In this week’s New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes about the complex class-action lawsuit being waged against Apple and five publishers for allegedly colluding to fix prices of ebooks.  To date, the DOJ has sided with the plaintiffs and three of the five publishers have settled.  It’s well recognized that the lawsuit is a sideshow in a larger battle for digital dominance among giants Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

Auletta ends his piece with a quote by John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Books, one of the five publishers that has refused to settle.  “Books,” he says, “ are in danger of becoming roadkill in that larger war.”

Every reader of my posts (ten I believe, three of whom are my sons) knows that I love books: printed and bound, physical books.  I love to hold them, read them, collect them, make them.  I’m old school enough to believe, like Jefferson, in the idea of a personal library.  I love all books, from beautifully bound hand printed books from small presses to Penguin paperbacks.  I know this is antiquated and for sure presents a problem of shelving in my apartment.

I also have a Kindle and a Kindle app on my iPhone.  I recognize it as a legitimate and efficient source of reading material. Its content is delivered simply, conveniently and cheaply. It’s great for travel and for acquiring something to read when no bookstores are nearby and there’s no opportunity for an Amazon shipment (a source of last resort.)  But it is not a book.

I rarely read novels on my Kindle, or any book that I think has lasting value, that I’d like to pull from a shelf and read again.  I know this makes no sense since you can do the same thing with digital content, minus the shelf.  Primarily I read business books on my Kindle, books I need to read to stay current but date as quickly as stale bread.  Used book stores rarely buy business books for the same reason so there’s not even a second life opportunity.  Kindle’s crowd-sourced underlining feature is a key benefit to skimming a business book that ought to have remained a HBR article, which is usually the case.  (I guess this says as much about my attitude to business books as it does to my feelings for ebooks.)

The victims of this squeeze on traditional publishing are first novels, poetry, most non-fiction, essays and criticism—all books with limited revenue opportunity.  These books used to be funded as prestigious loss leaders.  Publishing houses can no longer afford such luxuries, just as they can no longer afford their once-upon-a-time brick and mortar bookstores.  Who remembers anymore Scribner’s beautiful store on Fifth Avenue?  It’s now a Sephora.  I wonder how long Rizzoli will be able to maintain its showpiece store on 57th Street.  Their store in San Francisco closed years ago.

This is a generational lament dating from antiquity. Early Greek dramatists bemoaned the decline of oral traditions with the advent of written documents.  Nevertheless, it’s said that Alexander the Great slept with his copy of the Iliad, annotated by his tutor Aristotle.  The world moves on in magnificent ways.

Digital content has inevitably led to digitally based education. This is clearly a boon to spreading knowledge in places where no institutions of learning exist and to those who cannot afford the opportunity to sit in classrooms once occupied by classmates Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  As someone who regards himself a liberal egalitarian, and who also laments the great dumbing down of America, I embrace digital education.  I’m thinking of enrolling in one of MIT’s online courses in physics given my interest coupled with woeful scientific knowledge.  Classroom-less language instruction has been the norm for decades, starting with tapes and CD’s.

I’m not troubled by my conflicting emotions about the decline of traditional publishing and the rise of digital.  At the end of the day, reading is reading and all reading is a good thing.  Digital formats will continue to improve.  First novels will be easier to publish.  Book reviews will be easier to access.  Books are already easier to buy. Sharing enthusiasm for a writer or book can spread like wildfire.  Specialty books will continue to be printed. The Morgan Library will continue to exist, though likely not your local public library.  This blog, after all, exists only in digital form.

Still, I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic: “Men we are, and must grieve when even the shade of that which once was great has passed away.”  It’s a pathetic sentiment, I know.  That doesn’t make it any less heartfelt.  I’ve long given up the quaint idea that my sons will want my books when I’m gone and plan to sell or donate them first so they won’t have that burden with which to contend. I know they will continue to read which is the only thing that counts.

The Perils of Advertising High

I’m reading with dismay Stuart Elliot’s adverting column in yesterday’s New York Times: “The First Graduates from Advertising High.”  The Brooklyn school, named the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media, is supported by the Interpublic Group (McCann-Erickson, Draftfcb, Deutch,) the Advertising Club of New York and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.  It’s aimed mostly at minority groups, which in itself, is a worthy objective.

 But what does this mean for the future of advertising?  Assuming these graduates are hired at the kind of top agencies supporting this enterprise—considering Madison Avenue’s dismal history of hiring minorities—are we simply perpetuating a self-fulfilling perspective that ignores the larger realities of the industry’s effect on the culture at large?  Where will broader thinking come from if all students learn is within the confines of advertising and media? 

