January 2016

Lauren LeBlanc


The Art of Publishing in an Age of Immediacy: On Roberto Calasso and Sven Birkerts

Year after year, young people armed with good intentions and liberal arts degrees attempt to find jobs in book publishing. Having worked directly in the field for over a decade, I've transitioned from that bright-eyed young person to a more cynical adult. Over countless cups of informational interview coffees, I try to be honest and firm when it comes to the benefits and drawbacks of working in a cutthroat, low-paid industry. That said, I'm caught in a bind when asked why I'm still working within the industry. At heart, it's somewhat simple: I love books and I love people who love books.

Book publishing offers the opportunity to work as a team with a group of fellow bookworms, pooling resources to support and generate enthusiasm for a literary effort. Each book publication is more than the work of an author's solitary scribbling. It's indeed an effort of artists, technicians, cheerleaders, and fans whose collective goal is to generate exposure for a terrific piece of prose. Exposure is the word we use when we want to avoid a more gauche expectation -- sales. As much as book publishing is a labor of love, it largely remains a business with bottom lines and profit expectations. The major idea that many of us struggle to articulate to those striving for entry-level positions is that there are many ways to engage with literature. A career in book publishing is not inherently the pure and natural next step for a passionate reader with a crisp bachelor's degree. Too often, you can't afford to -- nor do you really want to -- see how the sausage is made.

We can rail against the corporatization of book publishing, but it's hard to imagine that, in this day and age, there is any untarnished profession. Young people make compromises in any number of industries. Corporate publishing, however, is not the only path that engages one in literary production. Like the independent book stores that outlived megastore Borders and are currently holding their own against Amazon and Barnes & Noble, American independent presses such as Graywolf, Coffee House Press, Milkweed, and Melville House, among others, have not only endured, they are on the rise. We can only hope these houses persist and grow for years to come. One example of a book publisher that has managed to remain above the fray for over fifty years is Roberto Calasso.

A writer, translator, editor, and publisher of the Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizoni, with which he has been deeply involved since its inception in 1962, in all of these roles, Roberto Calasso is somewhat of a legend. In addition to writing widely on mythology, art, literature, and religion, he has also served as a steward to writers such as Joseph Roth, Thomas Bernhard, and Franz Kafka. At the Bodleian library at Oxford University, Calasso happened upon a collection of unpublished aphorisms by Kafka. Acting as a scholar and a publisher, Calasso edited and published The Zürau Aphorisms, along with his commentary. Interestingly, his latest book, The Art of the Publisher, a collection of essays, can be seen as commentary and rich observations centered around aphorisms that confront not only the art, but the challenge of publishing during a time of great transition.

"A publishing business can produce substantial profits only on condition that good books are submerged beneath many other things of very different quality. And when you are submerged, it is much easier to drown -- and so disappear altogether." Often publishing is compared to throwing spaghetti against the wall. The logic is that you toss enough of it so that, sooner or later, something sticks. There's no guarantee that any particular book will be an assured financial success, so many publishers take their chances by publishing in volume. While many find this mess a necessary evil, Calasso disagrees. To him, "[a] good publisher is one who publishes one tenth of the books he would like to, and perhaps ought to, publish." This perspective is rarely sustainable, but it's an admirable goal. Unfortunately, it's usually only possible after a publisher has acquired or developed a substantial backlist that will carry the financial burden of generating income.

Additionally, he feels that:

Form is crucial, first of all, in the choice and sequence of titles to be published. But form also relates to the texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects. It therefore includes covers, graphics, layout, typeface, paper.

In recent years, this devotion to form has taken a back seat to a preoccupation with digital matters. Online marketing, web presence, social media, and ebooks have occupied more bandwidth, to use a somewhat overwrought metaphor, than that of form. Countless hours and resources are devoted to these departments, projects, and products. Because of the need to develop and foster these fields, it could be argued that less energy and time are devoted to the basic work of acquiring and editing books.

