calling for a renaissance

Together with his wife, Georges Borchardt has run his eponymous literary agency since 1967; his career as an agent stretches back to his arrival in the United States shortly after the Second World War. Magnificent list, naturally: John Gardner, John Ashberry, Ian McEwan, Tracy Kidder, Elie Wiesel, Eugene Ionesco…

I never had the opportunity to work with Borchardt, but thankfully he took the time to sit down for a marvelous conversation with his client, Michael Meyer, for The Paris Review. Borchardt thinks back fondly to his childhood in Paris:

[In] those days, when you gave a book to a child, it was not an insult. If I didn’t ask for a book for Christmas, I asked to have one of my favorite books bound. They came uncut, with paper covers. I would go to a place and select the end papers and the leather for the binding, and then I would have this beautiful object to take home.

The war put an end to all that, and to all of Borchardt’s beautifully bound books, too.

I would love to see a shift back to binding one’s own library. Publishers could offer an “uncut” edition—would that be feasible? After all, bookbinders still practice their craft. The New York Times profiled one still working out of a cramped shop on the Lower East Side. I’m tempted to tear the cover off David Lynch’s Room to Dream before I finish it and bring it down there. There are some books you enjoy so much they demand nothing less than Corinthian leather. Or perhaps the pages could be wrapped in plastic.

Borchardt is an excellent conversationalist. Is it just me, or is the capacity for good conversation increasingly rare? Should I blame social media? I don’t know. Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you’re not only dissatisfied with the conversation but you actually start to doubt conversation itself? Not just “this is boring” but “have I ever really enjoyed talking to another person before? I mean, I must have, but those memories seem very hazy right now…”

I feel that way about the Internet all the time now. I bounce around Reddit and Twitter, sift half-heartedly through my RSS feeds, watch some clips on YouTube…it’s not only “this isn’t that fun” but “was this ever fun? I remember being excited about the Internet, at some point. It felt like a revelation. Didn’t it? I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t.”

In 1994 or so, I visited my sister at the University of Pennsylvania. In the computer lab, she pulled up something she called a webpage. She’d created it herself using a special code of some kind called HTML. She showed it to me. I could kind of read it. This was a “homepage”: some text about her favorite TV shows at the time (Cheers and Seinfeld, as I recall) and some photos from the shows. How did she get those onto the computer? It wasn’t clear. At the time, I was a big CompuServe chatroom user who dabbled in the occasional MUD, but this was something else. It wasn’t an enclosed digital playground with an hourly fee. This was somehow out there, unleashed, a world wide web of information. That summer, I attended a summer science program at Syracuse University. Imagine my thrill when I learned we had unlimited access to the Web. I was beyond hooked. Anything was possible.

No longer. Even clickbait has lost its addictive luster. It used to be that marketing copy had this irresistible sparkle and lure, every word chosen by specialists to create the maximum psychological draw. Now I feel like even the lifestyle brands and course creators and purveyors of creative entrepreneurship retreats and what-not are simply going through the motions like the rest of us.

The Web has entered its Darkest Timeline.

Can it come back? Sure. Podcasts died. Apple killed them when it introduced its podcast store. Suddenly all the weird, cool, indie, niche podcasts were drowned out by the repackaged NPR shows that suddenly dominated the various Top 10 lists. The air went out of the room and many cool podcasts—including my own—cut transmission. Then Serial came along and things are have gotten good again. Maybe I should bring the podcast back.

In this case, I can’t point to any one thing responsible for sucking the air out of the Web. But we’re long overdue for a renaissance. Where will it come from?

Like Georges Borchardt, I’m caught looking back fondly at a lost era. But it’s time for action, not nostalgia. Any ideas?

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