What might life without books look like, and how will the shift to digital texts and images change news narratives? Earlier this month, Nieman Lab staffer Megan Garber wrote about the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”—the idea that the reign of printed texts will come to be seen as a brief period in human history.
Following up on Garber’s piece, we spoke this week with former journalist and current director of the Harvard University Library system Robert Darnton. In a series of essays online at The New York Review of Books, Darnton has been offering his own thoughts on the future of books and libraries in a Google-dominated world. His essays keep an eye on morphing concepts of narrative, including the changing nature of stories in journalism.
News, he writes, “is not what happened but a story about what happened.” Darnton points out that far from what we might imagine as absolute trust in the printed word, readers have been skeptical for centuries of the stories that have appeared in their newspapers and newspaper equivalents.
Darnton worked at Newark’s Star-Ledger in the late 1950s and at The New York Times in the 1960s. Given his background, I was curious to get his thoughts on the impact the decline of print will have on news narratives. In our discussion, Darnton linked our current journalistic trends to Walter Winchell’s radio broadcasts and newspapers in 18th-century France, suggesting that news stories in the digital future have some things in common with those of the past. Here are excerpts from our talk:
(For this conversation, we use the word “narrative” in its broader sense, sometimes referring to classic narrative journalism and sometimes simply meaning story format or structure.)
You’ve been looking at the history of books for a long time. Do you think digital natives understand the concept of story differently than people who grew up reading printed books and newspapers?
It’s a pretty cosmic question. I’m not sure I’m big enough to answer it, but I can at least offer some thoughts. Where is it that people get their notions of a story? We use the word as if it’s self-evident, but it seems to me that there are many different kinds of conceptions of stories. We may get them as small children from children’s books and from tales, just folklore, which was the classic place in the past for people to acquire notions of narrative, but they could come from lots of other directions.
Notions of narrative have changed, and the way people acquire those notions is very specific in time and place. For my own part, I’ve been fascinated with the connection between news and stories. When I was a newspaper reporter doing a kind of boot camp at the Newark Star-Ledger back in 1958, I was basically doing crime reporting. I tried hard to understand what the veterans in the police headquarters in Newark considered a story. It was a very interesting experience, because there was a shared conception of narrative, of what constituted news, but it wasn’t self-evident to me as a college kid trying to pick up the craft.
One of the things that immediately struck me is that I would go collect something called the “squeal sheets”—a typed-out record of every single complaint that came to the police headquarters in Newark. They just poured in, so I went through the squeal sheets and come back to the veterans, who just spent their time playing poker. I did the leg work for everyone. When I came across something that might be a story, I’d ask them, and if they thought it was a story, they’d have me check it out. Everyone shared everything. There were no scoops, but it if seemed worthwhile, they would then look into it and phone it in.
One of the things that struck me in the squeal sheets but that I hadn’t noticed at first was the letter “B” or “W” that came after every reference to a victim or a suspect. It took me a while to realize that they meant black or white. Anything that happened to black people in Newark was not considered news. So there was a kind of race filter that functioned, and this was totally new to me. My point is that I think that the way newspaper reporters are socialized, the way they pick up storytelling techniques in reporting news, their apprenticeship is crucial in their understanding and the public understanding of what constitutes a story.
That’s changed, obviously, with the decline of newspapers and the explosions of all kinds of other communications, such as blogs. I think were in a quite a different world, a world where, on the receiving end and the producing end, the format for stories and the notion of narrative has changed.
What changes do you see in our notion of narrative?
It seems to me there’s been a considerable shift in news narratives. In the case I was talking about, it was tabloid reporting. There was a lot of stability then in the way reporters went after news and wrote it up and the way people read it. There were implicit conventions in the case of not just tabloids but also The New York Times: things such as the lead story being in the far right column, and then the off-lead in the left column, what would appear above and below the fold. There was an implicit understanding of what constituted news and how news was organized, not just the writing.
