time he took a humdrum job as a customs inspector in New York City, a decade and a half later, his writing career was wrecked; when he died, in 1891, the New York Times obituary described him as “an absolutely forgotten man.” Not until the Melville revival of the 1920s would the author’s magnum opus be rediscovered. Venturi’s brief manifesto, Melville’s narrative epic: these wildly different works are united by creative processes and publication histories which are beholden much less to the exigencies of commercial publishing than to the slower and more eccentric rhythms of artistic labor, intellectual passion and cultural zeitgeist.
In fact there’s already a lot of experimentation around the challenge of sustaining a digital republic of letters: foundations and corporations are underwriting journalism and books; venture capitalists are backing new platforms for longform essays; newspapers and universities are partnering to support architecture criticism and local news; design journals are crowd-funding to bankroll expenses; and ambitious periodicals are seeking to enhance their brands — and balance sheets — with high-end conferences and continuing-education cruises. 8 But of course the big challenges with these new business models remain scalability and sustainability; for like most fields, publishing is best served not by loosely joined and always shifting networks of startups and free agents in which projects are contingent on intellectual sweat equity or grant writing or Kickstarter, but rather by stable and sophisticated organizations that can support ongoing achievement.
So here’s a thought experiment: What if we just agreed that the limited and unpredictable commercial potential of ambitious work is not actually a problem? That the problem is instead the tendency, which in these market-triumphant times runs deep, to judge culture by the standards of commerce, to confuse quantity with quality and to conflate systems of value which surely can coincide, but rarely do. What if we were to accept that serious publishing — from news to periodicals to books — is truly a non-profit enterprise, and that for a very long time it’s been testing our faith in the wisdom of the market and the crowd, and that part of the difficult and exciting process of adapting to the digital age will be making a powerful case for its central importance? At this point there are no easy or obvious answers to the funding questions, except to continue the all-of-the-above exploration of new models, new partnerships. But it’ll surely be worth it because what’s at stake is more than the health of a profession or an industry. The practice of publishing has always been a hybrid — on the one hand, a private enterprise with a payroll, and on the other, a public trust charged with producing information and knowledge and art that are essential to a thriving democracy and dynamic culture.