“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
– HERMAN MELVILLE
Writing this, I am up in the air, on my way to New York, going on a holiday to a place I know so well since I’ve been so many times before. Yet, as I fill out my US customs form and answer “no” to the series of questions of what I am (not) carrying, I realize that I know where I am going, but I have no idea where I’m going. You know?
Lately, I’ve been so caught up with the practicalities of preparing for the bombardement of customs questions concerning my pregnancy and the anticipated suspicion in the “will-you-play-our-system-for-citizenship-to-your-baby” inquiry that I haven’t had the time to actually think about what we’re going to do the next three weeks. Not very typical of my way of planning a vacation, I tell you. This time, there’s no itinerary, no neighbourhood or new bookstores research (this is so off my usual track!!) and I haven’t looked into what is on in New York in late April/early May either – other than the sakura, of course (but that’s like common knowledge, right?) Understand that I am the type that builds holiday expectations by picturing my vacation visually in Insta-like snapshots as an important part of my mental preparation, and I usually conduct research on an academic scale in order to feel properly prepared and make sure that we don’t miss out on anything.
But not this time. The near future is a blur. And it kind of makes me anxious. (Or maybe it’s just the occasional turbulence).
Then the dots connect and things begin to fall into place. Ah, a light calm.
Right there. Somewhere high up south of the pancaky ice coast of Greenland, as I look out at the white horizon and down at the quietness of the arctic, I finally find the peace of mind to pick up Retrotopia. And already on the first page, Bauman rewards me for my patience and meets me right where I am, as has happened so many times before with his books – Community and Globalization, for instance. And in this his final book published shortly after his death earlier this year, my hero, the Polish sociologist, once again hits the nail with his opening reference to Paul Klee’s Angulus Novus(The Angel of History), where he quotes Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the piece:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Maybe it’s my current obsession with destinations and going somewhere, but in the midst of the “light turbulence” (which feels like a hurricane to me), this last phrase “the storm is what we call progress” sets in motion a series of thoughts that make me forget my fear of flying and focus on the storm that does in fact propels us into the future – or as I read Bauman: challenges that move you forward because they are just that, stormy and turbulent. And it makes me think about a famous Lincoln quote and our preoccupation within the book industry with hidden gems; the stories which nobody knows about (yet), but which everybody has the antenna for – aka The Next Big Thing (be it a book, author, genre, trend).
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
(Abraham Lincoln, 1862)
As you might know by now, I have this thing with future bookscapes (it’s what I do for a living, mind you), and in this quote from 155 years ago, Lincoln called on his present time for a new approach to the future, a new way of thinking in order to drive progress. Funny how it’s still relevant.
Old solutions will no longer make do for new problems.
We must rise with the occasion.
… It’s like the map has already been drawn and we know exactly where we’re going.
As I am straight out of the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna this April, the quote makes me think of the book professionals from all over the world that I just met. For an entire week, everybody (myself included) seemed very keen on professing this idea that we’re on the brink of a new dawn, or as The Bookseller (UK)stated in the introduction of its Bologna edition:
“Technology seems to be a huge part of this year’s fair [….] there seems a more measured way of looking at digital today – the solidity of print sales being used as a base to explore what’s next for the book […] augmented and virtual reality may just finally be the next big thing.”
It’s like the map has already been drawn and we know exactly where we’re going: the future is digital, it has to be! In the BookMachine, an editorial entitled “Print is not dead, so what’s next for it?” recently confirmed this: “Print hasn’t changed enough to compete with the behemoth of the e-book […] the creative industries are at the centre of a digital transformation.”
What is it about digital that makes us believe that it is the philosopher’s stone?
As I have said so many times before, here in the Ark Review and elsewhere, and frankly whenever I get the chance, I don’t believe print and digital are mutually exclusive, that one will rule over the other. And I can’t help but wonder why we keep insisting that all innovation must go fully digital? What is it about digital that makes us believe that it is the philosopher’s stone? And why are we so convinced that the print medium will have to change (or be modified) in order to stay relevant?
I believe in building bridges and think of digital and analogue inclusively. Not as a ‘versus’.
At the same time, I see how the fuss over “digital innovation” also seems to enhance a collective industry’s flirtation with bookish nostalgia, as digital does seem to have the effect of emphasizing the aesthetics of print, as spearheaded so beautifully these days by a series of really cool independent players.
