Form and Content - April 2, 2012
When librarians get together, they talk about delivery systems, whereas when publishers get together, they talk about format. Am I missing something?
Here are two of the most idea-centered fields in the world, but what seems to interest leaders here is form. Is form the reason their customers come to them? If that were so, then we would be led to think that ease of checking out a book is somehow a more important reason for going to a given library than the quality in the collection. Are we to assume that readers care more about whether a book is published in cloth or paper or as an e-book than what the book is about? Perhaps we should just publish books by format rather than by area or author or story or idea. It would be easier for publishers, that’s for sure. No worrying about creating a meaningful “personality,” so readers can have some foretaste in what they are likely to find in the list.
Libraries and publishing houses are not the only fields of modern life that have succumbed to the siren song of form. Indeed, the internet itself, the ultimate content-filled information stream in our lives today, has its principal attractions in convenience and speed, rather than truth, as though the answer, any answer, is more important than the question that elicited the search. It took me a long time, until years into grad school, to learn that the sine qua non of education is to be able to ask a question, not to give an answer. It’s pretty evident that today, everyone has an answer to most anything, but how many have the wisdom to know what questions are important?
This assertion may come as a shock to some readers, but think about everything from, say, St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae to the central understanding of scientific method. All of it centers on asking rather than answering. With the Summa, the whole project was put together as a way to gain knowledge by a fair-minded elimination of incorrect answers. In science, proposals become answers only after mistakes are proven by testing time and again. That which makes the philosopher a philosopher or the scientist a scientist is the ability to think “outside the box” enough to ask a question that will help himself or others to work at answers. The quaestio debate format and the step-by-step format of scientific method can help elicit the truth of things.
Day by day on the net, knowledge is being supplanted by data, and data, as we all know, is something that is here today, gone tomorrow. Nowhere else on earth is the fact that information differs profoundly from wisdom so self-evident.
But it does not really seem to be the case everywhere that form has triumphed over content. Even in some of today’s ultimate technical innovations that the average person is aware of, there is evidence that what drives the market is truly content over form. Software, after all, which could be said to be a substitute for content, has certainly been a truer pathway to success than hardware, the substitute for form. That’s why Microsoft has been a tremendous success and one computer maker after another has got out of the business.
Back to publishing: if it’s true that format is the new white bread, how can we help reassert the banquet that the book has given the world except by reviving the importance of the question? Our business is content; if it were form, every internet pirate in the world would be a better publisher than the best we admire today.