CDs. Ardi. Gourmet. Vooks.
It's a digital, astonishing, sad, hilarious time to be alive.
The CD, which just celebrated its twenty-seventh anniversary, continues its path toward extinction. Sound Scan reports that even this year's multi-million-unit Michael Jackson and Beatles bonanzas haven't stopped album sales from dropping 13.9 percent from 2008, which itself saw a 14 percent decline from 2007.
At least one skeptic, present at its birth, always thought CDs were a fad. George Albert, late owner of the now-defunct music trade magazine Cashbox, opposed the CD format like a creationist dismisses Darwin. Years after they accounted for the overwhelming majority of recorded music sales, he'd tell anyone who'd listen, "CDs are a hype. Truck drivers only buy eight-track tapes, and that will never change."
Eight-tracks, of course, had long before gone the way of the Conestoga wagon, soon to be joined by George and his magazine. (Like all fundamentalists, George was a bit delusional. He liked to remind me, "Mike, I got you staawwted in this business." He didn't.)
Print magazines -- especially local and niche-oriented publications -- aren't endangered, but their numbers are thinning faster than trees in the Brazilian rain forest. When publishing giant Conde Nast closed Gourmet and three other titles last week, the number of North American magazine fatalities rose to 383 for the first nine months of this year, according to mediafinder.com; 64 more converted from print to online-only. These numbers are somewhat less disastrous than 2008 and 2007, which saw 613 and 643 closings, respectively. But maybe that's because there are just fewer magazines left to fold. On the bright side, fewer trees have to be felled to provide paper, which is helpful because there are also fewer trees to fell.
Gourmet wasn't just the best food magazine. Its gifted editors -- including Jane Montant from 1980-91 and Ruth Reichl for the past 10 years -- regularly published brilliant essays on a variety of subjects by the likes of M.F.K. Fisher, Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, Jonathan Gold and the late David Foster Wallace, whose memorable "Consider the Lobster" in 2004 explored the morality of boiling living beings alive. Thankfully, many of these pieces can still be found at gourmet.com.
Extinction doesn't have to mean eternal obscurity. An international group of scientists (led by Kent State's Owen Lovejoy) has analyzed the fossils of Ardi, a humanoid being that 4.4 million years ago apparently leapt from the trees to launch the human family tree. Ardi thus retakes the evolutionary stage as experts sift through thousands of pages of material, much of which is available to the general public here.
Of course, scientific proof is no more impressive to millions of Christian fundamentalists than CD vs. eight-track stats were to George Albert. According to John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas -- whose offices are just down the street from The Mel Brooks Institute for the Very, Very Nervous -- "This is a meaningless discovery of another ape. As far as the creationist community is concerned, this is a big yawn. There is nothing about Ardi that has anything to do with the evolution of man." And what about the fossil record? That's easy for the creationist community: an omnipotent God with an instinct for meddling could easily bury fossils that look millions of years old any time He wants.
It's unknowable whether the next stage in the evolution of books will be the "vook" -- which joins "DigiScent iSmell" and "*ist" in the absurd-names- for-tech-products hall of fame -- but let's hope not. According to Ellie Hirschhorn, chief digital officer -- as opposed to an analog officer? -- of Simon & Schuster, the publisher that just introduced the first line of the creatures, the vook is "a game-changing model for reading in the age of digital multimedia, the first viable combination of text and video that is user-friendly and that addresses today's multitasking audience and how it absorbs information and entertainment."
Vooks aren't inherently bad. As the critic David Finkle noted in a recent blog, "Okay, I'll concede that books concerned with, say, fitness, can benefit from video segments. But fiction?"
One of Simon & Schuster's initial vooks is Promises, the thirty-seventh novel by best-selling author Jude Deveraux, who explained that she "had to take a little bit of scenes out to make room for the video." Given that philosophy -- and grammar -- S&S might do well to take Finkle's advice and "release the video and forget the book."
It can be exhilarating to contemplate the digital and evolutionary future. But I don't know if I could bear a world of "vookcases," "vook reports," and, God forbid, a New York Review of Vooks.
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