I was recently asked to contribute to the Powell’s Books website as a guest blogger for the week of Monday, October 19 through Friday the 23rd. I was quite pleased to do it. The idea of a new audience of potential readers at this moment when my first novel is just out was a great opportunity.
But then there were choices to make. Should I pick a different subject each day or carry a theme. Should I be light or jump headfirst into those darker thoughts that plague me.
In the end I chose to write on a single theme, the death of the book, but avoid my worst nightmares for the sake of some degree of polite conversation. After it was done, I thought it came out fairly well. No loud ranting. No dead bodies.
Powell’s has kindly given me permission to repost my entries here and I have decided to put them all up at once in consecutive order:
1. The Death of the Book Is Not Exaggerated
Because I write this from Indianapolis, where I have been attending this year’s Bouchercon (the world crime and mystery fiction convention) I will begin with a bit of argument I usually save for later in my general thesis concerning the death of the book…
Sadly, most of the people attending looked like me–old and white…Okay, older, but still white. And though I know many younger readers of the mystery genre, they are the minority, and they are still white. Sitting in the audience and looking over the gray hair toward the podium where many fine authors were expounding on wonderful aspects of a genre which has been special to me since I was a teenager aspiring to be a writer myself, I could not help but be aware of the mortality of so many of these folks so devoted to their field they are willing to spend hundreds of dollars during a recession just to attend a gathering of fellow mystery lovers in this fine city with at least one great eating establishment (the Rock Bottom Brew Pub. I recommend the hickory burger and the house brown ale).
Understand, it is not their fault that they are either old, or older (I’m 62) or white. They were born that way. The problem is this: when they are gone, what then? When a new generation is raised on libraries without books, and instant news gratification, and text which is so fungible it leaks before your eyes, what then? And all this, when many cultures, not only elsewhere on this small earth, but right here in Indianapolis, have not yet even established the traditions of respect for the printed word which propelled Western culture for five centuries.
And this feeds into my greater worry–the cause which made me choose to write this series of mysteries in the first place. The book may not yet be dead, but it is mortally wounded. I have been preaching this line to deaf ears for years. The new technologies, others say, will not replace the book, but will only share the space, and enlarge it for all. Sure. Like the automobile did for the horse-drawn carriage. No. Not like that. More like the Cro-Magnon replaced the Neanderthal.
My thesis is that any such comparison does not apply. Before Gutenberg’s book, only a small elite could read–was permitted to read–and text was so expensive only the wealthy could afford the pleasure. A scare-house Halloween mirror version of this is what I fear most. After the book is gone, everyone will be able to read, but what they read and how they read will be determined by a few. A faceless few. An anonymous bureaucratic few.
I chose to write a mystery not to write a polemic about the death of the book (all part of the death of the bookshop, and the newspaper, etc), but to make a point of the mortality of this love I have for something mankind has done right amidst all the things we have gotten wrong. The book is a holy thing to me, and reading a pleasure and a gift I wish on everyone.
I have been a publisher and an editor of books and magazines. I once participated in the actual printing of a small school journal from movable type on a letterpress. I have designed pages and pasted them up. I have developed the advertising and marketing of publications. I have been a book rep traveling from city to city. And I have been a bookseller–this is the way I have earned my living for over thirty years. Now, I am a writer of a book, with others written and waiting their turn.
Not coincidentally, I chose as protagonist a ‘book hound’ whose devotion to books has afforded him a refuge and a living, whose comfort is shattered by the murder of woman–a friend and a former lover, but someone he is not sure he loved. This doubt, and the fact that he himself is both a suspect and a witness, compels him to find the cause of her death. Once shaken, he is awakened and can no longer sleep. Not to make too much of the metaphor, this is in kind with the death of the book itself. We take it for granted and assume that its blessings can be moved to a digital being. It won’t be. This wonderful device on which I write now and the magic software that makes it possible, is more fragile than any but a few are willing to recognize.
I don’t fear the Kindle or the Sony Reader, or the iPod, or any new device. They are wonderful in their own right. But we cannot let them replace the book.
There are many other worries attached to this, of course. I have been talking about this for long enough to make a few books out of it, at the very least. I will touch on a few over the next few days as I recover from my first ever convention.
2. A Practical Matter
Exaggeration is not necessary.
It was in a letter of 1897 about his cousin James Ross Clemens, that Mark Twain famously noted “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” He managed to hang on, despite his critics, for another thirteen years. Times were slower then. I suspect that the death of the book will occur more rapidly, though the small corpses will be with us for a bit longer.
What is poorly understood here is actually a very practical matter. We have lost the steel industry in America, once the largest such in the world by far, in less than forty years. That took place for very practical reasons. But if you had said such a thing was possible in 1960, you would have been looked at as a fool. And General Motors is too big to fail…right? It may not be as visible from 30,000 feet but a car trip through Detroit, or Buffalo, or any of a hundred great American industrial cities will tell you how quickly things can change.
