Sustaining Digital Scholarship and Culture

Kyle Bean, The Future of Books

In late 2010, I was privileged to be part of the the Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture Group (lead: Susan Brown; other members included Di Brandt, Andrew Bretz, Lynn Copeland, Patricia Demers, Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Daniel Fischlin, Dean Irvine, Ashok Mathur, Hannah McGregor, Robyn Read, Susan Rudy, Stan Ruecker, Chantal Savoie, Ray Siemens, Stephen Slemon, Robin Sokoloski, Ron Walker, Ann Wilson and me). With the help of a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis grant, we wrote a report called Lasting Change. That report is now available.

The report reflects the growing concern in the scholarly and cultural communities, and beyond, regarding the sustainability of Canada’s digital knowledge and heritage. Canada’s digital advantage is only of value if it can be carried into the future. Canadians must meet the challenge of preserving and enhancing scholarly and artistic knowledge production and our culture in a digital environment. Therefore, the report reviews the current state of knowledge about the sustainability of digital scholarship and related cultural activity in Canada and identifies research opportunities that emerge from consideration of the literature.

Both an executive summary and the full report (as a PDF) are available for perusal.

(Image by Kyle Bean: “The Future of Books.”)

Artists as RADAR: McLuhan Reading Poetry

 “Artists,” wrote Ezra Pound, “are the antennae of the race.”{{1}} In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Understanding Media, so does Marshall McLuhan, who updates and expands the metaphor:

Art as radar acts as an ‘early alarm system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If an art is an ‘early warning system,’ to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.

When radar was new it was found necessary to eliminate the balloon system for city protection that had proceeded radar. The balloons got in the way of the electric feedback of the new radar information.{{2}}

As Friedrich Kittler, one of McLuhan’s most successful contemporary intellectual heirs, puts it, “Information technology is always already strategy or war” {{3}}. War elicits new forms of communications, retrofits old ones for its own purposes, and violently blasts existing media landscapes into drastic new forms, producing unexpected juxtapositions.

World War II, in fact, was the force that put Marshall McLuhan in contact with two of the leaders of the early 20th century avant-gardes: Pound and Wyndham Lewis. McLuhan met Lewis while teaching in St. Louis in 1943, and maintained a close working friendship over the next two years, while both were living in Windsor, Ontario. McLuhan and Hugh Kenner traveled to St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1948 to meet Pound, where he was incarcerated for putting his “poet-as-antenna” aphorism into practice, producing radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini’s fascist government during WWII. McLuhan had read Pound with enthusiasm while a student, long before the war, and corresponded with him for several years after. By the time McLuhan joined the faculty at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in 1946, he was in all likelihood the only expert on modernist poetry at the time in all of Ontario {{4}}. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand notes that in later years, McLuhan always credited the poets of the modernist avant-gardes as “the real inspiration for his media studies” {{5}}.

Contemporary journalism and popular culture, when it thinks about McLuhan at all, tends to see him from the wrong end of the telescope, positioning him as a technologist and a futurist rather than as someone deeply invested in language and literary tradition. In the masthead of its first issue in March 1993, Wired magazine declared McLuhan its “patron saint,” and for many commentators, this marked McLuhan’s return to a position of public legitimacy after the indifference that his works faced for much of the 70s and 80s. The first actual article on McLuhan in Wired (4.01, Jan 1996), Gary Wolf’s “The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool,” describes him as scholar, teacher, social, political, and economic analyst … but there’s no mention of poets or poetry anywhere.

It’s an odd blind spot, because McLuhan’s writing, is obsessed with, saturated with, avant-garde poetry and poetics, both as form and subject matter. Take the only known letter from McLuhan to Harold Innis (1951) as an example. Though he is arguably even more important to the formation and theory of Communication Studies than McLuhan, who described his Gutenberg Galaxy as a “footnote” to Innis’s work {{6}}, Innis was rarely read outside of Canadian Communications circles until the resurgence of interest in McLuhan’s work in the 90s. This letter is important because it’s not only one of the first clear statements of McLuhan’s interest in the importance of “technological form” over “informative purpose” (that is, “content”){{7}}, but also of his notion of “organizing an entire school of studies” around the subject of communication {{8}}. So what does he write about, when attempting to attract the attention of Innis, a political economist and historian by training? Avant-garde poetry and poetics.

