Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The internet, between covers: "The Slate Diaries" (2000)

Way back in 2000, the editors of Slate.com compiled The Slate Diaries, daily writing by contributors as varied as Bill Gates, Roger Ebert, and Benizir Bhutto, among many others. While not slighting the efforts of these luminaries (the former chairman of Microsoft considered calling his two-year-old daughter so he can "ask her exciting questions over the phone now, like 'What sound does a cow make?'"), there are some other, more genuinely interesting entries. Most of these come from a tax preparer, a school nurse in Pennsylvania, an untenured assistant professor, a UPS driver and shop steward for Teamsters Local 728 in Valdosta, Georgia.

The net result is great for dipping into at random, since the diaries focus on jottings of the "what I did yesterday" variety. Most contributors are willing to reveal a bit of their personal as well as professional selves: even the former prime minister of Pakistan can write with a mother's glee that "Bilawal discloses that Bakhtwar's tooth has fallen out" when she returns from a session of the National Assembly. The funny writers are, expectedly, going for laughs (David Sedaris, Ben Stein, Ira Glass are all represented) but there is interesting and more serious material to keep theDiaries from being too featherweight. From Atul Gawande, a surgical resident in Boston, now writing for The New Yorker:

This morning, my twenty-something splenectomy patient was combative and talking nonsense. His fevers were worse. His oxygen levels were low. This made him confused. Since he was confused, he wouldn't keep an oxygen mask on. I got angry with him, and he finally kept it on. An X-ray showed he had pneumonia. I hadn't prodded him out of bed enough. That would have made him take full breaths and cough up the junk in his lungs. I had the nurses bang on his chest to loosen up the pneumonia and browbeat him to cough. I started antibiotics. If he gets any worse, he'll need to be put in intensive care. I hope he turns the corner.

Because these entries are posted daily, there is usually "the special voice of e-mail," as editor Michael Kinsley writes in his introduction. "The spontaneity of talking with the reflectiveness of writing (when it works -- the other way around when it doesn't.)" There are very few clunkers here: the Federal judge and the pastor, the venture capitalist and the camp counselor, can turn a phrase and make things interesting.

Which leaves, of course, the next big question: if internet content can be found in books, what now? Can the titanic battle between giant best-sellerdom versus the niche-marketeer be settled with just a click of the mouse? As the cartoonist Alison Bechtel describes, you can shop at Barnes & Noble, but you don't necessarily have to dance with the devil -- if you find what you want there, you can always leave the cappucino behind and order from mom and pop when you get home.
I got a call today from Chassman and Bem, the local independent bookstore. They've canceled the book signing I had scheduled this month--they're going out of business. I knew they weren't going to last much longer, but it still came as a blow. They've been struggling ever since Barnes & Noble came to town. But the nail in their coffin was the Borders Books and Music store that will be opening just up the block this summer. The woman who called me said morosely that a lot of the Chassman and Bem employees would probably try and get jobs there.
I've set up a similar scenario in my comic strip. Madwimmin Books, the women's bookstore where some of my characters work, has been losing sales to Bunns and Noodle for years, and now a Bounders chain store is opening nearby. Stores that specialize in women's or gay or African-American books have slightly more of an edge against the chains than general-interest independent stores do, but they're still feeling the pressure. I hate the thought of closing Madwimmin down, but it's beginning to look like I'll have to eventually if I don't want my strip to become a complete anachronism. 
A couple weeks ago Amy and I went to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Albany, N.Y. The four of us had some time to kill while their kids were at a play, so they suggested that we all go to Barnes & Noble. Amy and I demurred, but it was Friday night and there really wasn't any other quiet place to go. On the way I tried to explain the chilling effect these stores are having on the culture. I talked about how books are just commodities to the chains, and how if a title doesn't come with an author interview on the Today show and the potential of selling a zillion copies, they won't stock it. Or else they'll order two copies, shelve them spine out, and return them to the publisher when they don't sell. I talked about how this means books that can't compete against Billy Graham's autobiography just aren't going to continue being published. I waxed apocalyptic about censorship. They listened politely, but by the time we were standing in the mellow, cappuccino-scented glow of Barnes & Noble, even I had lost interest in my arguments. 
The place was packed. People were lounging in comfortable chairs reading through entire books. They were sitting at tables blatantly copying information out of computer manuals. They were hauling stacks of magazines into the cafe and filling them with biscotti crumbs before returning them to the rack. The whole store had such a pleasant, populist atmosphere that it was hard to remember it's The Devil. Amy had to physically restrain me from buying a book. The spell was broken once we got back outside. I returned home and dutifully ordered the same volume from Chassman and Bem.

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