 The days are gone when account people needed an MBA to get a top agency job–agencies could not compete financially with the manufacturers and consulting firms. I once had an OTC consumer products client tell me there was no way their product managers would take our account executives seriously.  Their educational and experience backgrounds were simply not the same, to the detriment of the agency’s staff.  So how will an agency fare on this score with people only schooled in the trade?  It’s a closed loop and relegates agencies to true vendors, not strategic partners.

 To be clear, I’m not criticizing the objective of providing minority students with opportunities they may not have had before.  I’m wondering, however, if such a narrow educational focus will truly provide opportunities for advancement and success, or if this focus will reinforce the divide between those that do and those that lead.  One consequence of the lack of junior agency expertise is that clients only want to deal with senior people.  At my last agency here in San Francisco this caused considerable financial pressure, spreading many assignments across the senior staff while limiting the time they could spend with any one client and pushing most of the work to junior, less experienced personnel.  It’s an unworkable model for long-term success.  The opposite can also result in the same kind of pressure: I’m working now with a very senior group of people, with no junior staff at all.  It’s great for our clients. But, this means highly paid individuals are spending time on functions easily handled by less experienced people.

 In my ideal agency, small multi-disciplinary teams would handle assignments based on knowledge and interest sets.  No team would be fixed.  Teams would come together to fulfill specific roles and projects and then reform to meet the needs of the next new thing.  Design firms often work this way, such as Ideo.  In my agency we would have anthropologists working with writers, historians with art directors.  Solutions would be developed holistically—not piecemeal.   Nothing would be integrated because everything would be seamless.  Concepts such as large and small or simple and complex would not exist.  For the most part, virtual would not work—sparks rarely ignite when people aren’t together.  Humanistic values would be pervasive across and within the organization.  Diversity and geographic differentiation would be the norm. The Christian Right need not apply.

 The first question to any job candidate would be, “What have you done to prepare for this role that isn’t related in any professional way to what this role may be?” “What are the last ten books you’ve read?” “If you could save the world tomorrow, what would you do first?”  “If you weren’t sitting here, where would you rather be?”

 In every job interview I’ve ever had—every one—the two things on my resume that provoke the most, and usually first, comments and questions are the two things that have the least to do with marketing or communications or advertising: the fact that I worked on a Mississippi River tow boat in college and, later, earned an M. Lit in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.  No one ever remarks on the MBA.

 My hope for the graduates of the Advertising High School is that they look beyond these niche studies and find diverse interests to fill in the gaps.  With this undergraduate background, their likely next pursuit will be to earn a degree in business, or communications, or even advertising: in other words, more of the same.  This may very well be enough to land a job. I also hope they will push for more.



Can Humanism Be Saved?

Last Saturday my son Adam graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  The class of 2012 was Bowdoin’s 212th graduation ceremony.  My oldest son David graduated in 2005.  I graduated in 1973. (Sam, my middle son, bucked the tradition and happily graduated from New York University in 2008.)

Adam majored in neuroscience and plans on becoming a physician after working in a lab for a year or so.  He plays Schubert on the piano; reads Haruki Murakami; collects mechanical pencils; was captain of the college ultimate frisbee team.  David is completing a Ph.D in physics education at Columbia and teaches 8th grade science and math.  Sam will enter his third year of law school in the fall, clerking this summer for the Massachusetts Attorney General in Boston, making watches in his spare time and coaching figure skating to earn his keep.

I’m thinking about my boys while reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, a book David recommended as a “must read.”  The book chronicles the dismaying history of how the United States, unique in the Western World, has ended up with a population majority that doesn’t read, is largely anti-intellectual and anti-science, prone to fundamentalist religion, clueless to the country’s history, against national education standards, reveres the rich more than the educated.  Since the beginnings of the country, the South is much to blame for this, but attitudes and beliefs developed there have drifted across the country.

A liberal, humanist eduction is one of the few bulwarks against this tide.  But as a recent article in The New Yorker pointed out, even at some of the nation’s most elite universities–Stanford for example–the trend is away from the humanities in favor of the quicker route to fame and riches offered by electrical engineering and computer science.  In Asia and developing countries, this trend is exponentially greater.  Very very few aspiring students in China or India want to waste precious time taking classes in history, philosophy, classics or literature.

Maybe this is vital to the future; certainly it’s necessary in our contemporary connected society.  But where does it leave an open-eyed humanist, still pursuing Enlightenment goals?  Many, such as my sons, have integrated their interests into a mix of personal and professional objectives combining specialization with a foundation in the humanities.  They know, however, that they’re in a privileged minority even as competition within their peer groups remains intense.  Their lives have been enriched, their minds opened, but will they get the job?

