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'Championing the human right to disconnect': A conversation with off-line Analog Sea founding editor Jonathan Simons

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In a world of bits and bytes, Kindles and Kobos and, horror of horrors, reading a book on your iPhone, the homepage for Analog Sea — an offline publisher of printed books — is refreshingly simple. The entire website consists of one page, and on that one page, four items: two sentences and two addresses for the publishing house, one in Freiburg, Germany, the other in Austin, Texas.

That’s it.

Jonathan Simons is the founding editor of the nonprofit publishing house and its literary journal with a corresponding name. According to his website — not quite as brief as that for his business, jonsimons.com consists of three web pages with a total of one paragraph, 10 listed published works and the same two addresses found at analogsea.com — he is, in addition to being an editor, a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Center for Humans and Machines, in Berlin.

Call his work Neo-Romanticist, or perhaps Modern Romanticist, but Simons the publisher is effecting change, one print publication at a time.

'The Analog Sea Review,' is an offline journal — a pocket-size review which collates poetry, essays, fiction and art for those 'wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.' Editions are available only in print and only in bookstores. Correspondence with the publishing house is done through snail mail, and their free publication, 'The Analog Sea Bulletin' is similarly delivered via post to the door. To receive a free copy of 'The Analog Sea Bulletin,' including a list of Analog Sea stockists, send a letter or postcard to Analog Sea, PO Box 11670, Austin, TX 78711.

That publication is the “The Analog Sea Review,” the publisher’s offline journal: a pocket-size review which collates poetry, essays, fiction and art for those “wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.” As you would expect, editions are available only in print and only in bookstores. Correspondence with Simons and the publishing house is done through snail mail, and their free publication, “The Analog Sea Bulletin,” is similarly delivered via post to the door.

Because all of this in an increasingly digital world can seem simultaneously alluring and antithetical, Simons often gets questions about his publishing penchants. Here, he answers a few of those for Mountain Times.

Tom Mayer: Please explain a bit about the mission of Analog Sea.

Jonathan Simons: At the heart of our work is a simple love for art and literature, and for beautiful books. We want to remind people that there is so much more to life than what can be illuminated on a screen. It’s too easy these days to fall for replicas and forget the joys of direct experience. We strive for all our editions to be traded between human booksellers and readers rather than via algorithms and home delivery. Of course, given that offline stance, it is inevitable that our books will not be available instantly to everyone in the world. Our hope instead is that our printed editions will inspire a certain kind of fringe individual. We want to encourage creatively minded people, and those who do still read books, to avoid becoming too entangled in the web so as to keep their faculties of imagination and empathy intact.

I think it’s important to understand that the goal of technological capitalism is to network and monetize as much of our lives and culture as possible. As most of us know by now, even when a digital platform is free for the “user,” it’s still a marketplace with all the distinctive trappings of spectacle, manipulative messaging, surveillance and the like. It’s just that we have become the product. So, what of culture, of ourselves, do we want to remain untethered from the digital marketplace? What parts of our lives should remain offline? Answering these questions is especially important now that the pandemic has catapulted us 10 or more years into our digital future. Given the scale of our global problems, the paradoxical truth is that digital solutions are needed now more than ever. But the virtual forum has significant drawbacks.

It seems to me that aesthetic appreciation emerges from the discovery of nuance. While any object can be packaged and sold, a state of wide-eyed curiosity cannot. Great books can change a person’s life; they can spark a revolution, but only with a certain amount of devotion and commitment on the part of the reader, not simply as a result of a one-click, buy-now act. The power of art, its reception and creation, is directly proportional to the power of one’s attention. And what we’re seeing now is a crisis of attention.

We certainly have more images, more films, more entertainment than ever, and better algorithms feeding us never-ending streams of content. But do we have contemplation? Do we have enough unfragmented time for cohesive thoughts, feelings,and dreams to develop, so that our lives can become more than a patchwork assemblage of soundbites, images and political groupthink? Are we able to take in one object, or one person or one book long enough to really fall in love? Given that algorithms are already composing journalism, music and film scripts, the streets should be full of protesters waving paintbrushes and tattered copies of “The Brothers Karamazov,” yet all we ever see people wielding are phones.

We’re advocating not for regression but for a balance where poetry and reverie are not forgotten entirely. Digital life is propelled by efficiency and comfort management. And nothing is more uncomfortable to the Internet dweller than silence, inactivity, wilderness, solitude — being stuck in a quiet room with nothing but a book and a few sheets of paper. Disconnecting from the hive has truly become a dissenting act.

TM: In the midst of that disconnecting, what do you hope readers will experience through engaging with an offline journal?

