Mssgng w/ Jrnls Ed

Terence Smyre and Joel Puchalla form the dyad that is the editorial wing of the University of Nebraska Press’s journals department. Their offices, and hearts, share a common wall—though not a physical coronary septum, which would be weird. They envision these discussions as being a quarterly—duh, journals—look into their workplace discussions.


JP: An interesting thing happened last week. Forty-seven Republican senators sent a letter to the leaders of Iran in an attempt to undermine Obama’s negotiations on Iran’s nuclear policy. Politics aside, they sent a letter. They didn’t record an interview or hold a press conference, they sent a letter. Who knew congressional Republicans were so willing to eschew modern communications. I wonder how their handlebar mustaches are filling in? Can you get an audiobook of Atlas Shrugged on vinyl? Curious, no?

TS: Steampunk politics? I like that idea. It gives me hope for a mass transit system made up of a fleet of zeppelins. Seriously though, don’t you think there’s some kind of political slide rule that balances the risk of the message against the means of conveying it? Or, perhaps they view the letter as a more official means of communication. It certainly rings with tradition, and—as with Tevye—I think that strikes a strong chord with their base. Tradition, like Bruce Willis, has that austere, unbreakable quality that serves as a powerful form of rhetoric. Of course it may also simply be that very few people in Washington are comfortable with these confounded interwebs, as evidenced by the recent revelations that thus far Lindsey Graham has yet to send an e-mail, and Bill Clinton only managed two. Or maybe they just couldn’t find the ayatollah on the Twitter.

JP: Yeah, I suppose twitter hashtags probably wouldn’t strike a chord with the entire base. Maybe I’m reaching here, but it got me thinking about the printed word, electronic and paper. As much as I loathe the “smell of a book” argument against e-books, I can’t deny still purchasing most of my books in print form. I have a fancy new iPad—my first—but I’m still toting around 1,100 pages of Infinite Jest, and will be for at least another couple months (*heavy breathing*). In a world where old is new (movies, TV, fashion, design, etc.), it seems more and more like the “e” is valuable for decluttering and taking away paper trails for ephemeral content (bank statements, breaking news). I mean, how many people are still keeping a handwritten checkbook ledger? Heck, how many people are still using checks regularly? But how about journals? Ephemeral content? Not usually for the authors—especially the young authors—but for the readers? In grad school I only kept print journals if I wanted references for future submission. All my research, even in the era of smartphone infancy, was digital. If it wasn’t digital it was a hassle. But then, I was a lousy academic. We know as well as anybody that print readership is down and electronic is up. But if you tell some people that print won’t ever fully die they either take it as a criticism of electronic content or they look at you like you’re a Luddite. Can’t I like both for different reasons? Can’t I use both for different purposes?

TS: I think that question strikes at the heart of your prompt: what’s ephemeral for our culture in this moment, and, looking ahead, what stands to fall into that category? You mention the convenience of “e” as trumping the sentimental experience of the real (oh, god, I’m channeling Morpheus), but how convenient is it really? You can’t easily take e-notes (yet), virtual keyboards, while impressive, are often frustrating and stymie the flow of your thinking, and who wants to look at another backlit screen after sitting in front of one all day long? Despite e-ink’s strides, it’s still the other, mainly because it’s so limited to primarily one function. Until we have eye-friendly omni devices and the tools to input data on them as directly and easily as we do paper we’ll continue to have righteous sentiment celebrating a medium we can’t break free from. But seriously you should totally get the e-Book of Infinite; you’re gonna hurt yourself otherwise. Just looking at that cramps my wrists up. As to all the other, I’m still waiting for sword-canes and bowler hats to come back in fashion, so perhaps my perspective isn’t all that representative.

JP: Ah, the fabled omni device. Come get your iPhone12SMacbookPadWatch featuring the new Alcatraz OS! Only $2,500.00! While I’m totally in favor of decreasing the number of devices I need to buy and maintain, the one you’re dreaming of eliminates the need for paper entirely? You don’t envision a market for certain print products? Much in the same way there is still a market for vinyl records?

TS: People lean on paper because it’s a known quantity and the alternatives aren’t always so well defined, especially for late adopters. But it’s only one medium, and as technologies continue to develop we’ll reach a point where we have a myriad of e-alternatives as good and better than paper. To reach that point though we need tech that is easily intuited and largely free of hassle. And we continue to inch toward that, but I mean, paper, come on, we glorify and celebrate it, but it’s an insolent child: it gets wet, it tears, it crumples, it cuts us when we aren’t paying attention. So paper is no angel; it’s just the best option we’ve had for a long time. That doesn’t mean we should hold it sacred. We should always be looking to improve. Will it have a place and a market moving forward, sure, but it will be a niche arena. Will something have been lost in that transaction, sure. But much will also have been gained. That’s just life, one big barter.

JP: Oh snap, this just got metaphysical. Like the renewed interest in vinyl records, it’s hard to say what the future holds for print. Have you ever consumed something (music, movie, book, otherwise) on a free model and then later purchased it because you liked it so much? I read a library copy of Cat’s Cradle at eighteen and recently purchased a paperback edition of my own so I could reread and keep it. I guess I see “e” as ephemeral because the range of devices (especially in conjunction with DRM) has brought the longevity of some of my purchases into question. I lost the copy of Consider the Lobster I bought on my old HTC Thunderbolt when I switched from Android to iOS. I’m approaching the DRM limit on some of the first albums I bought from iTunes, having transferred the files from new computer to new computer so many times. Now, I would think there is a way to recover the book on my new device, but I have never taken the time to figure it out. And one would hope I’ll be able to deactivate some of my old computers that are authorized in my iTunes, but again I have yet to take the time. So you can see how it seems ephemeral, no?

TS: Here I thought we were going to end this soon and then you go and introduce the question of ownership versus access. Touché, sir. Why not stoke this with the privacy rights lighter fluid while you’re at it? So yeah, I guess if I were to channel a youthful proletariat perhaps I’d suggest that in the (glorious new) e-realm access is ownership. And I can see a compelling argument that, functionally, subscription-based services provide you the electronic parallel of physical ownership. You’d “have” your book or journal or paper or whatever regardless of your platform or location. But, to circle back to my comment above, there are trade-offs: What guarantee do you have that X or Y will always be able to provide you access? What happens to the notes and peripheral personalizations you’ve made to the source if your access goes belly up? And what use to you would they be without the immediacy of the material? I don’t know. But I don’t think we can or should expect exact translations from the print world—they’re two entirely different expressions of a common source. And it’s not as if like questions don’t also proliferate for materials in the physical mediums. New editions come out, new formats are made available, materials go out of print, objects are lost, eaten, tarnished. Is that any less ephemeral, or is it just differently ephemeral?

JP: Ugh. Let’s not touch privacy here. I suppose my house could burn down right now and I’d lose that copy of Cat’s Cradle. At least my dog is at daycare today—since I’m not allowed to bring him to the office (*cough*he’s adorable*cough*). What’s the saying? You’re more comfortable with the devil you know. Well I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the devil I know—being paper—in that I hate moving books and storing paper documents/files/whatever. And I do think technology is fun, exciting, and makes a great deal of my life easier. But as we’ve established, for now I feel like a print version of a book seems more accessible and permanent. I, for one, welcome your future omni device as our new overlord.

TS: Your absolute agreement with me, which, honestly, was never in doubt, seems like as good a place as any to call it a day on this. Maybe next time we can talk about that long Salon interview between Patton Oswalt and David Daley about comedy and self-censorship and whether or not Oswalt’s comedian-orator status extends him into the realm of public intellectual.