Advertising has played a significant role in dumbing down American mass culture. The linkages between advertisers’s need to reach the largest audiences, the ads created to reach them and shows like American Idol are obvious and insidious.  More Americans are likely to vote for their favored singer than for an American president.  Who receives more media coverage in America: the Kardashian sisters or the eight Supreme Court Justices?  Admittedly, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is unlikely to sell many copies of People magazine, though therein lies the problem.  (Thurgood Marshall may have in his day.)

I don’t see a way out of the pact with the devil between advertising and advertisers.   The advertising industry tends to breed cynical fellow travelers.  Pseudoscience markets itself as legitimate research; the lowest common denominators of consumer opinion rank higher than the opinions of experts; media planners direct dollars to the trashiest shows in a vicious circle to reach the largest audiences.  The list goes on and on. I’m chagrinned to have been involved. I’ve scripted a higher-ground narrative on the premise that my principles have never been compromised by working on less than savory businesses.  Who could object to persuading consumers to purchase an HP laptop or take a holiday in Bermuda?  But this is just self-rationalization to assuage feelings of guilt.

I don’t mean to promote the prejudices of a highbrow elite against lowbrow taste. (Progressive middlebrow values have been on the wane for decades.)  I do mean to bemoan a culture lacking serious and national secondary school standards; a culture that favors superstition and hope over evidence based proofs; a culture that would rather the US president be popular at a BBQ than smart in the White House; a culture that defines celebrity on the basis of being famous for the sake of being famous.

I’m writing this in the kitchen of a grand and beautiful 19th century Columbia County house overlooking a wide expanse of the Hudson River.  My host and her guests represent the  loftiest levels of New York culture, taste and erudition.  My friends for forty years. No one comes from the Christian Right; everyone believes in evolution (why is this even debated in the 21st century?)  The galleries of the Metropolitan Museum are as familiar as the sidewalks of the Upper East Side. The environment and historic preservation are serious concerns. High level education is assumed; Kansas is very far away.  This is an outpost of the liberal, humanist tradition in American culture.

I suspect these old-school, rarified outposts will last indefinitely, though undoubtedly growing smaller and fewer.  In many ways the cultural attitudes here are at odds with the Democratic principles evidenced in the voting booths.  (Vintage posters of “FDR for President” hang in the back stair hallway.)  At dinner last night we discussed the future of art books.  The conversation began with the assertion that art books were a poor substitute for viewing the actual works, and that no one should think they have seen the Mona Lisa after looking at a reproduction in a book.  The question of art book survival was actually aimed at the transition from the printed page to electronic media.  Around the table most regarded this future with a combination of distain and horror.  The only one who didn’t was the director of a Gilded Age museum, whom I least suspected to be open and supportive of wider exposure to the best examples of art, music and literature. –surely a sign of hope.   I wish we had had a few twenty-five year olds at the table!

I’m going to put my faith in my sons and try very hard to believe their future will be different.  It’s difficult to see, and anyway too late for me and the boomer generation. (Susan Jacoby has more recently published an equally distressing book on the fallacies of “youthful aging,” the latest euphemism for growing old.)

My greatest joy is that my sons inhabit both of these worlds: at home in Silicon Valley and MOMA; a science lab and the Muse d’Orsay; a criminal court and immersion in the old Bohemian court of Rudolf II.   It’s the old nature versus nurture argument.  We need both, and a liberal education is the foundation of the second.  Yet, I see no way for the country as a whole to remake itself in a more humane, open–yes, civilized (in the original meaning of the word)–manner.  There is no civil discourse in American politics, no higher aim to improve the way the country “thinks.”  The promulgation of high culture is almost solely in the hands of parents, since art and music and the work of DWM in pubic schools have largely been abandoned as unnecessary frills.  One huge problem most liberal humanists face is that we tend to speak only to each other, and the same is true for conservative fundamentalists.  Few Southern Baptists are likely to be reading the liberal press, just as I am unlikely to tune into Rush Limbaugh.  Our worlds are self-defined and self-contained. There’s no conversation at all.

Sitting here on the patrician side of the Hudson, the Catskills in the distance, among my friends, I feel like a man living on one of the last, remote outposts of the British Empire, clinging to a memory long gone from the modern realities of the world and no boat to return to that imagined home. Then I reprimand myself.  It’s the responsibility of all who believe in liberal humanist values to transmit them to as many others as we can. It’s what I’ve done for my sons. We need to do more, to move beyond our comfort zones, to challenge the status quo of indifference or worse.  We need to listen, too.