Enter Bauman’s informed dissection of the aesthetics of the retrotopia once again. For in the introduction to this bad-ass book featuring a reversed clock on the front (pardon my French; coolest cover ever!) Bauman draws on prominent writers and literary scholars to play with this two-stringed idea of nostalgia on the one side as a romance, a sentiment of loss and displacement, and on the other a flirtation with one’s own fantasies. It’s an idea of an “elsewhere” – as in Thomas More’s Utopia– the almost possessed notion that there exists such an ideal home, a topos, this thing, a solid end product or final destination (call it what you will) that will finally solve the puzzle of the Next Big Thing. But as Bauman so precisely points out in Rushdian-like terms, the danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with the imaginary one.
So have we lost ourselves to the nostalgic fantasy of digital?
As Bauman paraphrases Oscar Wilde, fixing our gaze at the farthest horizon will inevitably blur our vision. Progress is indeed the realization of utopias, but the far horizon is really a blank, or as Wilde put it: “The Land of Plenty is banked in fog.”
The truth is we have no idea of where we are going as things these days can shift and change so fast. While we think we have an inkling, the future is admittedly a blur. A total blank.
So where does the road map take us then?
Books. Of course! (What else is there, right?) No, seriously, I would like to propose a turn from this neurotic distraction of a future “elsewhere” (which is also rather vague) to an idea of a future “everywhere”, which offers a more inclusive and optimistic take. It’s a concept I borrow from Heather Reyes and her book, An everywhere – A Little Book about Reading, where she – like others before her – uses reading as a bridge of (personal) transformation. Books are uniquely doorways that open up a world of new ideas which help her ride through the storm and overcome a struggle in her life, in this case, cancer. Books work as entry points to that mindspace or “everywhere of wonderlands,” where the dots are connected, revolutions are made and we interact, grow a little and move forward. And in the best of worlds, we move forward together.
[Insert god rays here and sing halleluja].
And while we are one that god rays-like vibe, I would like to wrap this up on a papal note. Because this week, one of the highlights of my social media feed was the Pope’s TED talk. Yes, you read that right. The Pope gave a TED talk and “urged an audience of technophiles and entrepreneurs to use their powers of curiosity and inquiry to explore and nurture the relationships that bond human beings to one another,” as The New York Times put it.
“Que sarebbe bello…” the Pope begins in informed Italian, “how wonderful it would be if the growth of technological and scientific innovation would lead to more equality and social inclusion.” As the TED conference was called The Future You, the Pope ponders how looking at tomorrow inevitably invites dialogue today about looking at the future through a You. I will not spoil it for you, as I really encourage you to watch and listen to the talk in its entirety, but what he essentially argues is that while we tend these days to focus inwardly on individual performance and what can the Big I contribute to the world, the future is really made up of a more outwardly You. Because everything is connected and everyone’s existence is tied to another’s, the future is made up of those magical encounters, where stories are shared and Is and Yous become an Us.
Life is about interactions, says the Pope, so don’t lock the door to the outside world.
Read. Interact. Connect.
The thing is that whether they come in a digital format or not, books satisfy our yearning for a community with a collective memory, as Bauman puts it – our longing for continuity in a fluid and fragmented world. They give us a sense of direction and commonality in experience, being our shared stories. They give us a language to speak with one another. They are the road map that paves the way for (future) encounters and interactions. Literature is that topos, or that space, where we meet-and-read and connect.
Not wonderlands for nothing, right?
So, if our future destination depends on a collective(‘s) willingness to take risks, we need to open the book and be prepared for the text in it. To be honest and empirical about our own progress and learn from our fears and mistakes. Take them for what they are and stop blaming ourselves for being such a wuss. Fear of flying. Come on. Accept it. Breathe.
Okay, so I’m in this plane. And as we close in on the North American coastline, and place names I now know how to pronounce come up on the screen, I smile quietly to myself as I remember a book recommendation and a quote that I want to share and pass on to you. The first one might be a bit off from the context of this conversation, but I’ll give it to you anyway. It is a book that keeps popping up in conversations with my fellow Arker and reading enthusiast, Emilie Bryde Bang-Jensen, namely Erica Jong’s book: Fear of Flying. It’s on my list and now (maybe) on yours, too?
The other reference is this Erin Hanson quote that says:
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What If I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
“What if you fly?”
My eyes are wide open, I’m staring out into the big blue. I’m embracing the bumps.
(Originally published in The Ark Review, May 2, 2017).