March 12, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Riding the Crest of the Wave–Exciting and Scary

In addition to teaching my new class this spring on The Little Magazine in America, which has been just a blast so far, working back and forth from the early 20th century to the most recent trends and challenges for all literary media, I’ve also been serving on the search committee for a new book store manager at Kenyon College. This too has been a fascinating experience.

You may not know this, but Kenyon has long prided itself on having the “best college book store in America.” It’s a large and friendly space in the middle of our village of Gambier, and serves both as a kind of student center and hang out, as well as a community center. Generations of faculty and local children have played in its large wooden castle, surrounded by books. Students often work at the long tables using their laptops. Local people read the newspapers over coffee and bagels.

In truth, however, the glories of the book store began to diminish five years ago or more. It has been less inviting of late, the stock of books uninspiring, the displays a tad garish or shabby. So the search committee has been charged with finding a manager who can once again create a book store that is appropriate to a college with a strong literary reputation, as well as a clean, well lighted place that is welcoming to all.

The search is proving more difficult than we’d imagined, and it has been an “educational opportunity” for those us on the committee. Today, a number of things I’ve known in the abstract have come clear to me, and with a chilling force.

I’m not sure that in five years there will be any such thing as a book store.

Most publishers won’t be producing conventional books.

We are now within spitting distance, I believe, of electronic devices that will be cheap enough, durable enough, and with screens easy enough to read, that books will be downloaded from websites en masse, the way music now is to mp3 players.

Will this leave many old fogeys like me frustrated and dissatisfied? Sure. But not enough to compete with the vast market forces that are sweeping this change, and us with it, along.

And we’ll all adjust. Two years ago KR began taking all of its submissions on line. Longer pieces I tended to print off to read and consider. No longer. Most of the time now I sit at my desk and read comfortably enough on the computer screen. It’s not ideal, but I’ve learned to live with it.

You can imagine that, as editor of a venerable, printed literary journal, all of this makes me a bit queasy. I’ve always promised that as long as I’m editor there will be a print version of The Kenyon Review. I’m no longer so sanguine about that promise. Five years? Yes, I think so. . . .

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions to my class on the little magazine, they are living at an incredibly exciting moment. They’re riding the curl of dramatic change, change that will, I believe, reach deep into our culture. But it’s scary too, at least to me, because I’m not at all certain whether that wave will safely expire on a beach, or smack up against a great but still-invisible rock of a reality we didn’t correctly anticipate.

Stay tuned.