What McLuhan sees in avant-garde technique is a vehicle for discussing the “function and effect of communication on society,” which he thought was the only thing that would keep English departments from going the way of the study of Latin and Greek {{9}}. He seizes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” as the signature method of the first avant-garde, Symbolism. Right or wrong, throughout his career, McLuhan would use the word “Symbolism” as shorthand for anything collaged, because of its ostensible etymology as sym-ballein, or “thrown together.” In terms of its usefulness for cultural analysis, McLuhan reads Symbolist technique as a diagram of the way that stories on the front page of a newspaper butt up against each other {{10}}. Here is the artist at work as cultural antenna: pointing directly to a formal quality of media that was previously so close to us, so familiar, that it was entirely invisible; this is a phenomenon that Innis famously refers to in his own work as “bias”. In his introduction to the 1st edition of Innis’s The Bias of Communication, McLuhan writes of using avant-garde poetics “to organize the data of the historian and the social scientist” {{11}}, a direct argument for the value of reading the records and statistics of technology through cultural forms.

McLuhan’s writing style is, infamously, as poetic as his reading strategies. This is especially true in his work with graphic designers, like Counterblast, which draws both its name and style from Wyndam Lewis’s Blast, but it also applies to his conventionally typeset prose. In response to one critic, McLuhan wrote, “My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them theories is to miss my satirical intent altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of prose any time I choose to do so” {{12}}. McLuhan’s “mosaic” prose style, based on the juxtaposition of multiple fragments to create startling and memorable effects, culminates in the creation of his own literary form: the “probe”. The probe is a sort of weapons-grade aphorism that uses punning, metonymy and other literary tropes to staple two or more disparate ideas together. Probes alter perception by associating ideas rather than serving as building blocks in a logical argument. Their purpose is to raise questions more than provides answers; probes are heuristics, machine made of words whose job is to help us to figure out how we know what we know.

Part of the problem is the contemporary attitude about poetry other than music lyrics, or, what I like to call the penicillin theory of poetry. Writing poetry is now a minoritarian art form, roughly equivalent in scale, economics and impact to making doilies for the church rummage sale (and I say this, candidly, as a poet, a publisher and a scholar of poetry). To save ourself from admitting the truth of this situation, we use poetry as a kind of cultural inoculation, putting it in the ad space on buses and subway trains and congratulate ourselves about how enlightened we are. All that reading poetry on the subway does, though, is absolve you from having to actually buy and read a book of poetry or, God forbid, go to a poetry reading.

This situation has been a little more than a century in the making, and has everything to do with changes in the kind of media that we use. To cite Friedrich Kittler again, whose thinking on the subject is heavily indebted to both McLuhan and Innis, before the second half of the nineteenth century, poetry had a monopoly on the delivery of vivid cultural experiences. That changed in the mid 19th century, when virtually every form of electromechanical media reached a mass audience within a few decades. For Kittler, from the era of silent cinema onward, “Film establishes immediate connections between technology and the body […] which make imaginary connections unnecessary” {{13}}. Moreover, “Film exhibits its figures in such detail that ‘the realistic’ is ‘raised into the realm of the fantastic,’ which sucks up every theme of imaginative literature” {{14}}. People continue to write lyric poetry, of course, in the same way that people used to keep cheering long after Elvis had left the building. Or sighting him after he’d died. But with poetry’s powers diminished, from Kittler’s perspective, “The new sciences and technologies made it necessary [for poets] to renounce the imagination” {{15}}. After the turn of the century, all poetry could do that was new was to comment on is its own material qualitities … which, beginning with Mallarmé and Christian Morgenstern, was the source of the very avant-gardes that so fascinated McLuhan. The reason that early avant-garde technique is a useful tool for thinking about technological form, then, is that it is technological form, and that it talks about that form continuously.

Another, related problem is our tendency to divide how we think about the world, into what the sciences are allowed to say with credibility, and what poetry (in its diminished capacity) and the other arts are allowed to say with credibility. Bruno Latour has written about this problem extensively, most directly in We Have Never Been Modern. His major point is that such “Great Divides” between the territories of disciplines means that all sorts of hybrid objects fall through the cracks, and the processes that create those hybrids remains “invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable” {{16}}. In contemporary society, such hybrid objects are precisely the ones that are the most interesting and the most controversial. As McLuhan observed, “The problem with a cheap, specialized education is you never stop paying for it” {{17}}. In an era of skills-based, “practical” education, we desperately need interdisciplinary thinkers, people to think about what’s NOT been taken into account.

