Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Michael Lukas on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Michael Lukas

As we wind down the “aughts” decade, with digital books galore on the horizon (and the $195 Norton facsimile edition of C.J. Jung's objet d'art/culture The Red Book selling out around the country), the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? Here's a take from Michael Lukas, who teaches at Foothill College in Los Altos, California, blogs for Virginia Quarterly Review, and has just been awarded an NEA grant in fiction.


At the very beginning of the twenty first century, as I was preparing to graduate college, leave my friends behind, and head off into an uncertain world still reeling from  the September 11th attacks, I stuffed thirty or so hardcover books into my frame pack and lugged it across the east side of Providence to a newly opened Kinko’s. I spent most of the day in that Kinko’s, under the somewhat suspicious gaze of an assistant manager, making personalized book mixes for eight of my best college friends. Bound with glue and decorated with black sharpie, these book mixes were a parting gift by which my friends would remember me, a greatest hits of sorts distilled from four years of literature classes.


What, you may be wondering, does this have anything to do with the future of book culture?


First, a definition: a book mix is a collection of short stories, poems, essays, and excerpts from longer works, chosen and compiled for the enjoyment of a single reader. Much like a mix tape (or a mix CD) the book mix is made primarily out of affection and respect for the recipient. You could say that a book mix is a personalized anthology, but it is so much more than that. Like the mix tape, the book mix is a highly intimate gift, an introduction to new artists and artistic connections. It is a work of art in and of itself.


Now, for the first time in history, anyone can create their own book mix at the punch of a button and the (virtual) swipe of a credit card. No need to lug a frame pack to Kinko’s, no need to suffer the watchful gaze of assistant managers. As far as this critic is aware, the book mix has not yet taken the publishing world by storm. We may need to wait another few years, but the day will surely come. And when it does, book culture will be forever changed.


Much has been written about print on demand technology as it relates to the democratization of literature, the leveling of the literary playing field, the demise of editors and publishing houses. We can all be authors now! So the argument goes. But as anyone who has waded through the slush pile of a literary magazine or literary agency knows, we still very much need editors and publishing houses. We need people who can cull the wheat from the chaff, the curd from the whey, and so on. It’s true that new technology allows anyone to be a published author. More importantly, it allows us all to be editors (within the confines of copyright law, of course). Now we can edit our own anthologies, curate our own literary galleries, choose our own private Best American nonrequired readings, and share them with friends.