Archive for Reports from the Front

Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

Stuart Hall, a founder of the field of cultural studies and one of my intellectual heroes, has died.  Two of his former students, David Morley and Bill Schwartz, have penned an obituary, published today in The Guardian.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Here is my favorite passage from Hall, from his 1992 article “Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies”:

The work that cultural studies has to do is to mobilize everything that it can find in terms of intellectual resources in order to understand what keeps making the lives we live, and the societies we live in, profoundly and deeply antihumane in their capacity to live with difference. Cultural studies’ message is a message for academics and intellectuals but, fortunately, for many other people as well. In that sense, I have tried to hold together in my own intellectual life, on one hand, the conviction and passion and the devotion to objective interpretation, to analysis, to rigorous analysis and understanding, to the passion to find out, and to the production of knowledge that we did not know before. But, on the other hand, I am convinced that no intellectual worth his or her salt, and no university that wants to hold up its head in the face of the 21st century, can afford to turn dispassionate eyes away from the problems…that beset our world.

Nothing sums up the project of cultural studies better for me and, indeed, the type of work I aspire to do.

Thank you, Stuart Hall, for your bravery, intellectual leadership, and resolve. The world is a better place for your having been a part of it.  You will be missed. Sorely.

 

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Friends of Art Bookshop at Indiana University

IMPORTANT UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 16, 2013, I received an email from Laurel Cornell, President of the Indiana University Friends of Art, stating that the IU Friends of Art Bookshop “must close because its existence violates the contract which Indiana University has with Barnes & Noble for the sale of books.”  Cornell indicated that Friends of Art generates “a significant portion of its income” from the Bookshop.  That income, in turn, goes to support “the programs of the Indiana University School of Fine Arts and the IU Art Museum by providing over $30,000 every year in scholarships and grants,” according to the FOA webpage.

Today my local newspaper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, is reporting that the closure of the FOA Bookstore will not happen after all, and that the whole controversy was the result of a misunderstanding: “Leaders of the Friends of Art organization came away from a recent meeting believing the store violates an existing contract between IU and Barnes & Noble. That contract has Barnes & Noble College Booksellers LLC paying IU for the right to be the university’s only textbook supplier.  But an IU spokesman said Tuesday that the contract does not prohibit the art bookstore’s existence. And a Barnes & Noble representative said the company has no knowledge of the Friends of Art issue.”

The Indiana Daily Student offers a somewhat different account: “Mark Land, associate vice president of University Communications, said the situation is still being worked out.  ‘We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen to the bookstore,’ Land said. ‘As of right now, no decision has been made on the fate of the store. Regardless of what ultimately happens, it won’t be a result of our contract agreement with Barnes & Noble.'”

The broader issue I addressed in my original post—the privatization of public universities—remains.  But for now, I am more hopeful today that the IU Friends of Art Bookstore will remain in operation on the Indiana University Campus.

I thank all of my readers for your support and interest in the issue.  I have taken down my original post and will provide additional updates should more details become available.  If you’d like to follow up-to-the-minute developments on your own, there’s also a “Save the Friends of Art Bookshop” Facebook group.

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Cheaper Textbooks (So They Say)

I don’t often write about textbook publishing, but with the start of the new school year I thought it appropriate to say a few more words on the subject. I say more because I blogged about the changing student textbook market around this time last year, exploring how the rental market in particular had started to affect the ways college students acquire and think about their course texts.

