March 23, 2009
How Publishing Shapes Us
“Publishing by its very nature changes your value system.”
I was struck when my publishing friend Roy Carlisle suggested this might be the case. It set me thinking. Instinctively I felt he must be right. At the same time, I felt like such a proverbial fish immersed in the waters of publishing culture that I hadn’t the faintest notion what those changes might be.
Perhaps Andy Crouch’s Culture Making gives some clues. First, publishing is a culture-making enterprise—sometimes quite self-consciously so. It often seeks to intentionally shape the way we see and live in the world, while at the same time it creates cultural artifacts—books.
Second, in his opening chapter Crouch helpfully lays out how culture makes some things possible and other things impossible (or at least very difficult). He offers the example of the interstate highway system in the United States, which makes traveling from one city to another by car routine while making it almost impossible to ride a horse from, say, Boston to Philadelphia, as John Adams did on his way to the Continental Congress.
What does publishing make possible and impossible? Famously, it made the Reformation possible—or at least possible to spread more quickly and widely. It makes the dissemination of information and opinion to great swaths of the population possible. This may be obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is what publishing makes impossible or very difficult.
One thing Socrates worried about was the effect that writing, reading and (by implication) publishing would have. In the Phaedrus he argued that writing diminishes the memory. He was, of course, prescient on this point. While some do still memorize poetry or Scripture, it is largely a lost practice.
How else might publishing as an enterprise shape our values? Well, for book publishers, we value writing that is (typically) a hundred to three hundred pages in length. No matter how good a piece of writing may be, if it is only eight thousand words, it becomes a very tricky publishing proposition—almost impossible. So we value the (somewhat) extended foray into a topic and value less the shorter (though perhaps pithier) essay. (Will digital publishing eliminate or dimminish this barrier? We shall see.)
Book publishing also makes the “permanent” (in print, lasting at least hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years) possible. It makes more difficult the temporary, trial balloon. There aren’t many books out there subtitled: Hey, I’m Not Sure I’m Right about This, But Please Spend $25 on This Book and Tell Me What You Think.
Fortunately, blogging makes just such a thing quite possible.