The printing industry is just that, an industry, though miniscule by comparison to the making of steel. And this goes for publishing as well. Is there any reason for the center of publishing to remain in New York—one of the most expensive places a poor author must visit? Not now. Not in the age of the internet.
Even with a still small and captured market, the downloading of books onto Kindles and the like is already a half-priced convenience. But what will it be like in a few years. Even the machine that is a ‘reader’ will be made somewhere far far away from New York.
In an age of digital ease and the reduced ‘cost’ of those ephemeral 0’s and 1’s, can you think of a compelling reason why ‘publishers’ will promote the work of ‘authors’ who ask for too much? The need will be for product. The publicity and marketing departments have long ago assumed control of the editorial reasoning for what will be acceptable at the larger publishing houses.
Those same publishers who dominate what you can find at Walmart and Costco, (or any of the other ‘convenience’ stores that make the existence of independent book stores a daily struggle) are not in business to lose money. And like the pulp authors of the 1920’s and thirties, working in a medium which had then used technology to reduce the cost of publishing to a bare minimum, the price per word will fall even for the most popular authors. Can you tell me why those same publishers will want to keep alive a ‘format’ which they consider too expensive and too difficult to distribute relative to a nearly instant electronic impulse?
But I know this. That what happens to the reader engaged by the artful nuance of typography on a paper page while exploring the imagination of a single writer is not the same as the collision of visual information offered by the illusions on a digital screen.
I know this, that reading a book is an experience of human scale, not only proportioned to the hand but to the mind. It was made that way by the genius of Aldus Manutius and Wynkyn de Worde and tens of thousands of artisans and artists, writers and even editors (yes, even editors) who came after them.
And I know this. That if I find the original edition of a book, that it is at least what the author meant it to be, or nearly so in that contest between an author’s accepting payment and the need to pay for a meal or a bed. What you find on the screen is only what is convenient.
And this: those 3 ½ inch floppies you kept all that poetry on which you wrote in college won’t work on that lap top you bought last week. And what you have on that flash drive you carry on a string around your neck will be an artifact as useful as the tooth your ancestor once wore the same way.
You must understand this: everything we know as a civilization, good and bad, will soon be an ‘Aleph’ that even Borges could not imagine. And it can and will be lost in an instant.
It will be a practical matter.
3. Omnium Gatherum
In the October 17th issue of the Wall Street Journal there was a provocative piece concerning the new Kindle 2, by Stephen Marche who often writes for Esquire. In essence he accepts the revolutionary potential of the Kindle and proposes a new word, the ‘transbook,’ to describe the device and its cousins. I find the more humorous intonations of an ‘Omnium Gatherum’ to be appropriate. I suspect his optimism and suggest he has his historical facts out of order and incomplete.
Mr. Marche happily describes the moment in history when the ‘Kindle’ of another age was introduced: the codex. This wonderful device replaced the scroll–a single roll of paper–with what was essentially a bound volume of scrolls and was in fact the first true book, bringing to an end the tattered isolation of specific and shorter hand-written texts. This was revolutionary, indeed. What he fails to mention is that this was the very device which was used by authority to do away with the anarchy of the individual scroll, which might be produced by just any apostate who could write, and created the opportunity for organized sanction and approval (as well as improvement) of texts. The books of the Bible were thus codified by imprimatur. Heresy could thus be stamped out. It made the Pelagians among us very unhappy.
This was, in fact, the great and profound change that brought about the ‘dark ages.’ The authority of the Catholic Church was supreme and all dissent had to take place within the confines of its rule.
Mr. Marche recalls the monk Johannes Trithemius as a Benedictine scholar of the sixteenth century who opposed the printing press. He even compares him to our contemporary Nicholson Baker and that author’s recent rants against the Kindle and its kin. But Mr. Baker’s argument is more than just ‘the feel of the paper.’ Mr. Baker is a free man in a relatively open society who is worried over the further diminishment of his world, not its enlargement. And Trithemius was an occultist who recognized in the printing press the end of a more secretive society. His proto-Hogwarts School was an effort not only to garner knowledge but also to control it.
Mr. Marche then bemoans the heavy personal burden of accumulating individual volumes and the convenience of having 1500 titles in one relatively small device. He suggests a future where the ‘transbook’ will provide access to “all text that is non-copyright, and to the purchase of every book in and out of ‘print’” He says, “its about what the book wants to be.” It seems to me that this is the language of the true occultist, giving anthropomorphic power to a machine.
The reality is that the ‘transbook’ will be the tool of particular interests, and with particular interests. The industry that currently produces the book will fade away, at first slowly, but then at a quickening pace, as its economic underpinning are kicked away. The cost of a single printed book will rise. The convenience of downloading text will overcome reservations. Copyrights will be re-written to serve the new paradigm. And texts which do not meet the approved standards of language, or political purpose, will be neglected and unavailable.