Well, that was a year ago, and paper books are soooooo 2011. The big push this year (which, admittedly, has been building over the course of several years) is for electronic course texts or, in some cases, the bundling of electronic resources with traditional paper textbooks. I can’t stop hearing about the subject both on my own campus and in the periodicals I follow, including The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To wit: this week’s Chronicle included a story entitled “With ‘Access Codes,’ Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever.” (Apologies in advance: you’ll have to be a subscriber to read the full text.) It focuses on a business student at the University of Maine, Luke Thomas, who, last semester, needed to buy a (paper) textbook for his introductory English course. Expensive — but so far, so good. The complication occurred when Thomas discovered that the book, published by textbook giant Cenage, came bundled with a code he would need to access supplementary materials, which were only available online. He and his wife had been planning to use the course text together, effectively cutting the net cost of the overpriced book in half. But because each code was tied to one, and only one, student, they were unable to do so — that is, unless one of them was willing to forgo participation in the class’ online element and potentially jeopardize her or his grade. You can read Thomas’ great, muckraking blog post about the incident here.

I’m sure there are myriad instances of college students confronting these types of dilemmas right now, and not only the married ones. I remember friends during my undergraduate years (this was the early 1990s) routinely buying course texts that they’d then share for the semester. I’m pretty sure I did this once myself, in a Communication course my roommate and I had both enrolled in. But what I see, in the emerging age of e-publishing, is a deliberate attempt on the part of textbook publishers, suborned either by greedy or willfully ignorant faculty, to mitigate and even eliminate these types of arrangements.

What makes this situation all the more startling is the language that’s typically used to sell e-learning materials to professors and students. Over and over again we hear how e-texts are “cheaper” than their printed, paper counterparts and how supplementary online materials add real value to them. What the marketing departments won’t tell you is that that “cheaper” isn’t an absolute term and that value-added actually comes at a cost.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a student can buy a $50 e-version of a course text whose paper edition would cost $100 brand new. That’s a 50% savings, right? Well, not exactly. If two friends wanted to share the cost of the book together, that cost savings is already matched — bettered, actually, since there exists a robust used market for paper textbooks that would probably net the students at least a few dollars at the end of the term. (You generally can’t “sell back” an e-text, since you license rather than own the content.) As for the so-called value-added e-features, Thomas’ story makes abundantly clear how, in fact, this value isn’t added as much as paid for.

I don’t doubt that large textbook publishers like Cenage want to follow what they perceive to be industry and cultural (some might say generational) trends in making such an aggressive move into e-publishing. But it’s not only about that. It’s also about hammering away at the first-sale doctrine, which is the legal principle that allows the owner of copyrighted material to share it with or resell it to someone else without fear of legal reprisal. The move into e-publishing is also a way to effectively destroy the market for used textbooks, which, admittedly, has long been difficult to sustain given publishers’ efforts to issue “revised” editions of popular texts every few years pop over to this site.

Bottom line: if you believe in the free market, then you should be opposed many of these types of e-publishing initiatives. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or even a cheap one, for that matter.

So with that, then, I want to bestow my first ever Late Age of Print Hero Award on Luke Thomas, for his courageous efforts to bring these important issues to public attention. Thank you, Luke.

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Concurring Opinions

I’m guest posting this week over on the legal blog Concurring Opinions, which is holding a symposium on Georgetown law professor Julie E. Cohen’s great new book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012).  (FYI, it’s available to download for free under a Creative Commons license.)  In other words, even though I don’t have any new material for you here on the Late Age of Print, I hope you’ll follow me on over to Concurring Opinions.

Having said that, I thought it might be interesting to link you to a recent study I saw mentioned in the Washington Post sometime last week.  The author, Craig L. Garthwaite, who is a professor in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, argues that Oprah’s Book Club actually hurt book sales overall, this despite the bump that occurred for each one of Winfrey’s selections.  I haven’t yet had a chance to review the piece carefully, especially its methodology, but I have to say that I’m intrigued by its counter-intuitiveness.  I’d welcome any thoughts of feedback you may have on the Garthwaite study; I’ll do my best to chime in as well.

See you next week, and in the meantime, don’t forget to like the new Late Age of Print Facebook page.

