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deadCenter Film Festival review: "Out of Print"

George Lang Published: June 8, 2013

My notes from watching the 54-minute documentary “Out of Print,” which examines the past and present and speculates on the future of the written word, are mostly just hastily scribbled questions its subjects ask throughout the film. Here are a few of better, bigger ones:

  • “Is the experience of sitting down and reading a whole book disappearing?”
  • “Are people no longer learning how to comprehend at depth? How to think?”
  • “Does Google have too much power over public information?”
  • “Why is media becoming less and less permanent?”
  • “Are consumers really benefitted by the sale of new reading technologies like tablets, smart phones, and e-readers?”
  • “Do you even learn anything by multitasking?”
  • “How do we convey information democratically in the future?”

The answers, according to “Out of Print”:

  • Yes.
  • Yes.
  • Yes.
  • Because it’s profitable that way.
  • Not as much as the corporations that manufacture, market, and sell these technologies.
  • Not really.
  • Good question.

It’s a lot to take in in under an hour, but director Vivienne Roumani keeps everything in order, beginning with how comprehension preceded books, codexes, and even scrolls, and eventually winding along to how book sales are doing fine while publishers are struggling. Her film contends that power’s shifted from gatekeepers of information like editors, book publishers, newspapers, and librarians into the hands of those who develop technologies: Amazon, Google, and the like. And while this has helped push the act of reading to an all-time high, comprehension, thoughtful reflection, and complex analysis are at all-time lows.

Her access and diversity of sourcing in particular are impressive. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sits down to talk, and his thoughts are often juxtaposed against those of Scott Turow, a professional fiction writer and the president of the Author’s Guild who points out his industry’s problems with a population that wants information but doesn’t want to pay for it. We hear from journalist Jeffrey Toobin, professors of history, elementary, middle school, and high school teachers, the director of the Harvard Library, bookstore owners and Ray Bradbury. The crowd I was with (in the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library) gasped and sighed when an interviewed teenager described an expedition for information at a library as “one of the hardest experiences of my life.”

Hey young people: I know that part makes it sound like “Out of Print”‘s just a bunch of old-man hectoring about how you’re terrible for using Twitter and reading blogs but it isn’t. The alarming statistics included here cover old people too. ”I don’t care that people read books,” says Toobin. “I care that they read.” Which is to say that he cares that people really comprehend and think critically.

Meryl Streep does a great NPR host with her narration and Roumani steers it away from a too-easy woe-is-me ending, emphasizing the importance of education and the value of the work done by parents and teachers. “Out of Print” will inform and make you think twice about whether you’re outsourcing too much of your critical thinking to technology all at once. Wait is that multitasking? Crud. carney