Monday, February 27, 2012

The Evolution of Humans and Their Books

According to archaeologists and anthropologists and geneticists, the human population went through a genetic bottleneck about 70,000 years ago. The event was probably connected to the eruption of Mt. Toba around that time. A stable, sizable population of humans, living in a hot, wet world, was decimated. Reduced to approximately 40-300 reproductive females (and a total population of perhaps 3000 humans), this bottleneck changed who we are.

A great deal of genetic diversity was lost. At such a low population, genetic drift is inevitable. For some hundreds of generations, the population slowly recovered, even as it was slowly altered, living now in a colder, drier world. We took a turn during that time, for better or worse, from who we were going to be to who we turned out to be. The humans that emerged from the catastrophic near-extinction had to be different than the humans who had existed before.

When a small group of humans left Africa, they experienced a similar bottleneck on the other side; when hunter-gatherers in Siberia crossed into the Americas, that population went through another; more recently, the settlers of Iceland created their own bottleneck of low genetic diversity. If a thousand people leave the earth on a Wall-E style ship, looking for a new home, our descendants will look different than us. It can't be helped. Only so much diversity can squeeze through.

Literature went through such a bottleneck. In fact, for most of the history of writing, literature has been stuck in one long, narrow bottleneck. Very few humans could read at any point in history. Few of those cared to write. Those who wrote did so laboriously, and copies were made by hand. During Europe's Middle Ages, new books could be counted on your hands each year (or nearly so). After the invention of Gutenberg's printing press--credited with the "democratization" of knowledge--the number of published books jumped.

I wonder how many potential authors lived in 1000 A.D. England, or Poland, or Australia, who never wrote because they were uneducated, or had nothing to write on. How many world-class works of literature might have emerged from pre-Columbian America if the native peoples had enjoyed the use of a printing press? How many astonishing poems might have been passed on from the peoples of Africa? Who might have invented the novel?

The works that we read surely are a subset of all the works that might have been written and copied and published; they are a subset, in fact of the books that were written and published. We only have those which survived. Our literary heritage might have turned out very differently. When books are counted in the hundreds instead of the millions, every new book exerts undue influence.

And now, for the first time in history, millions and millions of people have a chance to write something that might persist for thousands of years. Like a human population emerging from a long bottleneck, we are experiencing an explosion of literary diversity, emerging from the constriction of the publishers and other gatekeepers. Variety that was impossible when the only books in existence were those copied by monks in a scriptorium is now commonplace. Books are available everywhere, written by authors around the world, of all ages and skills and imaginations. Like the Cambrian Explosion of 4.5 billion years ago--or the spread of hunter-gatherers from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in a couple dozen generations--new books are filling every niche that authors can think to exploit. Most derive from the literature of our recent past, surely, but others are exotic, unique. There is no limit on what is possible.

This great flowering will undoubtedly be followed by a great pruning. But don't you wonder what books will look like in a hundred years? Where will this newest democratization of literature lead us?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Yopp! (if not my barbaric yawp)

The Whos, invisible and unheard by the cynical mob, are about to be boiled in beezlenut oil by the charmingly wicked Wickersham brothers. They, and the Sour Kangaroo, and many others, doubt the Whos' very existence. Horton, trying to save them, is tied and held; there's nothing he can do.

Although the Whos are all shouting at the top of their lungs, trying to be heard, trying to be believed, they are not loud enough. Just before the mob boils that dust speck, the last holdout among them, Jojo, finally joins his voice to the others...


They are heard, and they are saved.

Everything worked out great for them.


I'm not bitter, though.

Things are a little different for self-publishing writers in 2012. Each one of us--and I'm starting to learn how many such writers are out there--is trying to be heard. Trying desperately. We all have a book to sell, or three or five such books, and our hope for a beautiful future writing, instead of selling insurance or making widgets, rides on connecting with thousands of book-reading customers. At the very least, they must hear my "Yopp!"

The sound of thousands--or hundreds of thousands--of voices saying not "Buy my book!" or even "Read my book!" but just "Please look at my book!" becomes a concealing white noise that levels and cancels each one of our voices equally. We are the mob, and the mob cannot be understood. The mob cannot be attended to. Such noise is mere distraction, and must be ignored.