JS: We’re obviously not printing anything that couldn’t be posted on a website or uploaded to an e-book reader. But the context is entirely different. What happens most often is this: a person — often a bibliophile, writer or artist — stumbles upon one of our printed bulletins, or gets a tip from a likeminded friend. Because our books are only stocked, at present, by about 160 bookshops in the world, and, in normal times, are not readily available online, the curious reader suddenly realizes that the Internet, in this case, will not so easily give them what they want. They have to take to the streets and lean across the counters of local booksellers to ask, “Do you know where I might find ‘Analog Sea’?” Sometimes they end up back home, with a pen and paper, writing us a letter. Then an envelope and stamp must be found, possibly from a neighbor or the local post office. From this point, all they can do is wait and wonder.

Now, of course, all of this is arguably very inefficient. But this inefficiency is deliberate. We want to keep our work and readers’ interactions with our work, within the real world, the place where our lives exist beyond machines, beyond the marketplace. As I see it, the opposite of beauty is not actually ugliness but rather, efficiency.

Efficiency is the organizing principle of late capitalism and technology generally, which promises that the immediate availability of products and apps will eliminate discomfort and boredom. Waiting is at the heart of what Silicon Valley means by friction, and this is the core discomfort they seek to “disrupt” by selling us apps and gadgets. Convenience capitalism is unduly cunning and, for most of us, quite addictive. Once a person buys into this digital promise of comfort and efficiency, once they are hooked, they inevitably become intolerant not only of inactivity and waiting, but also of silence and boredom, complex emotions and divergent views.

If you strip away the process entirely — the physical transaction of buying a book, or the waiting in line to see the premiere — what remains is pure commodity, merely a product and its branding. This is bad enough for groceries and toaster ovens, but it’s really horrific to see this kind of hyper-commodification taking over artistic and literary culture.

So our readers might have to wait, but soon enough the phone rings. A local bookseller informs them that the “Analog Sea” edition has arrived and is awaiting collection. Soon enough a stubbornly physical object is in their hands.

TM: I sense in this an aura of activism in your mission. Is that fair?

JS: Yes and no. It was certainly never my intention to become an activist. Throughout my career, I’ve swung back and forth between academia and creative work, two realms I always saw, and enjoyed, as existing outside of politics. There is so much injustice and inequality in the world, so much to repair and fight about, that I feel we need spaces which exist outside of politics, and indeed of capitalism. Historically, it was the agora, the marketplace, where both products and ideas were exchanged. But there were also academies, monasteries and libraries — all examples of places firmly rooted outside of the marketplace. Now the marketplace is nearly inescapable.

The digital forum, for various reasons, mostly owing to our newfound misplaced instinct to replace embodied community with virtual tribalism, has become so overwhelmed by political thinking and spectacle. Social media has become primarily about reifying identities and sectarian divisions, which makes it rather inhospitable to philosophy and art. To have a private life, and to have public spaces celebrating something beyond money and politics, means that we can relax our guard, our outward-facing selves, and remember the common humanity we all share, which includes the abilities to play, to dream, to laugh, as well as the most basic ingredients for civil society, such as empathy and compassion.

Of course, just as there are those who can suggest that anything is art, so too can it be argued that all art is political, from Warhol’s soup cans to Duchamp’s readymades. As an emerging institute, “Analog Sea” is championing the human right to disconnect. I guess that’s just as political a statement as when I wrote “conscientious objector” in the margins of my obligatory draft card when I turned 18. These days, reading a book, or doing just about anything without constant distraction, is a revolutionary act. So, alas, I’ve become an offline activist, and an activist for a new sort of humanism, for direct over virtual experiences. But the extreme politicization of the digital forum, in all its egoic glory, is undoubtedly tearing our world apart. We talk a lot about how to regulate the platforms in the hope that this will somehow bring out the best in us. But isn’t it interesting how rare the discussion leads to the simple act of turning it all off?

TM: It is interesting, but how do you answer the detractors who would accuse you of being mired in the past?

JS: It’s a fair question, but I think the greater risk is the opposite — to not learn from the lessons history gives us. For example, the Hellenic world wasn’t perfect, but it gave us rather robust building blocks for democratic and scientific ideals which still inform our lives, 2,500 years later. The Renaissance gave us models of self-determination, free from an authoritarian Church and thus the freedom to think and dream for ourselves. We ask how previous generations “couldn’t see it coming.” It’s because they were not interested enough in history.

