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From Tome to Tweet

When you think about it, the fate of complex products of thought—and books are such a product—is a kind of diffusion from the complex to the simple, from the written tome to the 140-character tweet (and spaces count as characters), from the elaborate orations of a Lincoln-Douglas debate down to the sound-byte. One of us this past week saw on a PBS documentary a young man, late teens, almost proudly saying that he doesn’t read any books “any more.” One sort of wonders if he ever did. The camera then  shifted from the steps of a school to a scene where the young man is staring at a screen, and he said, looking over the screen, that just the other day he read Hamlet in an hour, and, Hey, he would’ve liked to spend some hours, but, hey, there isn’t any time.

The word tome has a derogatory, the word tweet a modern, a hip connotation. A tome was originally just one scroll. The word comes from the Greek word for cutting and meant one section or division of a larger work. In the process of serving the great masses, who want the benefits of learning, at least its glow and shine, our commercial enterprise has always produced condensates of complexity—and the ultimate message is that the essence, core, and gist of anything written can be captured and conveyed with very little loss to a public eager to know but disinclined to pay the price of knowledge.

These efforts have ranged from the modest and benevolent, to wit the Reader’s Digest, to the ultimate, the authorless publisher. Taking the first first, Dewitt Wallace, a St. Paul born editor (he first worked on farming literature) produced the first issue of Reader’s Digest with his wife Lila on February 5, 1922. Wikipedia tells us that, these days, “Reader’s Digest reaches more readers with household incomes of $100,000+ than Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Inc combined.” And any right-thinking modern publisher should, reading that, bow his or her head in mute acknowledgement of greatness.

The other end of the range, of course, is the ultimate condensation of wit, offered us by Twitter. In this form of publishing, the author has been vaporized to an uncompensated multitude of contributors—whose work then maintains the advertising offered by Twitter to the same multitude. Does that mean the end of the book? Ultimately?

Suggest that to the—let’s take a telling instance—the publishers of Harlequin Romances. Are they trending toward the 140-character romance? Is there still a mass market for books. Turns out, there is. Romance is the queen of fiction, and Harlequin tops in romance. One might say, It’s the content, stupid. When the masses wish to have a comprehensive experience, the book is still there, still successful, and irreducible to an atom-sized core nugget. And TV cannot conquer the romance. It must present itself in tiny bursts of experience constantly interrupted by explosions of commercial pleading.

But we—meaning we at Dwarf Planet Press—we do know what we’re up against.

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One Response

  1. This post is too long. Please cut it to 140 characters.

    Thank you.

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