This condition already exists to a lesser degree. First amendment protections are already being restricted for literature not in ‘book’ form. ‘Hate speech’ is proscribed and defined by standards which suit the political interest of the moment. Criticism of certain religious faiths is outlawed as ‘bigotry’. Specific words are forbidden and removed from texts. For those who agree with a given prejudice being exorcised, all is well. But the open society suffers. The great Nat Hentoff has been warning us about this for decades.
How is it that we are to avoid this bowdlerizing castration of our literature when all text is under the immediate electronic thumb of ‘authority.’
In How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman the marvelous reach of the law of unintended consequences was described. The poorest country in Europe in the Seventeenth Century was torn by the Presbyterian reformation of John Knox. In the fervor of their beliefs, the Kirk fathers wanted every man, woman, and child to learn to read and thus have direct access to the word of God. Overlooked was a related consequence, having learned to read, every man, woman, and child would be able to read anything they chose. Within a hundred years Scotland was the richest country in Europe, and the home of thinkers who had spawned a revolution in America and were creating the industrial revolution in Britain. Could this great awakening work now in reverse as all books are contained in a single dispenser?
Never mind the impermanence of costly devices which will be outmoded within a few years, or the restrictions of software intended to meet restrictive purposes. I would have far more confidence in the future of the e-book if it were guaranteed the same freedom of the press as the printed book. Sadly, political forces are already active on the behalf of special interests. The new money is on the Kindle, and this too leaves me in doubt.
4. Apple picking
And then we have the op-ed by Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, in the October 9th New York Times, which praised and defended the concept of Google Books—essentially the planned digital access to all the world’s literature. I recommend anyone interested in the subject of books, copyrights, and the integrity of text to read it.
I read his comments with horror and began immediately to write an essay on the subject for my own website. Sadly, I would wager that at the very least, nine out of ten people who read Mr. Brin’s editorial will think that his efforts are for the good and offer a whole new future for the written word.
A few weeks ago I stood in a grassy field where I had been picking apples while a major book illustrator paged through his portfolio of dozens of successfully published covers and hundreds of projects. His portfolio was in his hand on a device made by Apple. He also had the text of the books he had illustrated there as well, and numerous reference works he had made use of.
How could I not be impressed by this wizardry held in the palm of a hand? Well, let’s see…Perhaps I should highlight a few things Mr. Brin said in his article.
After mentioning Cornelius Walford’s account of the destruction of great libraries through the centuries, he said, “I hope such destruction never happens again.” Ironically, and I believe unintentionally, Mr. Brin’s previous and current efforts are part of the actual destruction of millions of books right now. Today. This minute. Libraries from coast to coast are ridding themselves of their troublesome books and replacing them with machines and software. The good intentions aside, all of that machinery and software will be obsolete within ten years. I know that as an historical fact. I cannot now access things I wrote on my Mac ten years ago.
Additionally, one might ask, what is the software platform which will be mandated to access Google’s efforts? But that would be picky and perhaps offensive to the software engineers at Microsoft.
And, given the rights to the world’s literature, will Google be writing off the enormous cost of their effort and giving equal access to all other search engines? Not likely. Mr. Brin even says as much while suggesting that by leading the way, Google will be making it easier for others to follow. I suppose,.. if you have a spare billion to spend.
Mr. Brin refers to “a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores” as a ‘black hole.’
Funny, I never noticed I was in a black hole all those years of my life spent at Avenue Victor Hugo Books, my small shop.
Mr. Brin does not even attempt to touch on the greater issues. Who will choose the works to be available? China, for instance, has already made it clear they will not permit access to what they do not like. Access is limited in all Arabic speaking countries. Who will oversee the texts? How will you know what you see is what the author wrote? Where will you go to check the text?
And something more, as alluded to here in a previous posting: is reading a Kindle the same as reading a book? Does the mind approach the electronic page with the same sensibilities? I can answer that by way of a personal note. I have arthritis in two fingers (having been a two-finger typist from childhood). I can no longer use a mechanical typewriter, despite my fondness for the machines themselves. More importantly though, I can say without doubt the way I write has been dramatically altered. I even think differently about the way I construct a sentence. Simply put, the ease of choice made in the instant as one writes has altered the way a writer crafts his work.
I don’t wish to be totally negative at this moment of small triumph for myself. I have beside me my own first book! But these larger matters have already affected my life, and they will be with us for all the years of my children, and their children.
Every age encompasses the end of another and the seeds of the next. That is exactly what my novel HOUND is about. It is most importantly about a final moment in human history, but it is also asking what is to come after. The old world, in all its aspects, has been my life. But Henry Sullivan, my protagonist, is younger than I am and thus is straddling that cusp. This story and those which follow are about a book hound, a man who finds good books–as I see him in my mind, a sort of knight errant and this series of mysteries as his sallying forth to do battle on behalf of the things he loves.
