One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.
Remember the “Where’s Waldo?” books, challenging kids to find the not-so-subtly dressed namesake in the midst of an equally colorful and crowded setting? Oddly enough, I was thinking about them last week while talking to my students about the coverage of international news.
What do Waldo and foreign news coverage have in common? It could be that although neither Waldo nor the events and people of the world are easy to find at times, they are both there if we take a little time looking for them.
The traditional lament is that the nation’s news media have cut back drastically on the coverage of international news. That is an accurate statement. There are fewer eyes on the world from the likes of the network news companies and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, which collapsed all their foreign bureaus and let their sister paper The Los Angeles Times staff them instead. Of course the LA Times is also cutting back, too, as are all newspapers around the country.
The reason, however, is not that journalists don’t believe the world is a pretty good story. In this age of globalization, it is more a story than it ever has been. The problem is that the media exist in the same market-driven economy as every other business. So they will turn their attention to the places and stories that interest readers and viewers.
Local news comes first
And Americans are more interested in America than anywhere else. The international media scholar Jaap vanGinneken writes about the unwritten rule of news priorities in America when he posits that 10,000 deaths on another continent equals 1,000 deaths in another country, equals 100 deaths in another state, equals ten deaths in the capital city, equals one celebrity.
That’s a little paraphrased, but you get the idea. As John Cougar Mellencamp sang, “Ain’t That America?”
Yet there is another side, or I should say sides, of this debate on cutbacks of international news coverage. You could make a strong case that the only cutbacks are in those media we’ve traditionally looked to for world news. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few other windows to the world and these portals have been mushrooming. Like the following:
* The World Wide Web. Remember it? That’s the portal that features a lot more than Words With Friends and Facebook. Hard to believe, but true. Did you know there is even one site, sponsored by the Newseum in Washington D.C. that allows you to scroll through today’s front pages of 626 newspapers from 60 countries around the world? And did you know you can find virtually any newspaper in the world simply by going to a listing like onlinenewspapers.com and clicking on the paper you want, some of which have English translations available?
* Alternative News Portals. Although they may take you out of your comfort zone in reading about or seeing the world through the prism of Western eyes, some significant alternative news agencies have developed over the past 20 years or so. The most significant of these — by far — is Al Jazeera. This is the independent news agency out of Qatar that offers both a newspaper and video stories of the world’s news, and it offers them through the prism of the Middle East and not the West.
Al Jazeera had the most profound effect on the flow of international news of any news organization in recent memory. Entire regions of the world now feel their story can be told through non-Western eyes, and that’s a big thing for them. We may not agree with the Al Jazeera viewpoint, but it is interesting to have an alternative view of world events.
In looking at world news impact, you could also make a strong case for CNN as well, especially if you’re talking about CNN International and not Domestic. The former has a lot of non-Western correspondents.
* New Models of News Media. Into the hole left by closed foreign news bureaus of traditional media have stepped some new kinds of news media organizations. On the international scene, one hopeful sign is Globalpost.com. It’s mission, straight from its Web page, reads: “The GlobalPost Mission is to provide original international reporting rooted in integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling that informs, entertains and fills the void created by diminished foreign coverage by American media.”
It is staffed by a network of foreign correspondents who live in the regions of the world they cover and who contribute their reports as freelancers to Globalpost, which has only 18 full-time staffers at its Boston headquarters. The funding comes from a small group of private investors who believe in the importance of international news. Globalpost also accepts advertising and offers subscription services to members who join.
The job is ours
Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping up with world news lies with each of us as individuals who should want to be informed citizens of that world. It’s not that hard to find news of the world; it’s just located largely in places where we aren’t used to looking.
But then, Waldo wasn’t always where he was supposed to be either, was he?