Columns

Michael Fitzpatrick ’12: (Don’t) stop the presses!

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I learned to read when I was three. I still remember reading nightly with my father, sitting in his lap with a book in my hands and a blanket around my shoulders. I was brought up on “Green Eggs and Ham,” “Goodnight Moon” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I wonder what books my sons and daughters will learn to read first, if they read books at all. I might be sitting with a child in my lap, pointing at lines of text on a computer screen instead of words on a page.

To a degree, I’m willing to admit that print — books, magazines and newspapers — is a dying breed, and technology is effortlessly filling its societal niche. The current generation is growing up with a silver spoon in its mouth, a PC on its desk, an iPod in its pocket and a mobile phone glued to its cheek. Meanwhile, several newspapers may gradually transition to an electronic medium just to survive, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. The proliferation of cutting-edge technology isn’t the reason why print is dying, but it’s definitely twisting the knife.

The miserable state of printed media has far less to do with the telecommunication industry or digital music than it does with computers: the Internet and the explosive social networking fad of the early 2000s are more at fault. Blogging killed writing. Once people became acquainted with the idea of blogging, it was silently assumed that anyone could become “published” on the Internet. It’s faster and less expensive than publishing a real newspaper or magazine. The readers come instantly, and there are no book signings to attend. There are no editors asking you to check your facts or proofread your work. Your fans and followers can contact you directly and instantly, showering you with digital praise. But it doesn’t come without a cost.

I think Will Litton ’09, one of the founders of the online literary quarterly known as Wag’s Revue, said it best: “When there’s unlimited space to print whatever, you can blog everyday and end up with a crockpot of really mediocre writing” (“Online journal ‘wags’ finger at print,” March 30). Quality writing demands time and effort; it has value that you don’t produce by blogging for a half hour per evening to fend off boredom. Similarly, publishing is difficult and expensive for a reason: you’ll only do it if you’re committed and talented. Publishing today is nothing like it was hundreds of years ago, when paper and ink were expensive, and documents had to be handwritten before being mass-produced on a printing press. Word processors are the silver spoons of writing industry.

But the writers aren’t all at fault here. It’s not fair to characterize bloggers as vapid, talentless and egotistical — although, I will admit that many bloggers, myself included, make a sincere effort to conceal these common flaws. With somewhere around 22.6 million weblogs hosted in the United States alone, and nearly 184 million worldwide, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t some genuine writing talent lurking in the abyss of digital obscurity.

The real issue is that audiences haven’t fully realized that publishing ourselves on the Internet isn’t a real accomplishment. It’s the very essence of children displaying their kindergarten doodles on refrigerator doors. You can’t blame them for being a little proud of themselves, but you can blame a father who honestly believes that his daughter’s crayon masterpiece deserves to be hung in the Louvre. We, the audiences, make the same mistake when we equate browsing Web sites to reading books, magazines or newspapers.

It isn’t.

I personally don’t want to live to see the funeral of printed literature, and I don’t think that I will. The argument for keeping print is primarily a sentimental one. Books become substantially more valuable as they age, especially if they’re kept in good condition. An e-book, on the other hand, is completely worthless once it becomes too old or outdated to function. Books can carry intrinsic value, especially to their authors and devoted readers. A signed book is like a signed baseball card, only the book tells its own story.

Likewise, newspapers and magazines carry their own significance. My former history teacher once told us that the most valuable gift he’d ever received was a stack of newspapers: a complete collection of the New York Times spanning the entirety of World War II. Periodicals do more than just inform the readers of the day; they are just as valuable, collectively, in describing the perspectives of a period. They show future generations which events were once important, especially those events that exhibit rapidly changing attitudes through history.

As Time Inc.’s former Editor-at-Large Dan Okrent so eloquently put it, “A newspaper gives you timeliness, a magazine perspective, a book lasting value. Each is a firm, palpable entity, a presence in our lives, a companion to our days.” Electronic media may kill print in the end, but my children will learn to read books. 
 


Michael Fitzpatrick ’12 continues to blog to stroke his ego and maintain his sanity. He can be contacted at Michael_Fitzpatrick (at) brown.edu