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.