The death of the book has long been foretold. Sages of the digital future speak rapturously of a time when all the world’s knowledge will be contained on a silicon wafer no larger than a baby’s tooth, and all forms of written content—books, magazines, newspapers, press releases, recipes, doctor’s prescriptions, shopping lists, notes from your mother—will be viewed on a screen lit by diodes capable of producing 186 million different colors and several thousand shades of gray, none of which will in any way disturb your mental equilibrium or challenge any of the moral, philosophical, religious, political, or intellectual conclusions arrived at by your information-saturated brain beyond the age of, say, fifteen. This bookless existence will be a blessed era, they say, unless of course you want to read outside, in which case you’re f-----d.
Such prophecies of literary doom could not dissuade hundreds of tree-loving, page-turning, dog-earing souls from attending Rain Taxi’s ninth annual Twin Cities Book Festival at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College on Saturday. By and large, these were folks who will not let books die—or who, like David Unowsky of Magers & Quinn, will die trying to prevent books from dying (it’s a vicious cycle)—and who did not mind the conspicuous lack of electrons in the room.
Dozens of publishers from around the state displayed their wares on tables arranged in long, bustling rows. All the biggies were there—Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press, Minnesota Historical Society—as well as several smaller presses—Great Northern Books, Pathfinder Books, Papyrus Publishing—and quite a few publishers named after things found in nature: e.g., Red Dragonfly Press, Red Hen Press, Ugly Duckling Press, Beaver’s Pond Press, and a literary journal called Whistling Shade, whatever that is. My personal favorite: Xexoxial Editions, whose slogan is, “Propogating experimedia simplexity since 1981.”
It was quite a sight: thousands of books stacked on every square inch of table available, all of them pulsing with ideas and stories and information (“content” to the adigitally illiterate) and none of them drawing a nano-watt of energy from “the grid.” Indeed, it’s a nifty little thought experiment to wonder what people would have thought of books and magazines if they had been invented after the computer. Think of the advantages: you never have to plug books in, or recharge them, or wait for them to boot up. And you can read them anywhere—even outside, or at the beach. If you get a little sand between the pages, it’s no biggie—just shake it a couple of times and you’re good to go. They’d be sold with slogans like: “Books—so green they’re actually made from trees.” Or, “Books—your anytime, anywhere, content-delivery device.” Or Books: “Batteries not included—because you don’t need them!”
One exhibitor that did not find the lack of actual electricity in the room very amusing was MidwayJournal.com, an online literary journal based in St. Paul. Midway Journal had no books to share because their journal only exists in electronic form, and can only be viewed on one of the aforementioned diode screens all the kids are talking about these days. “There’s only one electrical outlet in this whole room, and it’s over by the elevators,” said one of Midway Journal’s editors, Justin Maxwell, forlornly. “Here, take one of our cards.”
This year’s festival drew some impressive literary welterweights. Robert Olen Butler, Nicholson Baker, Lorrie Moore, and Diane Ackerman all came to speak. And Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, was scheduled to speak but had to cancel due to vicious and highly substantiated rumors that her magazine no longer exists. Which is to say, Gourmet ’s parent company, Condé Nast, is not going to be investing in a print version of the magazine anymore, but is promising readers that it will house all sorts of robust, Gourmet -worthy content online.
That’s what they all say, of course. But you know what they say about digital promises. That's right—they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.