And even when we are unconscious of what came before us, we can’t, in fact, avoid being mired in the past. Like it or not, those of us alive now are deeply grooved by 170 years of industrial capitalism. And perhaps one of the reasons why technology has invaded so deeply is that we’re still caught up in the same exuberance espoused by Marinetti and the Futurists, with their love for speed and powerful new machines. And we’re still dangerously intoxicated by techno-utopianism, from Marx to Stewart Brand to Tim Berners-Lee. We still want to believe in the idea that the Internet is a great democratizing force. I say, instead of throwing out the past, which is impossible in any case, we should be clearer about how the past influences us and how it can guide us away from barbarism toward a more civil and creative future.

TM: Speaking of a more civil and creative future, you’ve written about reading as a “solitary activity.” Would you expand on that?

JS: The act of reading is a solitary activity regardless of whether or not one is physically alone. The world may flood our consciousness before and after our collected moments of reading, but the fruits of reading are always internal, via our imagination. The difference therefore between reading tweets versus the (endangered) long-form novel is that the very purpose of the novel is the sustained exercise of imagination. Like everything else, imagination deepens with sustained attention. This is what makes reading itself a creative act. The imagery may be descriptive, but the reader’s mind is left to construct a universe in much the same way as does the writer or painter. And I think it’s this solitude, this excuse for extended interiority, which makes reading novels so joyful.

TM: Beyond that solitude, I’m thinking of all the online and even in-person book clubs — few are the popular books published today that don’t come with ready made book club queries — in which the prize often seems to be socialization over actually discussing the book.

JS: I see the book as solitary and community-building in equal measure. This is why our publishing efforts revolve entirely around local bookshops. Most people feel compelled to be part of community of some sort. Some communities are predicated on complexity-aversity, such as nativism or other exclusionist ideologies. But a community which grows organically around shared adoration for the arts and letters is complexity-rich, and this is when we Homo sapiens transcend our base instincts and become pluralistic humanists. And again, we see this from history, from the Hellenic world, the Florentine Renaissance, the Viennese coffeehouses and elsewhere. When two people love the same book, their exchanges can be heated, but they are usually bonding. It happens fairly frequently that a reader returns to a bookshop and tells the bookseller that their recent suggestion changed the reader’s life: this is a powerful example of how two people can come to really understand each other, despite inevitable differences — because they see a similar sense of curiosity and longing, and a rare glimpse of the interiority of another.

TM: Similarly, we’re all connected online, but probably more distant and socially anxious than perhaps at any point in human history. Is this at least part of what you’re getting at with Analog Sea?

JS: Yes, and to say it another way, we’re all so wrapped up in this cacophony of opinions and images that we’re forgetting how to really celebrate life. That sense of playfulness, of dreaming, of deep appreciation for being alive, for the physical presence of other humans and for profound aesthetic experiences — all of these rely on sustained attention and that wonderful feeling of not wanting to be anywhere else.

TM: The notion of returning to finely crafted print books with no digital counterpart is indeed romantic — neo- or otherwise — and I find it refreshing and welcoming. As a book reviewer, I’m seeing that more and more publishing houses are turning their attention to print design, layout and production — in effect again creating heirloom books. It also appears we’ve turned the corner where more readers again are buying print books over digital sales. Are you sensing any of this in the world at large and within your own publishing house? If so, what are those readers looking for today?

JS: Our own continued survival as an offline press illustrates that there certainly are people out there in the world who value physical objects, and who can achieve enough disconnection from the network to get through a few hundred pages. The reports on sales figures of printed books during the pandemic are encouraging, but I think it’s too early to tell at this point how we will emerge from the year we spent streaming our lives. There’s also more at stake than the top-tier sales numbers. For example, it’s been proven in philological studies that the complexity of writing being published in recent years has significantly decreased. And the Japanese even have a word for the person who buys many books but doesn’t read them — tsundoku.

But let’s be clear, what we really mean in terms of the future of the book is not merely the endurance of the physical object, but rather the continuation of great literature and what it offers us — poetry, complex writing, novels. The printed book as a technology will surely not be disappearing anytime soon. But for those of us who have been truly guided and inspired by great literature, the perpetuation of the coffee-table book, the airport page-turner, kidult fiction, and the like, does little to assuage our concerns for the future. And of course, the steady eradication of bookbinding as a practical art, in the face of non-archival, cheaply produced print-on-demand volumes, is a whole other story.

I think if we want a future where great literature maintains a vital purpose, we must somehow resolve this crisis of attention. The future is undoubtedly digital, but unplugging for a while is always a glorious possibility. We should be immensely grateful that there remains an off button.

To receive a free copy of The Analog Sea Bulletin, including a list of Analog Sea stockists, send a letter or postcard to Analog Sea, PO Box 11670, Austin, TX 78711.

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