I am not Henry Sullivan. He is far smarter and braver than I have ever been. His worse limitation is that he only knows what I know. Thus he has quite a task ahead. He must first come to understand the threat his world faces. Then he must find out why. And then he must do something about it.
Understanding the threat that Mr. Brin poses to the life of the book is obvious. What can be done about it is not. Certainly technology will move in the direction of demand. The usefulness of the Apple iPod is just as obvious, and the demand is terrific. Finding a viable place for the book in a world of instant amusement will be difficult. But that is my purpose.
Now I have a book of my own. And if I can entertain a few more readers for a little while longer and thereby keep my world alive, I will be very pleased with what I’ve done. But I will not be satisfied with that.
5. Truth and Consequences
The challenge of making my case in these five short blogs is magnified for me because I am both a slow talker and thinker. I tend to work toward my thoughts in an ‘organic’ manner. That’s probably why I chose the form of the novel for expression. I am not easily seduced by sound bites.
The first line of my novel, HOUND was hidden until my editor pointed out the old newspaper adage that I was burying my lead. Yet it was that first line that had spawned the whole book and had always been the nucleus of the way I was going to approach my larger subject.
Books are, after all, the way I make my living.
It is a matter of our age that most of us refuse to deal with unpleasantness until we are forced to. There are so many alternatives. Buy a new one. Eat out. Watch TV. Download it…A significant number of my fellow citizen live their lives between a pair of headphones. It’s damn hard to hear the screaming that way.
We have thrown off the clothes of tradition and taken up the amusements of our age. Neal Postman warned about the consequences of this in Amusing Ourselves to Death, many years ago.
I was not surprised in the 1990’s to discover that my worries over the death of the book were dismissed out of hand by most people. What occurred to me then was that the whole process of recognition would be either organic or catastrophic. Nothing in-between. Now that the dying has begun, what I hear is denial. It won’t be so bad. You won’t feel a thing.
Telling people over and again that the levees are inadequate, that money to fix them is being misspent on other things, and that history has predicted a direct hit by another hurricane in the foreseeable future, is not enough, though homes and lives and the life’s work of hundreds of thousands are at risk. Afterward there will be many to blame. But there will be very few who admit, “I knew, but I did nothing.”
It is your right to go in a candy shop and spend all your pay on sweets. It is your right to put the work of your life on a flash drive. I am not asking for or wanting any government to tell you or me how to live our lives. What I am wanting is for as many people as possible to take responsibility for themselves and what they do. I don’t want my children to bear the consequences of a society which has lost its head. Go ahead, buy the candy if that’s important to you. But please don’t turn then to your government to correct your health problems because that cost will then fall on me and mine and I do not deserve the burden. I am certain I have made enough mistakes all my own to bear.
Dependency on the convenience of the internet is not a good thing. Yes, it will be a wondrous good to have all of the world’s fine literature (and the trash too) at your fingertips as Google wishes. But if you stop making choices—if you stop buying the actual book which represents your own judgment about what is fine, there will be no true arbiter of taste. There will be no true arbiter of value to separate the fine from the trash.
The book must share space in the rooms of our lives. We must make that judgment in numbers sufficient to keep the book alive and viable as an art form, and a business, with all the craft and industry behind it. What I fear at first is neglect. No one wants to do harm. But later, when the cost of the book has risen too far above the expense of the simple download, all that will be left is the kind of ‘print-on-demand’ that will homogenize and pasteurize every nuance of the arts and crafts of publishing. And with them will inevitably go content.
Already typography and binding have suffered.
I haven’t the scientific background to instruct others on the fragile nature of the internet, but I fully comprehend the consequences of what I have read and been told by those who do. For instance, the effect of a single electromagnetic pulse weapon above New York would end most modern communication in America.
I could ask, “How are your letter writing skills? Penmanship anyone? And is the Post Office up to the challenge of physically carrying all that love texting today.”
But that is not the point. Doomsday is not the real matter at hand. Such warnings will be ignored, just as we have ignored them so many times in the past. The truth is that whether or not any catastrophe ever befalls us, we will have lost a great tool of civilization.
The book is the record of what we are. And this medium does not occur in nature. It is just as artificial as the iPod. It is a product of the human imagination. And just as the iPod is the end product of a thousand smaller technologies without which it could not exist, the book too will go away if the infrastructure that makes it possible is neglected.
The record of what we are should not be left in the hands of a few. Just as the codex took the place of the ancient scroll and thus permitted authority to assume control over what we should know, the internet and its offspring are liable to central management. They will have their own purposes in mind, whether their hearts are good or bad.
We must take care.