What if the hare and the tortoise, having resolved Aesop's Relative Speed Conundrum centuries ago, had to join forces to battle an army of evil cyborgs that were consuming our time, literally and figuratively?
Did someone say literary mash-up? Wait, I'd better text my agent!
Here's a question I hope will start a new book trade conversation here: When considering your relationship with electronic devices, social media and other online tools, are you a hare (up to speed but still losing the race), a tortoise (in the race, but taking it one step--and one device--at a time) or a fully armed cyborg (earbuds plugged in, laptop engaged, iPhone/Blackberry at hand)?
In recent months, I've noticed several articles on the Slow Media Movement and thought it worth discussing, especially in an industry like ours where many of us move seamlessly (more or less) from desktops to laptops to smartphones throughout the day and often well into the night. And where the now thoroughly virtual line between personal and professional life appears to have dissolved.
Last November, APR's Marketplace program featured a segment that defined the Slow Media trend this way: "Kinda like slow food, but without the food. Slowies write letters, and, you know, talk to each other, offline. They like to do one thing at a time."
Jenny Rausch, one of the Slowies interviewed, has a blog called "Slow Media: A compendium of artifacts and discourses regarding digital disenchantment and the possibilities for a less-mediated life." This week she wrote in response to a recent New York Times article about the increased time pressures and workloads placed on many contemporary workers.
"Would your life be better if you only worked 40 hours a week?" Rausch asked. "If your work didn't follow you home, and wherever you go? If you enjoyed time spent with friends and family without distraction? If you got extra compensation for extra work, or reclaimed those surplus hours for moonlighting at another (paid) job?"
Slow Media isn't the same as no-media. Slow Media even has a Facebook page.
The tortoise and the hare are still in the race, but now so is the cyborg, and even "the fox yonder," who was recruited to umpire Aesop's classic competition, may not be qualified or sharp-eyed enough to declare the winner of a contest with a digitally altered finish line.
Carl Honore praised Slow Thinking in the Huffington Post last fall, noting that even Google "understands the need to step off the spinning hamster wheel in the workplace. The company famously encourages its staff to devote 20% of their time to personal projects. That does not mean brushing up on World of Warcraft or updating Facebook pages or flirting with that hot new manager in Accounts. It means getting the creative juices flowing by stopping the usual barrage of targets, deadlines and distractions."
It seems appropriate in an Aesop's Fables–inspired column that Honore concludes: "The moral of the story is that, even in the high-speed modern world, slowness and creativity go hand in hand."
The New Yorker's George Packer recalled the debut of William F. Buckley's National Review, "whose original mission statement, back in 1955, declared that the magazine 'stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.'"
While dragging his feet a bit in the virtual sand, Packer does concede that he may have get a Blackberry at some point or he "won’t be taken seriously as a Washington journalist and phone calls from my retrograde Samsung cell phone will go unanswered. On Amtrak between New York and Washington I sit in the Quiet Car with my phone off, laptop stowed, completely unreachable, and find out if I’m still capable of reading for two hours."
Near the end of Don DeLillo's Point Omega, a woman and a man study Douglas Gordon's video installation "24 Hour Psycho," which projects the Hitchcock classic film on a translucent screen and slows it down to the duration of a full day.
"She told him she was standing a million miles outside the fact of whatever's happening on the screen," DeLillo writes. "She liked that. She told him she liked the idea of slowness in general. So many things go fast, she said. We need time to lose interest in things."
So here again is your literary mash-up question: In your work and life, are you a hare, a tortoise or a cyborg? Embarrassing personal anecdotes always welcome.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1130.
In last week's column, Jamie Fiocco shared some of her early impressions as co-owner of three-month-old Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C. This time we'll hear from her partners in business and bookselling, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold.
Describing her experience since the bookshop's November opening, Sarah asked, "Can I say roller coaster? It has certainly had its highs and lows. Opening, the holiday rush, our grand opening event, were all fantastically exciting and invigorating. Temper that with occasional bouts of terror. I've been a small business owner previously, so I am not surprised at the amount of time and energy it takes to tackle the 'business' end of things, i.e., accounting, but thanks to Jamie all of that is going smoothly."
The word community gets a lot of attention in the bookselling world, and all three owners embrace the concept enthusiastically.
"I cannot say enough about the community support we've received," Sarah noted. "Customers have literally grabbed my hand to thank us for opening an independent bookstore. What this really says to me is that independent bookstores can really be considered to be part of a good civic infrastructure, just as libraries are. Local media were also very instrumental in spreading the early word and have continued to do stories on us. Industry support has been strong. Our sales reps were key to our opening on time with the stock we needed."
Land added that "word-of-mouth has been our best advertising--from friends and family, of course, but also from book lovers in the community. Friends tell friends, neighbors tell neighbors--a local hair stylist wanted some bookmarks to let some of her clients know about us. Social networking exists outside of the internet."
Under the category of "best laid plans," I asked whether the size of certain category sections in the bookshop had to be adjusted as they transitioned from the conception stage to the daily reality of customer demands.
"After placing our initial orders, I was a little worried that I focused too much on the kind of books I like," Land observed, "too much literary fiction, too many books in translation, too many cool covers. But they’ve been selling, those midlist authors on their fifth book who have never got a sniff at the bestseller list, but deserve to be read. But that’s our niche, giving Padgett Powell as much or more shelf space as Stephen King."
There were "no huge surprises, but still pleasant ones," Jamie added, "big demand for poetry, Spanish-language literature, cooking (this section was already big), eastern philosophy and used books in general."
As children's department buyer, Sarah hasn't made any section adjustments yet, since "it's playing out pretty much as I expected, but with a bump in interest in bilingual books and perhaps less of a YA audience than I had hoped for."
Appropriately enough, the books lining Flyleaf's shelves were cited by Sarah as her most pleasant surprise thus far: "From my viewpoint, I am extremely proud of our inventory selection. All three of us literally hand-picked almost everything in the store and we really never were caught short or lacking in too much. I was very pleased to have most of what our customers were looking for and have gotten very positive feedback on what a great selection we have."
Land gave high marks to "our patient and knowledgeable staff, especially our first two hires, Anna and Mike. It’s hard to open a store; it must be excruciating to watch it happen. They aren’t yet seasoned booksellers, but they are eager, intelligent and personable and know about a lot of things I don’t. What more can you ask?"
Having attended ABA's Winter Institute earlier in the month for the first time as an owner, he recalled that the "biggest difference was that this time I looked around at all the veteran bookstore owners and asked myself a few questions: How do I get our store as iconic as theirs? Is it still possible? What innovative ways are they facing the future? What am I bringing to the table?"
In summing up Flyleaf's brief history, Land's personal reaction may be representative of his colleagues' impressions as well: "I’m pretty dense at times, so it takes some time for reality to impress upon me. It happened in stages. When I first saw our cash wrap half-finished in a wood shop nearby, my heart leapt. When our logo was finalized, my heart leapt again. After the carpet and paint and bookshelves were installed, I had another moment. But not until a late night after one of our first days, when I walked through the dark store, with some books finally on the shelves, did all the elements come together to make me realize what I had had a part in creating."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1125.