Review of a Presentation by Eric A. Meyer
By Michael Carson, BWW Vice President & WCN Contributing Editor
We went to a literary salon Saturday and an existential meditation broke out.
Except it’s hard to quiet your mind when the “talk” is delivered by a female robo-voiceover; the quite alive non-robo speaker Eric Meyer utters not a single word but does fling overhead projector slides onto the floor, cued by a loud relentless "Ding," and the audience is asked to say “rhizome” not once, but twice.
Plus the kazoos.
✩ This paragraph is out of order. It’s “non-linear,” but so is Eric Meyers, and I think you should know something. If you open a new window in your browser and Google “post obsolete,” guess who’s in the number two spot? Yep: Eric Meyer. He’s the Prince of Post-Obsoletism, because Google says he is - which apparently is what really matters in Earth Year 2013.
And say rhizome we did. It didn’t even feel all that weird, and it could have. Should have. Mr. Meyer’s multi-media riff on the mortality of the printed book had all the elements of a first-order Squirm-A-Thon: performance art, encroachment into our personal space, audience participation (see “rhizome” above), and forced group dance. With party hats.
But unlike watching your teenage daughter sing an uncensored rendition of Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” at a church recital, “The Obsolete Book Etc.” was not all that squirmy, for me and most others it seemed. It was strangely appealing and immersive. Partly due to Mr. Meyer’s own conviction to his role as human prop (his theater training was apparent); the novelty of elements such as live close-up video of his eyes projected on a wall; and the willingness of the material to wink at itself just enough with lines like, “You know, books are, like, obsolete or whatever.”
What, exactly, was it? Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Non-linear, participatory, disassociative, self-obsoleting anti-presentation.
See? Sigh...neither do I. I’m not even sure those are all real words. That was just my competitive ex-creative director brain saying look! I can hang with your 20-something exploration into the nature of art, or media, or, or - what were we talking about? I need a nap.
“I was impressed by the purest form of outrageous creation.” Judy Rose.
High praise indeed. Did it rise to that level? And what then? What could we stodgy old word-counters get out of it?
Let’s talk about Meyer’s thesis, which is that the printed book is dying. Now, this has been debated since the first creamy Kindle arrived from China, ready to suck in as many of Amazon’s e-books and your dollars as possible. Probably before. But those debates have always been about economics, and Meyer doesn’t care about that, not as much as Jeff Bezos, anyway.
He cares about ideas: their origin, connection, deconstruction, reconstruction, extension - that was my takeaway, and he said as much during the Q & A.
Q: What ideas or techniques could we - your typical uni-media wordslingers - apply to our own work?
A: Step back from your work and ask, is there another way to look at this? To write it? To not write it?
Now, I’m sure that shouts of “By Jove, that’s it!” aren’t ringing out over Boulder right now. First, because nobody in America knows anyone named Jove, or would admit it; and second, I bet the majority of BWW writers already employ this process, or something like it. If you use Webster’s digital thesaurus, as I and, by the way, Mr. Meyer do quite frequently, you’re using a piece of the overall pie.
The difference lies in Meyer’s way of “stepping back,” which is closer to that of a graphic designer or commercial artist than your typical wordslinger. He’s willing to go outside the traditional physical book form, a trait that could be passed off as overly precious or just plain weird, except Meyer seems driven to meld form and story into one meaningful, valid whole.
It’s not that he dislikes books, but he does dislike what he thinks they’ve become: an ossified medium. He believes that the book as printed on paper is fading, and says that “If the book dies, then it no longer has to be anything.” You’re freed then from the societal brain hack that re-routes all of your “wild ideas” to the Auto-Reject Bin, where they’re crushed and flushed before they can do any harm. So if you decide a 350-page, 50,000-word novel set in Garamond 12-point on 4” x 7” book stock isn’t your cup o’ tea any more, well all right then.
For example: Mr. Meyer is working on a novel written on 5x7 index cards. When it’s complete you, the “reader,” (though I’m not sure that’s even the correct term,) can rearrange them however you want, to make any story you like. The closest synonym I’ve seen in print is the Griffin & Sabine series of epistolary books, which are beautifully produced books-as-art as much as an immersive, three-dimensional story-telling device. They’re not for everyone, but you can’t deny their beauty - or ambition.
This is a corollary to Meyer’s book-is-dying thesis, which he applies to other objects as well: the pencil, computer, abacus. He states that “Once an object is obsolete I am free to use it, or not use it, as I see fit.” Ergo, if you want to write your book on index cards, or a roll of toilet paper, or not write anything at all but post thousands of pages of disjointed information on a website, as one Canadian woman has, and let your “readers” click out their own stories, hey. It’s your choice.
It’s also your career, which for me is what any discussion of writing comes back to. Sorry, but I’m 54 and after 30 years spent writing TV spots and ad copy, I’m late to the game. So while I admire Eric’s creativity and ambition, I also must point out the obvious: his methods aren’t for everyone. I do believe that his willingness to let ideas surf whatever brain-wave they arrive on, and perhaps nudge them this way or that but never tell them to stop screwing around up there and give me some words to write, dammit! has merit for anyone looking to write a breakout book. You never know what 10 minutes of unstructured exploration might reveal. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
The title of the presentation is “The Obsolete Book in a Post-Obsolete World, as Represented by a Post-Obsolete Book About Dance.” I put it at the end because some people might be stopped in their tracks by a 17-word title with overtones of high-minded leg pulling. And it is high-minded, but sincere, I believe. You just can’t get caught up in the details. It’s all about the idea, and the idea is solid.
Eric Meyer’s full presentation is at http://eric.andmeyer.com/post-obsolete.