"Mules were the single most important animal in the United States,” Susan Orlean (’77) said last September in upstate New York. “They were used for farming, for transportation. Everybody had a mule.” Nowadays mules are a niche product, she said. They are given as pets.
It seemed a strange digression for the keynote address at Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s Festival of Books, but within moments the Orchid Thief author had made her point. Books—as in the paper-ink-and-glue objects—are having their mule moment, she explained. “Electronic publishing is going to happen,” she said. “It’s not a matter of embracing change, change simply is.”
The message may have startled guests who, earlier in the day, had perused tables of used paperbacks, admired fine-art photographs of books (“Book With Wavy Pages” by Abelardo Morell, for example), and posed for pictures with fuzzy, life-sized versions of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad characters. Yet it was hardly surprising for followers of Orlean’s career. In recent years, the author has become a model of the plugged-in, 21st-century writer. She has a personal blog called Free Range on the New Yorker website. She is a frequent guest on the video-blog site, bloggingheads.tv. She has over 2,500 Facebook friends. And while many in the literary community are writhing in uncertainty, Orlean—who was introduced in Spencertown as the “Tolstoy of Tweeting”—is buzzing about the way stories will be told next.
“I love gizmos and I love new things,” she said. Curiosity is in her DNA as a nonfiction writer, and when it comes to technology, she is a “pre-adopter” of new gadgets. This has led to a few misfires (the scanner pen, for example), but it has also led her to devices like her current favorite: the iPad. Orlean expects that most books—with exceptions of children’s books and deluxe gift editions—will migrate from printed pages to screens in upcoming years. She anticipates a day in the not-so-distant future when more readers will be downloading the New Yorker than buying it at newsstands.
iPads and e-readers are a long way from her days at U-M, where she wrote her term papers on typewriters; and from her first writing job at the Boston Phoenix, when writers were aghast at the news that they—not typists—would have to key in their own stories. But Orlean is a realist when it comes to communication in the modern world. People who blame text messaging and social media for the erosion of grammar are missing the point, she says. “Language is a plastic, changeable thing that is always being assaulted and transformed,” she said.
Billboards, advertisements, graffiti, comic books, and street conversation have just as strong an effect on the way that we write. She believes that social media sites are an effect, rather than a cause, of the brisk, 140-characters-at-a-time pace of the digital world. “If our attention spans hadn’t already been shrinking, Twitter would have never caught on,” she said. “Modernity has shrunk our attention span.” (The Internet is not a one-way street to shorter conversations, she added. Without the constraint of paper costs, some publications may actually run longer, more in-depth pieces in a digital format.)
Beyond pragmatism, Orlean’s investment in trends is grounded in a conviction that the basic writer-reader exchange will remain constant. Whatever format they use, authors are always building a single narrative sensibility, she says. Whether visitors to www.susanorlean.com read her New Yorker articles, watch videos of her conversations with fellow authors, or link to her Twitter stream, it’s all coming from the same mind; the same view of the world. And readers? They are always looking for the same thing, she said.
“Are we ever tired of good stories? Of learning about the world?” she asked the crowd at the book festival. “Never. And we never will be.”