Jesse Nathan on the Future of Books


This interview was conducted by email. Jesse Nathan happens to be the lone American writer and editor in this TWR round-up.

1)  Bestsellers are still selling, regardless of format, e or otherwise. What do you think though will be the impact of ebooks and e-readers on literary publishing and writing in the near term?

I think it’s very hard to say. All I can say is that for me and many of my friends, books—the paper and board kind—remain an irreplaceable part of life. And I’m talking here about people in their twenties or younger. The Internet and e-publishing are doing great things for literacy and the free flow of information. I like the Internet. I use it for lots of things. I’m using it now to send you my answers. But words on paper versus words on a screen—these are two fundamentally different things. It’s almost comparing apples to oranges. Here’s why: words on a page cannot shift around. Printed on paper, words become a closed, preserved, immutable thing. Words on a screen, on the other hand, can always change, are always shifting and being updated and hyperlinked. On a screen, words become an open, delimited, unstable thing. This is such an incredible difference to me—it affects every level of the reading experience. The book is an invention that basically hasn’t needed improvement since its inception. It’s like the wheel, or the bicycle.

2)  How will your role as an editor of a literary magazine change as a result of the increasing adoption of ebooks and ezines?

Probably less than one might think. I read a fair amount on the Internet, but I always find every possible excuse to close the computer, to get away from screens. I print out anything I need to read that’s more than a page. Contrary to rumor, using paper is not a serious environmental threat. A healthy forest ecosystem depends on regular and sustainable harvesting—just like any crop. Nicholson Baker’s written about this. And there are many other things doing much more damage to forests worldwide that are worth our attention and outrage.

3) Do you use or have you tried using an e-reader? What is your impression of them?

I’ve played around with them here and there. They’re fine. I find them pretty boring. I don’t like that you can’t tell what anyone is reading, and that you can’t tell how far along you are in the book in any tangible way—a progress bar or a percentage indicator doesn’t cut it for me. I also find them sort of sterile and cold. I prefer the smell of a physical book, and the texture of paper. I’m just not that into screens. People like to write me off as nostalgic, which is kind of a lame reaction, I think… Also, why do I need 500 books with me at all times? I’m reading an old beat-up paperback copy of David Copperfield right now, and I’ve been reading that one book for weeks. And it fits in my pocket.

4)  How do you think the McLuhanism that equates medium with message will apply to ebooks and ezines? That is, will artistic forms such as the novel, the short story, and the poem actually change because of the new delivery media, including e-readers, iPhones etc.? What about the impact of so-called enhanced books that include video and music?

Well, these forms’ll certainly change. And some of that change—as well as the increasingly rapid dissemination of literature the Internet makes possible—will be for the better. But I think the basic, unimprovable technology—the physical book—will be with us for a long time. I grew up with computers but more and more I write first drafts of anything—poems, fiction, essays—on paper. I like the tactile-side of writing by hand. I like seeing a stack of paper, that physical accumulation. It’s a small way of seeing progress. Then there’s a middle period where I edit on the computer, because I like how I can move words and sentences and chunks of poem around so quickly. And then the final version I usually like to write out by hand again. And then I like to send handwritten copies to friends—by regular mail.

5)  In what ways will paper magazines and books change in the next few years because of ebooks?

I’m really not sure. It will be tough, and many magazines and newspapers will not make it. But some will find a way to remind readers that actual books and magazines and newspapers are valuable as physical objects, and provide experiences that ebooks simply cannot replicate. I think there will always be enough people willing to pay for the experience of words printed on paper. At McSweeney’s, I’m co-editing (with Dominic Luxford) a new line of poetry collections, the McSweeney’s Poetry Series. We’re trying to figure out how to convince people to spend a little money on books in this most non-marketable of genres. It’s a fun challenge. Our plan is simple: make beautiful books filled with knockout poems. If you build it… We’re very excited, and very nervous. There may or may not be a digital component to this series down the line—the focus, though, is still very much on the physical books.

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Jesse Nathan

Jesse Nathan was born in Berkeley, grew up on a farm in Kansas, and now lives out of a storage unit in San Francisco. Jesse is poetry editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poems and essays have appeared or will in the American Poetry Review, The Nation, Adbusters, Tin House, and elsewhere. He’s also a regular contributor to and