Print is dead. If not dead, then dying. And if not dying, then alive, on the mend, and arriving at another heyday. So much attention has been paid to the many disappearing acts of print that I’ve started to lose the plot, feeling reluctant to follow this strangely religious attachment to announcing the swan song of a medium and then proclaiming its imminent revival.
Print isn’t any more dead or dying than DIY, which is to say that it is and isn’t and also who cares? All of this hand-wringing about what’s happened to print, who’s killed it, or what year it broke makes up its own dying discourse, and I won’t bother with it, because I’m way more into the undead and that spooky scene. I won’t get into the smell of old books, their careful craftsmanship, or how bookworms are better in bed, because that’s nonsense as well. Books aren’t vintage or sexy because they’re some remnants of a bygone era. Reading books doesn’t magically transport you to the good-ole-days (which were pretty awful), or gift you a secret insight into our similarly awful present. Books don’t even need to be important to be around, and that’s alright.
Books are rad because they can be wicked smart and wicked stupid. You can fight about them one day and throw them out the next, and while ideally you wouldn’t, moving is the worst and books can be the first things to go (sorry, Feminine Mystique).
Releasing a book-themed issue of a zine-y webpaper seems to get at this logic of coexisting contradictions, which would signal the hybrid forms of the digitally tangible, intimately alienating, and living dead. When The Media declared its domain as fvckthemedia, posturing a bratty resistance to the would-be precedence of the objective over the multiple, it’d also meant to challenge the partitioning of the multiple into the bold-lettered columns of modern-day reporting: arts, food, politics, fashion, world. These categories seem convenient until they’re not, meaning that exceptions to the rule threaten to blur these divisive borders.
Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is a good example of a song that riffs off a literary work and then comments back on its source, providing, also, an excellent karaoke pick to inspire and frighten your friends. Patti Smith is a good example of a figure that similarly defies categorization, simultaneously embodying poet//musician//visual artist//punk, with the dominant strand difficult to define. This isn’t to say we should all aspire at becoming everything (unless you truly are the Patti Smith of your scene), but we also shouldn’t be disturbed when our identities spill over into foreign territory, outside interests, degrees, or self-determined niches.
A few years ago I worked at an independent bookstore that was not a bookstore. That this space would house, at given times, a zine library, a video production company, a show space, and a gallery would present the possibility of a dutifully promiscuous venue, where media and venue exceeded distinct and exclusive pairings. For the first time in what felt like forever, I also didn’t know where or how I fit in, or what ideas I was wedded to. And so my reality seemed rich with a critical vagueness.
I taught my first freeskool class there and cleaned the bathroom there and one time climbed onto the roof and realized I could die there (I didn’t). On rare occasions I took dates into the back and we’d make out next to the zines, which I later imagined they’d be chill with. I can’t say for sure it was haunted, but on some nights I felt the presence of something looming, like the Ghost of DIY (oOoooOo). All of this is to say that thinking about books also means thinking about the spaces they occupy, the people around them, and the traces they leave behind.
I won’t deny that books can be fantastically boring— and it’s because of this that attending a reading will perhaps never reach the apotheosis of going to a show. But this is kind of sad, too. Having worked at showspaces and bookstores and the frankenspace of both, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when people jump at the chance of live music, yet balk at the charms of spoken word. This is a shame because some of the strangest, queerest folks are writers, and maybe not quite as eager to share their weird ways without a korg, guitar, or backing band.
The fact of books conjuring up this dusty image, of the way things used to be, and of provoking the necessary anxiety about their obsolescence might obscure the broader questions of who gets to make books and how they’re circulated. When we’re thinking about books, we might otherwise think about Amazon warehouse workers, emergent POC and trans authors, and the stories that are or aren’t accounted for in popular imagination.
As for lit or literature, it’s pretty clear that literature has its own fraught stakes and power relations that shouldn’t go uncontested. One of the methods of exposing these stakes is the granular, critical approach that would seek to ask why some texts have been counted in or out of the literary record. In my strange otherworld as a doctoral student, I do this kind of reading often, queering the canon and critiquing the bounds of what literature constitutes.
The other method, and possibly the more interesting and vapid one, is to contest the literary category by just applying it to whatever you want. Fan fiction, text messages, spam mail, MySpace entries, and straight up garbage all bear reading with enough patience or fondness. Poring through a whole text message relationship might reveal the minutiae guiding the ebbs and flows of a romance that’s run its course, and when you then accidentally drop your phone on your face, you’ll know that you’ve read something touching and important.
So, by all means, read books. But read other things too: zines, menus, signs, habits, situations, and each other. All of this agonizing over what’s alive or not might be better spent asking why we’re still interested in closing off certain media, or how we might open them up further, explosively, toward new and dangerous possibilities.