What would it mean to take McLuhan’s poetics seriously, and to take contemporary experimental poetry seriously? What I want to argue, shamelessly and polemically, is that it’s time take another look at the poetic qualities of the excluded languages of the everyday: the language of science, the language of the Internet, the language of graffiti. Not “poetry” in a generic poetry-on-the-subway and greeting card sort of way, but a specific kind of writing. Annoying, provocative writing that many people might not consider to be poetry at all, but what Latour would call hybrid texts: writing that is too odd or too difficult to classify using any other category than … poetry.

Published in Matrix.

Featured image by brewbooks.

[[1]]Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934. 73.[[1]]
[[2]]McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. xi.[[2]]
[[3]]Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. 371.[[3]]
[[4]]Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger: A Biography. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 41.[[5]]
[[6]]”Introduction to The Bias of Communication. vol. 8. McLuhan, Marshall. Marshall McLuhan Unbound. 21 vols. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005. 8.[[6]]
[[7]]Molinaro, Matie, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, eds. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 1987. 221.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 220.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 222.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 221.[[10]]
[[11]]McLuhan, “Introduction,” 5.[[11]]
[[12]]qtd. in Theall, Donald F. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. 67.[[12]]
[[13]]Kittler, 244.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 246.[[14]]
[[15]]Ibid., 250.[[15]]
[[16]]Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. 34[[16]]
[[17]]McLuhan, Marshall, and David Carson. The Book of Probes. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. 531.[[17]]

The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual

In between all of the baby-feeding and the moving and the new-job-starting, I made a little art. “The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual” is a broadside that was commissioned by the 2010 Scream Literary Festival (for their “Agents Provocateurs” theme) and designed by Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash of The Emergency Response Unit. The image is from a collaboration between RM Vaughan and Jared Mitchell. The text is the weaponized version of a paper that I wrote on the subject of that collaboration … a paper which will shortly be in print in Open Letter.

UPDATE: Print copies of this broadside are once again available from TERU’s Etsy Shop, but they won’t last forever. Which is sort of the point of making literary ephemera, anyway. I’ve attached a PDF of the highest quality version in my possession to this post (link below), which will look good on your screen, but doesn’t hold a candle to the genuine item.

The Ethically Incomplete Broadside

Finding Bern Porter

Sometimes the best writers of poetry aren’t poets at all. At such times, the job of the poet isn’t to write poems, but to find them.

The major practitioner of found poetry as poetry was Bern Porter. As Porter’s biographer James Schevill notes, the use of found material is a major component of 20th century art {{1}}, but few writers have devoted the bulk of their career to it, and no one developed the practice to the extent that Porter did. Formally trained as a physicist and engineer, Porter worked both on the development of the cathode ray television tube for the Acheson Colloids Corporation {{2}} and on the electromagnetic separation of uranium for the Manhattan Project in the Physics Department at Princeton {{3}}. On August 8, 1945, the day after the USA dropped an atomic bomb — the fruits of Porter’s labour — on the city of Hiroshima, Porter announced his resignation and never returned to work {{4}}. He subsequently spent much of the rest of his long life developing an expressly pacifist, intermedial, interdisciplinary fusion of scientific and artistic sensibilities that he referred to as “Sciart” {{5}}. The chief results of Sciart were the objects and texts that Porter referred to as “Founds”.

Over the course of Porter’s life, he published four volumes of Founds out of a projected series of seven: Found Poems (Something Else Press, 1972), which Porter wished to call Everybody’s Don’t Book (Dog Ear Press, 1984); and Sweet End (Dog Ear Press, 1989). Founds often include fragments of text, but “many are wordless, stemming from Porter’s insights into technology’s visual appeal” {{6}}. But founds were not just limited to words and images; they could also be objects {{7}}, sounds {{8}}, or even subject positions: “In the end,” writes Schevill, “Porter himself becomes a Found” {{9}}.

Like the objets trouvé of Dada, Surrealism and Merz, Porter’s Founds could be either physical objects or signs on paper. They were sometimes recontextualized without alteration, and sometimes modified in small but significant ways, such as cutting of portions of them away, or, conversely, combining them with other found elements to create a larger synthesis. Yet there are also some important differences between objets trouvé and Founds. Despite the apparent similarities of the objects themselves, they appear within significantly different discursive formations that are separated from each other by two factors: the horrific physical damage and considerable epistemological impact of atomic weaponry, and the rising importance of visuality as an effect of global mass media {{10}}.

