October 22, 2013

Pressing issues in print

Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press

Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press

Courtesy of Chicago Artists Resource

Tell me what you read, and I will tell you what you are. Or, better yet: Tell me how you read. We are scholars in the era of the E-book and The Pirate Bay, and if we can’t always choose which books we’re going to pore over at least now we have the power to choose how we do it. Are we old-world academics, or students of the mighty pixel? Do we still barricade ourselves in the library, or are we a breed of more liberated intellectuals? And what’s the deal with that kid who’s always sitting in the poplar tree on the quads?

Of course all inquiries into the habits of the UChicago undergrad must begin in the creature’s natural habitat, the Regenstein Library. Here students congregate to drink coffee, play Minecraft, and occasionally read. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—by its own admission, the Reg is first and foremost a safe and welcoming environment where students meet to pursue knowledge, whatever that might entail (e.g., Seminar on Applied Sexuality, 12–1 a.m. daily, fifth floor bookstacks). Still, all those dusty books must get lonely back there in the stacks, waiting for some hapless grad student to stumble upon them by chance and take them home.

But why bother with library rentals when you can easily own that book forever? On Marketplace or Amazon you can get a fucked-to-death copy of any book in existence for back-alley prices, and sometimes for free if you’re savvy and confident in your foot speed. Most of the students I spoke with tended to prefer this option to the library checkout system, which is often inconvenient: If the book is there at all, you could spend weeks in the stacks just trying to find it.

But there are other, more dignified ways to purchase your tomes. I asked a frequent patron of the Seminary Co-Op about this. Although he’s new to campus, first-year Gadiel Williams has already purchased five weighty course books from the shop this quarter. He treasures the Co-Op both for its extensive collection and for its place as a beloved and historic repository of knowledge—Hyde Park’s own Library of Alexandria. “I use Amazon pretty often actually, but if I need a book immediately, I come here,” Williams said. “I don’t have a sort of fixed love for this place, no. It’s just pretty handy.”

Hmm. OK. At least he still has some respect for the printed word, unlike those scoundrels who download all their readings, thus saving time and money whilst helping to conserve the environment. Rank charlatans, the lot of ’em. Granted, textbooks are becoming even more outrageously expensive every year, but you can’t put a price on the feel of a solid book in your hands, right?

 Not quite, says Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press and self-professed Kindle user. Kiely will be speaking on this very subject—that is, the fate of books and publishing in the post-digital world—on Tuesday at the Harris School. Despite heading the largest university press in the country, Kiely has no special proclivities for the printed word, nor any ill feelings toward e-books. “It’s a new format, not unlike the paperback was,” he said. “We now publish hardcover, paperback, and electronic copies. There are new challenges, of course, but there are some real benefits as well. We’re constantly evolving with the needs of our authors and our vendors.” Under his direction, the Press is capitalizing on the opportunities the new medium allows: Nearly all their publications are available in electronic copy, and they now offer some content exclusively online, such as their Chicago Shorts series. And, strange though it may seem, Kiely isn’t even entirely convinced that digital piracy is the devil.

“It’s a real hot-button item in the industry, whether piracy is really a detriment or not. Many feel that it amounts more to advertising than anything, although at the same time we have a duty to protect our authors’ copyright. So a whole new industry has arisen in the publishing world of protecting our products from piracy, while at the same time we’re not sure that that’s really a good thing to be doing.” Which is handy, because he is also fairly confident that textbook prices aren’t coming down anytime soon. (Anybody know a good torrent for Core Biology?)

So maybe it doesn’t matter too much if you’re holding a book, a laptop, a Kindle, or a Nook (LOL). Basically, it’s where you read that really counts. “I like to migrate when I read,” third-year Teddy Niemiec said. “Sometimes I’ll do it on my bed, sometimes I’ll do it on a couch. It really just depends on how my back is feeling.” And the quad remains a popular book-perusal location, weather permitting. On a sunny day in October it’s hard to walk more than a few feet without trampling on a copy of The Histories of the Kings of Britain, 4th edition paperback. We here at UChicago retain a strong and lively reading culture, however we might choose to express it. I personally tend to concentrate better while studying at a height, even if I do have trouble getting down from the tree afterward.