_ I spent that past Saturday at the Florida Literary Arts Coalition/Other Words Conference at beautiful Flagler College in one of my favorite cities, St. Augustine, Florida, a place that has a wonderful mixture of old world charm and new American kitsch. Along with editors of On Tap, CaKe, and Quilt, I was on a panel addressing literary magazines and journals. Each of us came to the table with different backgrounds and different magazines. For instance, Pegasus (the campus literary magazine I advise) is a small, regional journal while CaKe (FAMU’s literary journal) is nationally-recognized journal of poetry and art. While we all had different backgrounds, we all agreed on one thing: even in the digital age, print journals still matter. And they may matter more now than they ever have before.
A literary magazine isn’t merely a receptacle for words. It’s a manifestation of a community of writers who have come together because they love the written word. Granted, Pegasus is a small magazine; we have a small staff. Fortunately, we are funded rather well, and we an afford press runs of 2000 issues, usually. We’re a non-profit, so we make no money off of our publication. In publishing the magazine, however, we come together as a group of writers and artists who believe that, despite what popular culture keeps telling us, the humanities and the literary arts mean a lot to a large group of people. I can’t express the satisfaction I get each spring when a new Pegasus arrives fresh from the printer.
The community created by a literary magazine staff, however is only part of the extended community of the literary magazine audience. When I first started publishing in little magazines in the late 1990’s, a friend said to me, “Who’s going to read that besides you and the people in it?” I remember worrying about that fact. Who would read my work besides other writers? It didn’t take me too long to figure out that writers were the perfect audience for my work. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who appreciates good fiction or poetry any more than writers themselves. The subtle references and allusions writers purposefully drop into their work delight me as a reader. A musical turn of phrase sends me to the internet to Google the poet. Literary magazines and journals allow this kind of extended community to exist.
Unfortunately, the term literary is ideologically loaded. For some (many?), the word may conjure images of gate-keeping academics blowing pipe-smoke on the unfortunate plebe who deigns to enter their safely-guarded world. The word evokes Norton anthologies packed with obscurantist writers and politically-charged canons protected by tightly-knit society of nefarious editors. And certainly, these charges probably have some real-world validity. However, in my experience, most of the literary community I know (the Southeast) is an open and inviting, eager for new voices to find their place in the ever-long symphony. Meetings like the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Annual Conference and the Florida Literary Arts Commision/Other Words Conference are manifestations of these communities. In addition, the community of writers in the blogosphere and on social networking sites is an extension of (and in many cases, its own) the literary community.
At the conclusion of our panel at FLAC, Michael Rumore, the Editor-in-Chief of Quilt, made what I thought was a startling claim. He said that he thought of Quilt as an organization/community and that the magazine itself was secondary. I was a little taken aback. I’ve always argued that the reverse is true. However, after my visit to the conference and after hearing from all the different literary magazine editors and advisors at the conference, I think that Quilt’s editor just might be right. A magazine (print or online) is a manifestation of community. Without a community of writers and artists, a magazine cannot exist.
Why print journals? Why not just navigate everything to the web? The answer is simple: a magazine’s design goes far beyond how it looks on the page. The texture of pages, the size of the journal, the font, the white space: all of it is a Gestalt. I don’t devalue the role of online literary magazines; I think that journals like Waccamaw, Hangman, storySouth, and The Hobble Creek Review are doing amazing things and publishing fantastic writers. Those journals reach an audience that a print journal may never reach. At the same time, however, I argue that a printed journal is greater than the sum of its parts and that in a world that seems obsessed with transitory trends in fashion and pop music and television, it’s a tangible manifestation of what matters and what’s beautiful. A printed journal is a distilled moment, a frozen pocket of time. And here’s to hoping that, despite what some are prophesying, I don’t think they’re going anywhere any time soon.
On my Facebook page a couple of days ago, I posted a little graphic that read “There is No Such Thing as Too Much Books.” I didn’t think that the picture would engender much conversation. After all, most of my online “friends” are writers; they love books, right?
Not long after I posted it, a thread had developed about book ownership. One person agreed wholeheartedly with me. Another pointed out that, ultimately, owning too many books can become like an addiction. He posted that when it got to the point in his house that he had to clear paths to his bedroom, his bathroom, and his kitchen because of stacks of books, he realized that he’d hit terminal mass. I’d never quite thought of it in that way. But my online friend is right, in a sense. Unless you live in a palatial estate, you must at some point become super-saturated with books.
In my house, I have four book shelves, two seven footers (with five shelves) and two three footers (with three shelves). In my office at work, I have two shelves, a six footer with three shelves and a long six-foot one with three shelves. All of these are packed with books. I haven’t even mentioned the various literary magazines that litter my house or the unpacked boxes of books crammed into closets at home and at work. I’ve not hit terminal mass, yet. But I fear I may be close.
But here’s thing: I love books. I love how they feel in my hand. I love how they smell. I love the artistry of design behind book making. I love looking at a new hardback and exploring it: has the publisher opted for a rough cut to the page? What font does the book use? How do the pages themselves feel? Glossy? Rough like old skin? Smooth? I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t help purchasing more books.
So, it’s understandable, then, that I’ve been ambivalent about ebooks since their introduction. For me, reading is more than mental; it’s visceral. Reading is physical. Reading is intimate. Though I’ve read numerous ebooks on my Kindle, I never feel as though I actually own them. I own the digital copy of the words, but I don’t own a book (I guess that assertion reveals something about the way I define book).
This week, Amazon announced a Kindle lending library. Amazon Prime members can lend and borrow form other Kindle owners. I’m intrigued by the idea. I love to lend books to others, particularly my students. Inviting a person into a book is rewarding and exciting. But in lending a book, I am lending something real and tangible, not a digital copy of text. Plus, I don’t purchase enough books from Amazon to justify the nearly $80.00 a year fee that members of Amazon Prime pay. In addition, my local library (like so many others) lends digital books for free.
I’ll freely admit that, in some ways, I’m not only acting a bit like a Luddite, but I’m also being hypocritical. I love my Kindle, particularly the way that a newspaper appears on it each morning. I like browsing the online Kindle bookstore. And I’ve found that on long trips, my Kindle in indispensible. I can’t tell you how many crossword puzzles I’ve worked on my Kindle. I’ve also taken chances of different kinds of literature by reading it on my Kindle. I’d probably not know about such wonderful noir and sci-fi writers like Anthony Neil Smith and D.B. Grady and Derek J. Canyon without my Kindle. So, in my reading life, I find plenty of room for an ebook reader. I’m even seriously considering purchasing a Kindle Fire.
Where does this leave me, then? I love physical books, and I like ebooks a lot. The future of publishing probably lies with ebooks, particularly educational publishing (have you seen The Wasteland App? Amazing.). Ebooks are here to stay. I can’t imagine hitting terminal mass on ebooks, either. If my ebook reader gets full, I can always archive the book for later. Does that fact mean that print books will disappear? I hope not. However, to survive, traditional publishers are going to have to do what the newspaper industry did: adapt or die out. Meanwhile, I’ll continue my book collection, both digital and mortar board. At least with my ebooks, I won’t have to purchase a new bookshelf. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.
O for a muse of fire,