That world has really disappeared—I’m just talking about newspapers now. None of my students read a printed newspaper. I ask them every year, and they all get their news online, so they don’t even have a front page the way people did in the ’50s up to the ’80s. What appears on their computers screens is something quite different. They’re used to thinking of menus and clicking on things that interest them that often show up on the left side of their screen, and then jumping around. They’re used to very short units of narrative that are quite different from a column-length story of say 800 words that would appear in the newspaper.
In a way, the bite-size, nugget kinds of news that they get online are closer to the Walter Winchell radio broadcasts, where you would get a flash in which he would repeat maybe three sentences, and there would be a buzz and then another news flash. We’re going back to a different notion of what the unit of news is, and therefore a different kind of story.
American narrative journalism has looked very much to fiction in books and drawn its inspiration from the classic narrative arc. Do you think there will still be a place for this consciously literary storytelling? In what ways do you think that this literary storytelling is likely to go away or change when it comes to journalism?
I’m not very good as a prophet of the past, and I’m really terrible as a prophet of the future, but you can try to get some sense of trajectories. I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs, but when I do tune in on them, I don’t see inverted pyramid lead stories in anything that corresponds very closely to the printed version of news that I read in my daily newspaper.
What’s going to happen in the future? I think that if you just consider nonfiction in general, there is a decline in cover-to-cover reading of books. People may jump around in books they way they’re used to jumping from blog to blog on their computers, so that nature of reading is changing, and that probably means the nature of writing is changing as well. It could be that writing all kinds of nonfiction will draw on different expectations and habits on the part of readers.
Does that mean that books will be more fragmented, that there won’t be a consistent narrative line that runs right through them? That may well be the case, and if so—this is a stretch—but it’s very much like modernistic writing in general. After all, you don’t have one continuous stream of narrative in all kinds of writing since Joyce. A lot of writers now like to hit the reader with fragments of narrative, and not have a continuous line in time or description, but rather to jolt the readers with a series of disconnected units. It’s the kind of jolting that you get also in movies, where things move much faster, the camera doesn’t dwell on scenes but jumps from thing to thing, which I think is creating a new sensitivity on the part of people towards all kinds of information, whether it’s visual or printed or digital.
Born-digital texts read by so-called digital natives are setting up something quite different from what older people were used to. I think the notion of nonconsecutive narrative—of narrative that is divided into fragments and not organized in a clear line of development—those kinds of stories may be more prevalent than they were before.
You talk about the difficult, solitary work of literary creation, and have written that you don’t think the social networking of the digital world will produce another Melville or Dickens. You also wrote about the more communal storytelling that rose out of preliterate cultures. Do you think the kinds of nonfiction and fiction stories we tell will return to a more communal storytelling?
I should preface this by saying that I don’t know—I’m not very confident about my sense of what will happen. But I do see a strange sort of parallel which goes back beyond the 19th century, linking ways of communicating information in the 18th century with what is going on now. This may seem farfetched, but I actually think there’s something to it. I wrote for The New York Review of Books blog on it.
In my more recent work as an academic doing research on the 18th century, I’ve been able to identify bestsellers in 18th-century France. The bestsellers were of what you could call a journalistic nature, about current events. Because it was forbidden under the absolute monarchy to write books about current events, they were all underground books. But they were bestsellers, they circulated everywhere, and they were very widely read.
I did a study of them in a book I published recently, and one thing that amazed me as I began reading more and more of them, because these were books that had been completely forgotten by literary scholars—is that they were plagiarizing from each other all over the place. Plagiarism is in some ways an anachronistic term. They were just lifting passages and gluing them together with other passages. The books were a sort of collage.
It turns out that this was true of newspapers in the 18th century, too. Newspapers were just a series of disconnected paragraphs, before the existence of reporters and editors. I’m talking newspapers in London or Paris around say, 1750. You just had one paragraph that would recount one thing, and then another paragraph that would follow without headlines or typographical clues, and the paragraphs were self-contained bite-size units that told a story in two or three sentences.
