Ahh, Sherman Alexie, I had looked forward to your return to The Report, and you didn’t let me down (even though my expectations were sky-high after that first interview). I knew we’d be in for some passionate commentary when he and Stephen started talking about E-books. I was keeping my eye on a number of online discussions during the show, and I started seeing the responses almost immediately. On the one hand, we had the old school book lovers who were applauding Alexie’s commitment to paper. On the other hand, we had the technophiles whose characteristically colorful denunciations of Alexie called him a Luddite at best and went creatively downhill from there. I have a lot to say on this topic, so click past the jump if you’re interested.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge bookperson (if you didn’t know). I love physical books, the feel of good paper, the way my walls are increasingly obscured by bookshelves, books with intricate spines and covers, and the way I sometimes wake up with my fingers asleep from where they’ve been stuck in the book I was reading when I drifted off. A bad day for me is when I’m trapped somewhere without a book or two — nightmare! That said, I do understand that there are advantages to digitized books. It would be nice not to struggle under the weight of multiple tomes when I travel, just so I can feel confident that I’ll have a book to hand to match whatever mood I’m in at the time. People living in small spaces would have an easier time reading what they wanted without having to worry about storage. Certain features on the Kindle (like the ability to look up unfamiliar words on the spot) sound pretty cool. In the long run, there’s probably an environmental component to reading E-books vs. reading them in print. You get the idea. And I’m certainly not averse to technology in general (she says on the BLOG), so I know there’s a lot to say on either side.
What I found most interesting about the responses to the interview last night was how quickly and loudly people proclaimed Alexie an “idiot” who didn’t understand open source culture. I may have gotten this wrong, but I listened to the interview again, and I think he understands it just fine; he doesn’t allow his books to be digitized AND he’s worried about the lack of artistic ownership characteristic of much of open source culture, but he wasn’t confusing the two, as some of his critics seem to argue. He also acknowledged that the publishing culture is changing and that he’d adapt to that.
What he sounded to me like he was saying was that it is easier to pirate digitized media, and that once digital media hits the internet (with its open source culture), protecting one’s own artistic product is a lot harder. And I’d agree with that, actually. People freely sample and exchange what they find on the internet, whether they created it or not. We do it here, although we try to be careful to link people back to original sites and sensitive to privacy or ownership concerns before we post. It’s definitely fair to ask where artists fit into the internet culture and whether it helps or hurts them; Alexie’s a big enough name that he can live off of his writings, but that’s obviously not the norm. Pirating media — books, music, movies, whatever — was common well before the days of digital media, but I do think it has a much bigger impact nowadays on artists and publishers, etc., so I was a little surprised by the volume of some of the criticism.
I think one of the misunderstandings here was one of tone; there’s only so much you can say in a Colbert Report interview, and if you’re not familiar with the interviewee, you might not know when to take statements at face value and when to assume that there’s a little wiggle room. In addition, Alexie made a pretty public statement at this year’s BookExpo about how “elitist” E-readers were and how much he disliked them, and if you read his quote from the New York Times, it sounds like he’s an absolutist. However, I was at one of his (PACKED) book events last month, and he talked about that quote. It was accurate, he said, but it was also just something he’d said off the cuff. (There’s also a pretty funny follow up, where Jeff Bezos sent him a free Kindle after that in the hope that he’d use it and love it. Alexie gave it a try but, for a number of reasons, it didn’t really take.) From what he said at the signing, I don’t think he intended to be provocative, he was simply expressing his opinion that authors and readers were better served by the print model; his decision to limit his existing books to print distribution seems a natural enough personal choice.
I could go on here (and on), but I’m really interested to know what you all thought. I know we have a lot of big book readers on this site, so I’d love to know how you feel about various media formats, artistic ownership, etc. Please watch the interview again and let me know what you think.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
One last word to DB, or anyone who wanted to hear more about the book: War Dances is a gorgeous, bleak, hilarious, tough and tender collection of stories and poems. “Home of the Braves” made my heart hurt, in ways both good and bad, and I laughed out loud more than once during the title story. In other words, it was trademark Alexie, and you’re missing out on something beautiful if you don’t give it a chance. Happy reading!