Following World War II, Porter spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, especially in Hiroshima, attempting to come to grips with the consequences of his wartime employment. It was during this period that Porter began to make connections between his artistic production and a growing interest in civic planning. In the context of post-nuclear and the building blocks for the construction of a new one. Schevill cites Wastemaker: 1926-1961 (Abyss Publications, 1972) as the most important of Porter’s early collections of Founds. Porter’s comment that he chose the title “to imply not only the careless person who makes waste, but one who “remakes waste, who finds waste that is both significant and beautiful” demonstrates his own ambivalence about this process {{11}}.

To underline the shift in milieu that makes Founds different from objets trouvé, Schevill begins his discussion of Porter’s Founds not with Duchamp, Picasso and Schwitters, but with Tadeusz Kantor’s The Ruins of Odysseus. Kantor staged the play in a bombed-out building in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the 1940s. The set decorations consisted entirely of “grotesque fragments of war” — found objects scavenged from the ruins of the city by the play’s cast. For Kantor, who at that point had no knowledge of Duchamp’s Readymades, “When the room was filled with objects, the text of the play lost its importance. What was important was constructing the environment, and the action of finding, choosing, and bringing those objects in” {{12}}. Making sense of Founds, then, will require not a hermeneutics of the object or text, but an analysis of the circumstances of their production, circulation, exchange, and the transfigurations that occur as they change contexts, with particular attention to the social space around them.

from objets trouvé: their imbrication in global media networks. Because of his prewar work on the development of the cathode ray tube and his postwar work at the University of California’s Engineering Materials Laboratory, Porter was acutely aware of the material conditions that brought about this shift in context. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of Porter’s founds expressly engage with mass media forms, especially photography, telephony and the post. For example, like Moholoy-Nagy and Man Ray before him, Porter produced a number of photograms (images created by placing objects directly on photographic paper and them exposing them to light — a kind of cameraless photography). Here again, Schevill argues for a contextual difference:

The process of “snapping a picture,” capturing a certain kind of external light, becomes a battle with an internal light that has burst out of confinement to exert primal force. If Man Ray’s and Moholy Nagy’s [sic] photograms achieved a distinctively decorative quality, Porter’s struggled to show — like Jackson Pollock’s explosive drip paintings that soon followed — the power of a new energy to distort, threaten, and thrill. {{13}}

Similarly, Porter’s The Manhattan Telephone Book 1972 “reveals the lonely anonymity and increasing defensiveness of a system that advertises open, friendly communication” {{14}}. It is in the ambivalence and tension that results from Finding an object and recontextualizing it that a productive critique emerge.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the most visible practitioners of found art have been Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, editors of (what else?) FOUND magazine, its accompanying trade publications and its website. The “One snowy winter night in Chicago a few years back, Davy went out to his car and found a note on his windshield — a note meant for someone else, a guy named Mario,” a noted they “loved” so much that they kept it to show to friends. When they began sharing their find, Rothbart and Bitner discovered that their friends had similar objects to show them in return. It was at that point that they “decided to start a magazine called FOUND, a showcase for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people’ve picked up.” After spending a year collecting materials, “then with scissors and tape we slapped together the first issue of FOUND in June of 2001.” The magazine was, at first, an annual production; the first of several trade books collecting items from the magazine appeared in 2004. “We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool” (Rothbart and Bitner), states the site, but beyond that vague admission, there’s no indication that the basic gesture of their enterprise has been an important technique of cultural production for the last century.

Substituting for the lack of history — or any vestige of critique — in this narrative is a sort of sentimental nostalgia that Fredric Jameson characterizes as one of the hallmarks of the cultural logic of late capitalism in Postmodernism. Nostalgia, argues Jameson, is not about “representing” historical content (including “our own present and immediate past”), but about conveying a sense of “pastness” through the stylistic connotation of physical qualities {{15}}. The love for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things that FOUND has found, then, is a perfect match for their digital layouts of torn scraps of keys secured with adhesive tape that fill its web pages and trade paperback books.

