Out of Print – What’s happening to books?

ImageWe’re living through a slow-motion earthquake in the world of books. The massive shift from printed books to e-books and other digital formats may be as momentous as the arrival of the printing press five hundred years ago. This is one of those big changes that, even though it’s affecting our lives profoundly, is hard to talk about—maybe in part because it’s so new. As Lev Grossman said in a 2011 article, “if anything we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.”

A new documentary by Vivienne Roumani, Out of Print, aims to get us talking about this phenomenon. How many of us still read printed books, or any long-form books at all? What is the effect of the e-book revolution, and the broader, internet-induced change in our reading habits: on publishing companies, on writers, on libraries? What about children and teenagers coming to reading now—how will it affect how they learn, even how they think?

The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, is on the festival circuit, and will be shown this Saturday, July 20, in New Hope as part of the New Hope Film Festival. Roumani gets a kind of virtual conversation started through interviews with an impressive array of experts. In one corner, there’s a surprisingly eloquent Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon—the big gorilla of both e-book and print book sales—who speaks with passion about the book as an elegant object, and about how reading a novel can transport you to an alternate world. In the other corner, there’s Scott Turow, who as president of the Authors Guild acts as a kind of pit bull for writers, arguing for their right to earn money from their work against initiatives like Google’s controversial plan to digitize thousands of books.

And then there’s the late, great Ray Bradbury, speaking about his discovery of reading at his local library in Waukegan. In the basement of that library, he banged out the first draft of Fahrenheit 451, the book that presciently imagined a future where most people live with immersive entertainment screens, and where books are in danger of disappearing in a different way. Is our new world as strange as that, or stranger? This elegant and thoughtful film opens a door on that question too.

Out of Print will be shown Saturday, July 20, 7 p.m. at the New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Ave. @ Bridge Street, New Hope, PA 18938, as part of the New Hope Film Festival


How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s something about the inventor Nikola Tesla that has strongly attracted artists—much more than his arch-rival Edison, let’s say. Tesla’s amazing life and grand visions have pulled artistic creations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, novels and stories, film and video. I know about this firsthand, because it happened to me. Discovering his story led me to write a libretto for what became the opera Violet Fire.

Nikola Tesla, born in 1856 to Serbian parents in Croatia, was a visionary scientist/inventor who helped create the bedrock of our technological world, with his groundbreaking discoveries in electricity, radio, robotics and even computer circuitry. His intense stream of visualizations led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull electrical energy from the upper atmosphere, still sound like science fiction. He was a charismatic figure who moved through New York’s Gilded Age high society, befriending Mark Twain and others, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s story knocked me over. How could he not be universally known? His visions seemed like those of a mystic, yet they had led to inventions that have had global effects on how we live. With his strange, outsized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to portray him. I centered the story on Tesla’s relationship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of powerful light. Violet Fire was brought to life by the beautiful, haunting music of Jon Gibson, and the contributions of director Terry O’Reilly, choreographer Nina Winthrop, and video designers Sarah Drury and Jen Simmons. Exactly seven years ago, on Nikola Tesla’s 150th birthday, my collaborators and I had the great honor of seeing the premiere of Violet Fire at the National Theater in Belgrade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tesla. A large-scale opera, Lightning in His Hand, has been mounted in Hobart, Tasmania. Melissa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recently performed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tesla is rediscovered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in artforms we haven’t yet imagined. Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla.