Rereading Old Media...In the Dark

As the blackouts continued across much of the Northeast this week, the interplay between new digital reading technologies and the analog page persists as I find myself darting back and forth between formats as the lights go on and off. Tales of digital distress are already becoming signatures of this disaster.

I have already heard from people clustered around the outlets at Manhattan drugstores to recharge, and everyone complaining about the clogged WiFi/3G/4G channels when they do find one. Last time, I contemplated the ways in which digital books subtly diminish the authority of the author/publisher. Any reader of e-books can enhance this effect by turning on the group highlighting functions in some reader apps. This feature actually allows you to read an e-book and see how many others have underlined electronically the passages you are reading.

But in some very important ways, digital texts can bring us closer to the author. Digital comics are the best example. Comixology’s brilliant “Guided View” version of digitized comics brings the reader up close and in high-definition with panel-by-panel blowups of some great illustrators. Now that publishers like Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Hermes Press and Abrams are bringing their libraries of classic and great comic strips and graphic novels to the format, there are revelations to be had here. We can now encounter line work and composition at a level of detail and immersion never possible on the printed page.

Media history teaches us that new media and technologies do not necessarily kill old forms so much as force traditional media to rethink and reposition themselves in relation to the new. Film did not kill live theater, even if it replaced the stage as America’s central entertainment. No doubt the rise of silent and crude talkie films superseding stage drama helped make the musical format all the more attractive to the medium in the late 1920s. TV forced film and radio to flail for new formats and business models. Cable TV initiated a market for endless reruns via syndication that VOD enhanced. And so we get TV series that are either highly modular ("Law & Order") for easy syndication, or highly serialized ("24," "Homeland") that are packaged for DVD/Digital series resale.   

Print, I suspect, will be a greatly reduced medium in coming decades. The current thinking is that newspapers and magazines will be high-end products on the whole, markers of affluence. We are seeing this in recent print launches of periodicals with high production values, big lush formats and a ton of Rolex ads. Book publishers desperately try to remind us of their relevance at the holiday with a trove of enormously oversized and overpriced tomes that confound easy digitization.

Most of these big book efforts merely use scale and high production values to make their point about the irreplaceable qualities of print. This is something like film in the 50s battling TV with Cinerama and 3D. Still, One of the best literary achievements of the season -- Chris Ware’s incredible graphic novel in a box -- Building Stories, underscores how the digital age inspires a great storyteller to reconsider his craft, his message and his medium. The boxed collection of 14 books, posters, fold-outs and pamphlets tells the story of isolated and troubled souls who occupy a single apartment building.

There is no set order for encountering the pieces. The linearity of page turning is reimagined entirely as the reader “builds” the story of people in a building. Ware plays with framing, scale, different tactile experiences, paper weight, etc. in ways that are completely inaccessible to digital media. In addition to being a singular narrative experience, Building Stories is an argument for the unique new storytelling available to print as digital media challenges its form’s indispensability. In fact, I am not sure that Ware would have imagined such a remarkable project without the contrast digital media provided him. That people like he and McSweeney’s David Eggers have been playing with print formats throughout the digital era is no coincidence.

The thoroughly middlebrow habit of bemoaning new media forms and clinging pompously to those on the wane is as depressing as it is wrong. Everyone I know who resisted PCs, the Internet, cell phones and even TV (yeah, I know people who still think it a badge of honor not to own one) out of some self-important defense of “higher forms” now finds all of these tools indispensable. The evolution of media is much more complex than a simple battle among formats allows. There is a dynamic exchange between old and new that is intricate and fascinating to experience. Sitting in the dark with the lights off cherishing the analog calm is a wonderful indulgence that makes you miss too much. 

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