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“Harry Potter Grows Up”: The Meaning Behind a Cliché

For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Late Age of Print, the final chapter of the book focuses on the extraordinary literary sensation that is Harry Potter.  So, needless to say, Harry Potter has been on my mind quite a bit lately, especially with today’s release of the first installment of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.http://rpk-tramplin.ru

I don’t have much to say about the latest film, honestly, not having yet seen it — although I intend to, as I’ve seen the previous six movies and have read/enjoyed all seven books.  Instead, what I’ve been thinking about lately is the age of Harry Potter, or rather that of his fans.

I teach an undergraduate course at the 300 or Junior level called “The Cultures of Books and Reading”; during one week, we focus on the many-headed Harry Potter phenomenon.  When I first launched the book class, back in 2006, I was excited to realize that my students were basically Harry’s contemporaries. Those among them who were  eleven years old — Harry’s age — when the series launched in 1997 were twenty in 2006, which is the typical age of most college Juniors.

But now it’s four years later, and those twenty year-olds are turning twenty-four.  Yes, that’s right, twenty-four — practically a quarter century.  Graduate school age.  Marrying age.  Getting established in one’s career age.  Even baby-having age.  I’m feeling old just writing about them!  Indeed, it’s not just that Harry Potter and the actors who portray him and his friends on screen have grown up.  The whole fan culture surrounding Harry Potter has grown up, too, to the point where, as with Star Wars fans, we might even start thinking about a whole new generation of Potter enthusiasts.

This is what the release of the first installment of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows really means.  It marks the beginning of the end of the film adaptations, yet it also marks the beginning of the beginning of the next generation of Potter fandom.  What role, if any, will the books, films, toys, games, candy, costumes, etc. play in their lives?  And what new meanings will the Harry Potter franchise take on once the torch gets passed, or rather shared?

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“The Localized Appreciation of Books Is Gone”

Sherman Alexie
www.colbertnation.com


I love it when something that you think will be good turns out to be even better than you’d hoped.  Case in point: author Sherman Alexie’s visit to The Colbert Report last Tuesday night.  I expected Alexie to chat up his latest book, War Dances. I didn’t expect to be treated to such an intelligent commentary on the future of book culture in America.

Colbert starts out by affirming the author’s decision not to allow the digital distribution of his book.  Alexie cites concerns over piracy and privacy as his motivation for doing so.  I’ve noted here on the blog how certain e-book devices can expose book lovers to all sorts incursions into their intimate reading lives.  Alexie, for his part, ups the ante.  “I’m an Indian,” he states.  “I have plenty of reasons to be worried about the U.S. government” peering over his shoulder while he e-reads.  Colbert — ever the (alleged) enemy of literacy — chimes in with his objection to digital books. “You can’t burn a Kindle.”

Alexie then notes how the revenue structure of the music industry has changed in the digital era.  Here I believe he over-reaches somewhat, but in any case his claim is that the music is no longer what primarily makes money for top recording artists.  Now, touring and performances comprise their primary revenue stream.  He fears the same may one day hold true for book authors as well, suggesting a future in which the book-as-cultural-artifact will become incidental to paid-for author appearances.  And here Alexie echoes one of Kevin Kelley’s predictions from his 2006 bombshell published in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“, from which the late John Updike recoiled in horror.

The rest of the interview offers something of a rejoinder to this vision for the future of the book.  In a word, it is unsustainable.  Alexie recounts how the experience of the book tour has changed for him over the last decade or so.  It used to be that he would engage all sorts of local media and indy bookstores while traipsing around the country to promote his latest work.  Today, Alexie complains, “the localized appreciation of books is gone.”  Book blogs notwithstanding, what little coverage books receive in the media today mostly occurs in the national press — in exclusive forums like The New York Times and, well, The Colbert Report.  Chain bookstores, meanwhile, now play host to the vast majority of author events.  The result, he notes, is not only a diminished conversation about books at the local level, but also the elimination of untold numbers of book-related jobs that are ancillary to, yet nonetheless sustain, the book industry proper.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Alexie had to say about the past, present, and future of books in America, but his insights were provocative enough for me to air them here.  I do agree with his final point wholeheartedly, though: “White folks should be ashamed that it’s taking an Indian to save part of their culture.”  Indeed.