This is largely untrue, but given their different priorities, it's easy to see how an additional disconnect would develop between digital and traditional departments. One would hope that this rupture would not exist. Calasso posits that "[t]here should always be one minimum but essential requirement incumbent on publishers. [...] That the publisher enjoys reading all the books he publishes." Again, given that publishing is a low-paying field, one would assume that passion is the one thing that supplements all paychecks.

Even so, this position also assumes that we continue to read in the same manner in which people always have. The reality is that digital development has multiplied the methods by which we absorb content. Even the awkward phrase "by which we absorb content" is a sad bastardization of what used to be known simply as "reading." Acknowledging this state of affairs, Calasso says, "The world is experiencing a sort of infatuation with information technology that has now reached fever pitch. Its main article of faith is immediate access to everything."

Must an infatuation with information technology and a passion for form and content be mutually exclusive? Sven Birkerts's fascinating new collection of essays, Changing the Subject, lays out the case that digital development eats away at the attention necessary for an authentic and substantial experience not only in reading, but with all facets of what one would deem art. Both he and Calasso probe this challenge through independent critical analyses of The New York Times Magazine's 2006 piece "Scan This Book!" from Wired magazine's founding executive editor Kevin Kelly.

Kelly's piece celebrates the future mass digitization of libraries, stating, "The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present." After voicing frustration that books are "isolated items, independent from one another," Kelly goes on to say that, "in the universal library, no book will be an island." To a reader, this seems like a strange concern. Books may not be tangibly connected in the same way that an online piece offers links to, say, other sites, resources, and essays, but an active reader creates deeply felt connections between books. Further dismissing the work of readers, Kelly celebrates the future universal library saying that, once all books have been scanned, "[t]he real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before." This prompts Calasso to respond that such a book sounds like "a bondage manual." What is the state of contemporary culture if it's only through linking and tagging that books establish a more profound foothold in culture? Why place all value on confinement and restraint?

Calasso maligns:

In the face of such a splendid project, which grows wider and better every day, the publisher can only seem like a miserable obstacle, an intermediary whom no one feels they need any longer, since immediate availability is what everyone yearns for. Immediacy: that's the key word.

The careful reader immediately recognizes this self-effacement as an indictment of the emphasis on endless collective connection over independent, critical thought.

Birkerts asserts that this desire for immediacy and ever-present connection is exactly what takes us further away from true creativity and art. He posits that "[d]igital consolidation, along with the uniformity of access, works aggressively against the former system of contexts." Building on this, I consider Calasso's reflections on his late, fellow publisher Vladimir Dimitrijević, who "used two words to describe the job of the publisher: ferryman and gardener. [...] Both the ferryman and the gardener are involved in something that already exists: a garden to be cultivated or a traveler to be transported." This is the work of creating and establishing contexts and connections between readers, books, and ideas. Is this not the cultural work that we should value over linking and tagging? When we value digitization and immediacy over painstaking and often lengthy curation, what do we lose as a culture?

Calasso goes on to say: "In every aspect of our experience we are in contact with things that escape the control of our ego -- and it is precisely in that area outside our control where we find that which is most important and essential to us." Contrary to contemporary thought, connection exists beyond a digital archive. So often, the most powerful connections occur when we allow ourselves the space and distance to find those connections in unexpected places beyond the mediation of immediate interconnectivity.

Almost actively building off this perspective, Birkerts asserts:

[G]reat art, ambitious, realized art, not only lifts us to its level, but also gives us energy in the form of attention; it offers an inward integrity to help counter the dissipating force of signals, endless distractions of data. [...] [I]t is also an inoculation; it is a preemptive engagement undertaken on behalf of the individual and it keeps the ideal of individuation, so threatened, still viable.

As the value of an individual book is devalued, so is the self. We are made to feel that it's only through constant communication with a community that we have any collective power. The art and challenge of publishing today is to work with -- not against -- this push toward connectivity while also maintaining the necessary reflective and solitary work that gives us content worth archiving.

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso, translated by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374188238
160 pages

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age by Sven Birkerts
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977214
256 pages