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Review: Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis



by sjhoward

This is the 2,053rd post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 21st August 2013.

I publish a book review every other Wednesday. You can browse all previous reviews here.

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Amazon recently boasted of the success of it’s Kindle Singles, novella-length ebooks by notable authors sold at low prices. I understand that Amazon has sold over five million ‘singles’ since it launched the programme a little over two years ago, and they have reasonably recently been gifted their own reserved location in the Kindle store.

Having never read a ‘single’, I felt a little like I was missing out, so I logged on and bought Gutenberg the Geek by one of my favourite media writers (and one-time reader of this blog) Jeff Jarvis.

Given that this is my first ‘single’, I feel I have to spent some time writing about the format. I understand that Gutenberg the Geek is about average in terms of ‘single’ length. Essentially, it seems short enough to read in one sitting, yet long enough to explore topics and ideas in some depth. It seemed much the same length as the longform feature articles in news magazines. Of course, this is a much-lamented length that has become something of a cause du jour, with all sorts of outlets from Matter to NSFWCorp to Longform doing their best to “protect this style of journalism” which they believe is dying, while all the while The New Yorker, Wired and Time continue to publish longform articles. I wonder, really, what Kindle Singles can offer than all of these other “solutions” cannot.

I should, perhaps, backtrack a little here and point out that I really like and admire Matter (which I helped to fund), NSFWCorp (to which I subscribe) and Longform (which I read daily). I don’t mean to sound critical of them. But, while I like longform journalism, it’s a rare morning where I awake from my slumber and think “I must read something long today”. Obsessing about longform journalism makes little more sense than obsessing over making articles shorter and punchier. The important thing is that the right content is in the right form.

I guess the upshot of this is that I feel a bit short-changed by the Kindle Singles format. It feels like a length that should be in a magazine, and that doesn’t quite stand comfortably in isolation. But perhaps that’s down to the novelty more than the form itself.

And so to Gutenberg the Geek. This is a fine, brief biography of Gutenberg which presents him as “the original technology entrepreneur”. As I’d expect from Jeff Jarvis, he gives a convincing account and argument for shining Gutenberg’s achievement through this prism, and uses the light it casts to illuminate modern-day questions around everything from internet freedom to start-up investment. Handled with Jarvis’s typically deft touch, the comparison feels neither strained nor awkward, and never as though the life of Gutenberg is being manipulated to fit.

This sort of thing, I suspect, answers the question about what Kindle Singles can offer. This ‘single’ wouldn’t fit comfortably as a passage in a bigger book, as it’s a self-contained idea. The idea wouldn’t survive stretching to fill an entire standard-length book, without detrimental deviation from the central thrust. And as much as the length may be appropriate for magazine publication, I think it would be difficult to convince an editor to carry what amounts to a mildly esoteric thought-experiment with little new content. Publishing it as a standalone actually works rather well.

So I guess I’ve reached the somewhat circular conclusion that I like the writing of a writer whose writing I like. Gutenberg the Geek presents the life of Gutenberg in a fairly novel way, and left me with much food for thought. What more could I ask for 99p?

Gutenberg the Geek is available now from amazon.co.uk, exclusively on Kindle.

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