Monday, February 20, 2012

The Future of Publishing: A Meditation on the Purging of VHS Tapes

Recently we moved.

Goodbye, friends. Imma download you.
Instead of wisely and slowly sifting through our possessions first, and taking only what we wanted to keep, we paid movers to pack everything into boxes and bring it here, to the new house, where we would dutifully sort as we unpacked. We moved in a hurry. Living in that old house after our new one was bought seemed like continuing to live with that guy you've broken up with already, just because you had a lease together. And moving things bit by bit in an orderly fashion to the new house was like surreptitiously trying to date someone new at the same time you're still living with that guy. Even though it's not really cheating, you still sneak. And because you're not Jennifer Aniston and he's not Vince Vaughn, you don't end up falling back in love, you just move out at the end of the lease, and it's not funny, it's just awkward. And you forget everything that was in the bathroom, and you don't go back for it.

Anyway, we moved.

In the mountain of stuff we no longer want that is now sitting grumpily in our new house, there are a mazillion VHS tapes. These are objects that should have been purged years ago. We haven't watched any of them since we moved the last time. We don't even have a VCR connected to our TV. If we did hook up a VCR, and managed to remember what the button "Rewind" does, I guarantee the tapes would look awful in 1080 resolution. It's at a point with these VHS tapes that I don't even think the Salvation Army wants them. I don't think anyone wants them. But every time we began to hustle them into bags to push them out the door, we got all oogly about it. Here's our copy of "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which we watched and rewound several times. Here's "Household Saints," one of the first movies I ever owned. "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael." "Go." "Four Rooms." "Sweetie." Here's that copy of "City of Lost Children" that was almost impossible to get. "Evita." Shut up, I have the whole thing memorized. I have a romantic attachment to these objects -- they remind me of when we were younger, poorer, and dumber, when I was working at a 1/2 porn video store during graduate school, when our TV was small and given to fits of rage instead of large and austere and firmly in control of itself.

So I put them, all, ruthlessly in the trash. I kept the ultrasound videos from my kids. I kept a couple of other personal things. But anything that I can get on DVD or download, I tossed.


This was not the cover.
But I wish it had been.
Because this cover's badass.
I have a romantic attachment to my books too. But I don't need to tell you that. You know I have the first paperback edition of Moby Dick I read in high school, with all my scrawled little teenaged marginal notes. You know I have the Candide I got in college, the used Italo Calvino I got in Milan, all my signed copies of friends' books, including stuff you can't hardly find ever like My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine and You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin. I like books. I have a lot. And I will never, ever, ever get rid of them. EVER.

But will my children? Will their children? Will publishing really change forever like everyone is saying it will, so that we'll all be walking around in future times with retinal projectors that allow us to store small libraries behind our ear drums and books will seem dumb like VCRs and twisty knobs on televisions, and jello molds? If I throw away these tapes, will I tomorrow throw away my Gormenghast novels? With the same reckless abandon? Will I?

Moment of panic. Moment of almost pulling those VHS tapes back out of the trash. Then, relief.

Here's what I realized. Books are not like VHS. They're not like DVDs or film canisters or analog recordings or vinyl. You can't say "Well, I can get my books on my Kindle" just like you can say "Well, I can get my songs on my iPod." They're not like that. Here's what they're really like: Theater. Live concerts. You can make them work just with your eyes. You can make all the parts function just by looking at them. It's not a product, it's an entertainment. It's not an object, it's an experience. An experience you can collect, and keep in pretty rows, and share, and and have again and again. And then I felt much better.

I felt better because not only did I NOT have to keep all those VHS tapes, and not only did I NOT have to get rid of all my books and start buying up eBooks on Google, but this: publishers are going to be okay. They really are. Call me Pollyanna or a crack addict or in denial or call me ignorant but here's what I'm saying: Books aren't going anywhere. 

Things may change, in publishing. E-books rise. Paperbacks fall. Publishers will try fetishizing, and niche marketing, and different production models. Fine. But people will still go to the theater. People will still go to live music shows. And people are still going to have books, want books, read books, hoard books, dive into books, and love books. Believe it.

Some of my favorite books.


  1. I'm glad to hear it. And now I feel justified in scorning a blog post that claimed that in order to be a person who is truly green, you must give up books and use an e-reader. I guess I'll never be green.

  2. I think books are different than VHS tapes. My VHS tapes are useless to me because I no longer have a VCR. But I'll always be able to read my old paperbacks. Technology can update and I may update with it but it can't make regular old reading out of date.

  3. Physical books aren't going anywhere for the foreseeable future. I will agree with that point. Our generation has grown up with books. We are too old to change as a group. Some of us will adopt but for the next thirty years there will be a significant market.
    HOWEVER, my kids are just as comfortable if not more reading e-books. As more and more children grow up with them, paper books will seem more and more of a hassle. As the technology matures, e-books will be able to replicate all of the books standard features: highlighting, bookmarking, doodling, etc. Eventually, the choice will be made and it will not be for books with paper. The book's days are numbered but it can take comfort that it can still count them in terms of decades and not years.

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