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Late Age of Print @ the Village Voice

I spent the last week vacationing in Paris.  The trip was excellent in itself, but a felicitous discovery along the way made it even better.  A wrong turn while searching for the Pompidou Centre landed my travel companion and I at the Village Voice Bookshop, one of Paris’ best English-language bookstores. Here I am, standing outside the store on the Rue Princesse:

village_voice_1
There, while thumbing through the nicely-stocked “Books On Books” section, I was thrilled to discover a copy of…The Late Age of Print!

late_age_1

Thereafter I proceeded to have a lovely conversation with the founder and owner of the Village Voice Bookshop, Odile Hellier, who gave me a crash course in Parisian book culture.  According to Hellier there’s been something of a falloff in bookselling and reading in Paris in recent years, which makes it all the more challenging for English-language shops like hers, whose inventories are not underwritten by the French government, to make ends meet.

That’s all the more reason why I’m thankful not only to have seen The Late Age of Print at the Village Voice but also to have had some good friends purchase the copy while I was there.

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Library 2.0…the Report

Late last week, I promised to report on the “Library 2.0” Symposium at Yale Law School, in which I participated on April 4th.  I arrived at New Haven with a lovely Keynote presentation to accompany my essay on “Kindle and the Labor of Reading,” only to discover that my laptop had died!  Well, thank goodness for backup — which is to say nothing of the goodwill of Ted Byfield, my session moderator, who just happens to be a Mac/Keynote user.  Whew.  In any event, I expected to issue my Symposium wrap-up this past Monday or Tuesday, but the death of my laptop resulted in my having to push back the schedule a bit.  Thanks for your patience.

All that’s just preamble, I suppose, to my saying that it was a fantastic event through and through.  It brought together an extraordinary group consisting of librarians and library administrators, from places ranging from elite private universities to small rural communities; high-powered practicing attorneys (one who even litigated the Google book scanning case–representing the publishers) and equally high-powered law professors; digital library innovators; and a few humanities professors, like me.  Kudos to the planning committee for making a concerted effort to forestall what so often happens at symposia like these: group think (or the compulsion to engage in it).

What was fascinating to me was to hear about how librarians are navigating a shift in their profession, from their maintaining chiefly archival responsibilities to their increasingly becoming information managers.  (Laura DeNardis, the Executive Director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, opened the event with a hilarious video documenting representations of librarians in the popular media, which only threw into relief the degree to which the library profession has so profoundly changed.)   It was also intriguing to hear about the types of new archival problems that get posed within digital contexts, which raise all sorts of questions about privacy, propriety, and responsibility.  My co-panelist Michael Zimmer, for example, discussed the ethics of libraries’ retaining patron borrowing, web browsing, and search information in an age in which “the library” is becoming as much a physical structure as a digital, database-driven “back-end.”

Another theme that reared its head again and again was academic publishing — especially the legal, economic, and scholarly pitfalls that result from the over-concentration of the scholarly publishing industry.  I’ve written on the subject before — from the vantage point of cultural studies — and so I was fascinated to learn what the world of scholarly journal publishing looked like from a library perspective.  Long story short, it doesn’t look good, save for the important Open Access initiatives that have appeared in recent years, which themselves raise all sorts of conundrums about opting out and re-publication.  My favorite moment?  When one conference participant showed a PowerPoint slide depicting concentration in the journal publishing industry, with a gargantuan sphereoid “Elsevier” appearing in red in the middle, as though it were gobbling up all the other companies around it.  She said that she’d shown the slide before, and that it had come to be known colloquially as the “death star” slide.  How apt.

Let’s just hope that the library — a tremendous public resource — doesn’t end up getting consumed by Elsevier or some other evil empire.

P.S. “Library 2.0” was blogged and Twittered, essentially in real-time, so follow the preceding links if you’d like a more “granular” view of the event.

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