This last point is important because, though FOUND mimicks the production style of the pre-desktop-publishing zines of the 1980s, it is another sort of entity entirely. From its second issue onward, FOUND already imagined itself as a commodity, complete with barcode, seven pages of carefully ironized classified ads, including a FOUND t-shirt and a CD that presage the rang of customizable goodies on the website’s “Merch” page, and, tellingly, a subscription form that is the only pristine, digitally typeset page in the issue. When it comes to selling itself, FOUND has always been all about clarity. The cover of FOUND: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World, the first paperback collection of the magazine (published in 2004), removes all doubt, announcing itself as “The National Bestseller.”

As Jameson contends, the commodity is the “other face” of postmodern nostalgia, and it exerts a powerful bidirectional influence. As simulacra like FOUND emerge, nostalgia reaches back and transforms early editions of the works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Porter and even the first few issues of FOUND from historical documents into coveted collectors’ editions that fetch magnitudes more than their original cover prices on eBay and ABEBooks. As “a bit of yuppie furnishing,” they are every bit as contemporary as their networked digital duplicates. The latter also continue to transform, foregrounding themselves “as language and as communication (rather than as artistic production in any older sense)”, connecting “the omnipresence of the media as such” to the entire assemblage {{16}}. It should come as no surprise, then, that editor Davy Rothbart has parlayed his reputation from FOUND into a career not as an artist, but as a radio and print journalist, regularly contributing to public radio’s This American Life (again, selections of which can be purchased as a double CD from the magazine’s website) and a range of leading periodicals, including The Believer, High Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others.

… but the chain of dialectical transformations doesn’t stop there. Borrowing from the vocabulary of communication and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Jameson notes that the historical elements caught up in and transformed by a postmodern digital frame can “slowly take on the positive and active values of conscious resistance, as choices and symbolic acts that now repudiate the dominant poster-and-decorative culture and thereby assert themselves as something emergent rather than something residual” {{17}}. Out of the digital textual echoes of a revolutionary analog avant-garde past, it may be possible to imagine a utopian future. Jameson is quick to point out that there are no guarantees that any such utopia will ever materialize out of the incessant formation and destruction of assemblages of various signs, discourses, subjects and objects caught in the cultural ferment, but a provocative question arises. What happens when we start discussing possibilities instead of the already accomplished? What happens if we start to consider the problem from the point of view of potential? What, in other words, if we think about the Findable instead of the Found?

(to be continued elsewhere …)

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Finding Bern Porter.” Matrix 87 (fall 2010): 54-55.

[[1]]Schevill, James Erwin. Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Me.: Tilbury House, 1992. 5.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., 46.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., 59-61.[[3]]
[[4]]Ibid., 73.[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 6.[[5]]
[[6]]Ibid., 304.[[6]]
[[7]]Ibid., 246.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 261.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 271.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 297.[[10]]
[[12]]Ibid., 296.[[12]]
[[13]]Ibid., 94-95.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 302.[[14]]
[[15]]Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Eds. Fish, Stanley and Fredric Jameson. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 19.[[15]]
[[16]]Ibid., 170-71.[[16]]
[[17]]Ibid., 171.[[17]]

McLuhan, Poetics and Christian Bök’s Xenotext (video)

On May 14, 2010, I delivered the inaugural lecture for McLuhan in Europe 2011 at the Manchester FutureEverything conference. The text concerns both the importance of thinking about McLuhan in terms of poetics, and the implications that contemporary projects like Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment have for thinking about communications and media. Video of the whole thing follows:

Darren Wershler – McLuhan in Europe 2011 from FutureEverything on Vimeo.

Parallel Kitcheners

The redoubtable Trevor Haldenby mentioned the existence of this document to me at TEDx Waterloo the other day, and it was too good not to track down.

Created by city council in 1916, it’s a list of “Parallel Kitcheners”: suggested names for Berlin, Ontario, during the period before it changed its name to Kitchener. Originally settled by a largely German immigrant population, Kitchener was known as the Town of Berlin from 1854-1912 and the City of Berlin from 1912-1916. As WWI approached and anti-German sentiment rose, other Canadians began to express growing doubts about whether or not the people of the very Germanic-sounding Berlin, Ontario were doing everything they could to support the Canadian war effort … hence the name change.

Looking at the list now, I wish I lived in Mechano, Hydropolis or Industria. I may well have to begin the process of transforming Kitchener into one of them at a speed that keeps my activities slightly below the conscious level of its citizens.