The people who wrote them were known as “paragraph men.” Paragraph men picked up news in cafés and coffee houses in London would and write it up in a single paragraph on a sheet of paper and take it to a composer, a printing shop, and that’s how newspapers developed. And they pulled paragraphs from each other all the time.
That was going on in books, too. The books were built out of paragraphs, little anecdotes that could be rearranged in many different kinds of pieces. What I had thought was a literature composed of narratives like The Private Life of Louis XV, when you looked at it up close, it was a mosaic built out of these very small anecdotes, paragraph-type bits of information.
I think that’s what blogs are like now. People are seeing paragraph-length accounts of events often mixed with commentary on those events. They in a Wiki-like fashion will reply with comments of their own. This world of fragmented information is in a strange way closer to what people had experienced in the period before the 19th century and the development of a Dickensian-type novel.
I actually think that this sort of historical perspective can give us some sense of the shifts in expectations on the part of readers and narrative convention on the part of writers.
You’ve reported for newspapers, been involved with publishing, done research on books and run a huge library system—you’ve had a foot in a lot of different camps related to narrative. Do you think that these past and present informational mosaics can add up to a kind of narrative?
Well, yes. The people who put together the mosaic created a narrative out of it. I can actually demonstrate this by selecting chunks of text out of the books that show how they were taken out of books but glued together by bits of prose provided by the author. It was possible to combine paragraphs or anecdotes in such a way to recount the life of a king, Louis XV, or the history of a country, France, or sometimes particular episodes. So yes, there was an organizing intelligence at work. But I think it was an intelligence of a sort that the French call a bricoleur, someone who pieces together bits of information in order to create a pattern.
Is anyone doing that kind of piecing today with blogs and so on? I don’t know. It could be that it takes place in the mind of the reader as the reader jumps from one thing to another. With linking you’ve got a kind of implicit mosaic at work, don’t you? You read a blog, and you see a link to another blog. Or you get an email, and someone recommends something through a link, and you click on it and create your own pathway through these bits of disconnected information and come out with some kind of organization—narrative would be too strong a word—some sense of the interconnectedness of things.
When he presented recently on the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” Thomas Pettitt talked about encouraging his students to take books and tear them up to understand they’re made objects and not automatically a vessel for any greater truth. Do you see books or the idea of story that books have enshrined as fundamentally different than other ways of communicating information?
I haven’t really studied his argument, but I agree with the notion of the book as an artifact. One of the things we stress is that authors don’t create books. They write texts. The texts are then worked over by editors, designers, compositors and printers and so on. These cultural intermediaries create these things that we call a book. Readers sometimes think that these creations are exactly what the author had in mind and are the direct product of the author’s imagination.
Maybe I’m agreeing with Pettitt in that I’m insisting on a kind of consciousness about the artifice of piecing books together. And I think students are often not aware of that at all. They often take the book for granted as a self-evident object that’s a familiar part of their everyday life, and don’t realize the way in which it is the product of so much what publishers call “value added” but what is actually craft that shapes its meaning very, very significantly.
How this relates to communication through electronic means is not altogether clear. But the physical book, the printed codex, obviously is very different from the kind of thing that does appear in the stream, and the act of reading it physically has got to be very different.
It strikes me that we scroll down on our computers. We even use the word scroll, in a way that recalls the existence of the so-called volumen, that is, books before the codex was invented sometime around the birth of Christ. So when people used to read books, they read them on rolls. To unroll a book, believe me, is a very different experience than the experience of paging through a text. Are we back to a world of rolling, so to speak—of moving through a text in a quite a different way? I think we are.
I don’t want to overdo it, but it’s reasonable, I believe, to assume that reading itself is changing in character. That’s got to be, in the long run, something that will influence news, fictional narratives and nonfiction accounts of things. The whole landscape is moving now, and we don’t know where it’s going, but we do sense the change under our feet.