E-books are more than a publishing platform—they’re a whole new literary form.
By Boris Kachka
In a year when Amazon sold more e-books than dead trees and publishers poured precious funds into actual tech ventures, a few hazy harbingers of the Future of Publishing began coming into focus. One is an emerging format that this year encompassed works by Jon Krakauer, Walter Mosley, Tyler Cowen, Amy Tan, and more than one vampire romance writer: the short book.
Amid all of 2011’s obits for the 300-page object, it’s easy to forget just how limiting the one-size-fits-all template has been for publishing (that one size being about 100,000 words). Why should magazine articles, horror stories for children, and scholarly theses all be molded into one Procrustean bed? The great hidden virtue of e-books—hidden beneath the chatter about their effect on the bottom line—is that they allow stories to be exactly as long as we want them to be. It turns out that many of them work best between 10,000 and 35,000 words long—the makings of a whole new nonfiction genre occupying the virgin territory between articles and hardcovers. It may even be the case that Americans can tolerate serious policy work by academics (like economist Cowen’s e-book hit The Great Stagnation) so long as it isn’t padded out to 500 pages.
Simon Reynolds’s Retromania looks back at a pop culture that has, for years now, done nothing but look back.
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By Nitsuh Abebe
The problem with talking to adults about music used to be all the reactionary lectures: Music was better back then, they’d say, and the best thing young people could do was study the history. London-born critic Simon Reynolds is a family man in his forties, and a read through his new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, might leave you with the suspicion that things actually were better “back then”—but only because we’ve taken those lectures too literally. “There has never been a society in human history,” he writes, “so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.”
He’s hardly the first to worry that pop culture, instead of churning into the future, now just swims around an ocean of ideas from yesterday. It’s been decades since design, fashion, and music started treating history as a closet to be rummaged—savvy artists piecing together styles and references for equally savvy audiences to decode. (Anyone who’s enjoyed a Tarantino film already knows this drill.) And revival culture, as Reynolds shows, stretches back to postwar jazz, if not beyond. Still, the rise of the Internet and file-sharing has helped make the past decade feel particularly flat and static—especially to a forward-looking critic like Reynolds, who’s still best known for chronicling the U.K.’s relentlessly futurist rave scene.