(from the John A. Lang fonds of Library and Archives Canada).

Goodbye To All That: The Death of Bookstores

“Poetry laments the loss of physical space not only for book stores, but for actual physical space: it is not ready for virtual.”
— Sina Queyras

The last year of the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the year the bookstores died in Canada.

Today is December 29th, 2009. In Winnipeg, McNally Robinson Booksellers has just filed for bankruptcy protection, and is about to close its Polo Park location and its brand New Don Mills (Toronto) store. In August 2008, they closed their Calgary location. That leaves one location in Winnipeg and another in Saskatoon. If the bankruptcy protection application is approved, they’ll survive, along with a web store.

Eight days ago, the CBC reported that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is also in jeopardy. Founded in 1973, the store does not have the money to pay its January bills, and is seeking help with fundraising to sustain it for the next year. Since 2004, women’s bookstores in Calgary, Saskatoon, Hamilton, London and Sudbury have all closed. According to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, there are only 21 women’s bookstores left in the entire world.

These two events add insult to the injury of a very bad year for book retail. In Toronto in particular, 2009 was a bookstore bloodbath. Marc Glassman’s venerable Pages Books & Magazines closed its doors after 30 years. Atticus Books, a vast cave crammed full of used scholarly and art books, declined to renew its lease and went Internet-only. In February, David Mirvish Books went dark.

This is not to say that there are no independent booksellers left. In Toronto alone, there’s the Book City chain, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (safely ensconced in its new Kensington Market digs), Type Books and Ben McNally Books for starters. But it’s worth noting that the cultural landscape of Canadian cities is changing for the worse.

The roots of this situation have to do with more than the rapid growth of digital media. The incursion of big-box book retail at the beginning of the decade, which was initially received as a boomtime blessing, had a lot to do with it. Small publishers experienced unprecedented sales as their books were used to fill the shelves of cavernous stores scattered across the Power Centres of the nation. After several years of people were so besotted with big-box bookstores that some were seriously arguing that they might soon replace the function of public libraries. Libraries, moreover, traditionally do not have a Starbucks in the building.

All of the sales that small publishers were making to the big-box chains quickly turned into an avalanche of returns. Profits from the initial sales, used to print larger runs for subsequent seasons of books, were clawed back by Chapters and Indigo as credit for returns — credit which they then used to finance new shipments of books for which the publishers could suddenly no longer afford to pay their printers. As long as the bookstores were in expansion mode, their investors were satisfied, but as soon as the stores actually had to make money, thpue whole system collapsed into a frantic shell game, complete with thinly disguised government bailouts for the publishers.

What happened next would have seemed surprising to someone who didn’t know that Chapters had lost complete control of their inventory system at least once and probably twice. At the behest of managers frantic to reduce store inventory levels, employees packed skids of books according to publisher alone and sent semitrailers full of them back to the distributors. The smaller but wilier Indigo reared up and swallowed a weakened Chapters like a python eats a pig.

Over the middle years of the decade, Indigo’s purchasing agents scaled back drastically on orders of small-press titles, concentrating instead on larger orders of books that they could sell like picture frames, scented candles and translucent plastic household widgets from Umbra. (Oprah’s Book Club and even Canada Reads have much to answer for in this respect: the homogenization of international reading tastes may result in the sales of larger quantities of books, but what makes a good bookstore is variety, not quantity.)

The result is a national chain with a near-monopoly on book sales where, despite the size of the actual retail space, the variety of actual books on sale is dismally limited, and not just in terms of small-press literary titles. Last month, I couldn’t find a single Raymond Chandler book in the Mystery section of a Kitchener IndigApters store. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we get the culture we deserve.

On the Internet, there are more independent writers than ever. There are places that digital writing can be had freely, both legally and illegally. But I find it depressing to note that the consolidation of books into the hands of one or two large gatekeepers has occurred in digital space even more rapidly than it occurred in physical space.

So the Internet is both poison and cure for this moment in the history of print culture. Not all independent booksellers will vanish, any more than all books will themselves totally sublimate into digital data. But public space will be different forever. Since I was a child, I have habitually learned the space of new cities by the locations of their bookstores. What I know about the culture of a place I have learned at least in part from what I found inside those stores. Those markers are fewer and farther between now, and we’ll be needing a new set of waypoints.

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Goodbye to All That,” Matrix, December 2009.

Feature image by Shira Golding.