I've read a hundred blogs and a thousand bits of advice on how to rise above the noise of the mob. It all amounts to this: co-opt every neighbor, friend, noisemaker, amplifier and megaphone you can, and join as many voices together at one time as you can leverage, to make yourself heard. Organize the noise.

The whole time, I'm dreaming of a simple image: a book--one that I've painstakingly written and edited and published--waiting on a serene bookshelf; waiting silently, unobtrusively; a book waiting to be browsed, noticed or not noticed, chosen or not chosen, by the unmolested reader.

That image is not possible in reality, or at least not yet. Before such a book can sit on such a shelf, I must gain entrance by being noticed and approved and invited in. I must first sound my barbaric "YOPP!" to get the attention of as many potential readers as I can.

My apologies in advance.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Where did your reading come from?

For me, it was my parents. They were readers, and teachers, and of course they read to us kids. (I loved the Little Golden Books, and Horton Hears a Who, and picture books. I wish I still had some of those books, on a shelf somewhere. Someday, perhaps.)

And they took us to the library, and let us bring home a big bunch of books every time. But my reading took off when I started reading comics.

Like Stephen Krashen, and Alexie Sherman, and probably millions of other people, I got hooked on comic books when I was small. That's what I wanted to read; that's what was fun. We had piles of old comics (Kid Colt, Sgt. Rock, Lil Hot Stuff, Donald Duck, Superman, Fantastic Four) that had been handed down from my oldest siblings. Lots of them were ripped or had no cover, but that didn't hurt anything. My closer-in-age brothers and I would lay on our beds in the summer, reading the same stacks of comics for the tenth time, or the hundredth time. When a neighbor kid gave us a bunch of his old comics, it was like finding treasure.

I found science fiction in elementary school, and that was a whole 'nother world. Clifford Simak blew me away. "The pastoralist of science fiction" remains my all-time favorite writer. The first time I came home from the public library with half a dozen science fiction books, I didn't realize until I started reading them that three of the books I had picked were by Simak. Over the years, I read about thirty of his books, enjoying all of them, loving several. That's one writer I wish I could have met...

Finding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (seventh grade?) convinced me I was a fantasy reader more than a science fiction reader, but where do you go after Tolkien? I struggled through The Worm Ouroboros, which was amazing in its own way, but not as transporting as Middle Earth; Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara was close (though I didn't like it as an adult, alas); Stephen R. Donaldson, with The Chronicles of Lord Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever, was closer; and then finally Guy Gavriel Kay seemed to be writing the Real Thing, the Transcendent Fantasy. His writing blew me away in college, and, in my opinion, surpassed Tolkien--but I wouldn't argue the point. His fantasy was as vibrant and colorful and inspiring as Middle Earth, but his characters were (are) more real, more possible, and their emotions more affecting.

Anyway, that's my opinion.

Since then, my reading has branched in many directions. Non-fiction of many types; mysteries; mostly-forgotten 19th Century novels only available on Project Gutenberg. Like most reading adults, my tastes have evolved, and grown. But reading has continued to be a great pleasure. It has filled me with the sense that life is full of promise and adventure and excitement.

As a teacher, I want that same experience, or something similar, for my students.

There has always been a strand of thought, particularly in schools, that says that reading is good medicine (I don't disagree) and that you should read in order to grow. Good enough so far. But they say that easy is bad; fun is unnecessary; harder is better.

There I disagree.

What pushed my reading at every age was a quest for what I enjoyed most at that moment. I wasn't looking for a morally superior book, an appropriately difficult book to make me a better person. I never checked lexile levels, or word count, before I chose a book. I never looked at a prescriptive reading list. I was reading what was fun. And like everyone who reads, I got better. And then better again.

As a reader, and a teacher, I want young people to have the same chance I did--to find what they love, to find what moves them, to find what makes them want to tell someone else about the cool book/comic/story/graphic novel they just read. I'm okay pushing Shakespeare on reluctant readers--but we shouldn't be pushing all the time. If a kid thinks books are a drag, Ethan Frome isn't going to change his mind.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian might change his mind, though. The much-maligned Twilight might. The derided Goosebumps might. The still-relevant, still-loved Outsiders might.

I would rather have them reading comics than ignoring Hawthorne. (I like The Scarlet Letter--but I'm not a struggling high school student.) I would rather--much rather--have them reading Harry Potter than seething through Silas Marner.

I want reading to be like a trip to Disneyland, not like a visit to the wallpaper store.