Not a week goes by without someone mewling about independent book stores or the “plight” of the book as if some great dark age is upon us. This sort of thing drives me crazy, because it’s completely divorced from, you know, reality. There are more books available now than ever. More fiction than ever. More nonfiction than ever. More people making more money doing it than ever.
Well, except for some of those independent book stores. Two things. 1: It’s a business. And if you need to rely on donations and pledge drives to keep your business afloat, then you’re doing something wrong. 2) Barnes & Noble (and then Amazon) might have hurt your business, but don’t pretend that those two companies haven’t delivered more books to more people who couldn’t previously get them. Having lived in one of those parts of the country that doesn’t have many independent bookstores — with the exception of hard-core Christian ones — I’ll argue that Barnes & Noble is a veritable Library of Alexandria for the parts of this country.
At the same time, I want to slap people who argue that the book is dead, that e-readers will kill them or that people simply won’t read anymore. So what if e-readers kill the paper book? Paper books as a mass-produced thing haven’t been around <em>that</em> long. (My one concern with e-readers is that Amazon or someone can sneak into your Kindle and disappear things. Or change the words). And people don’t read anymore? The only assholes who believe that are those ADHD tech triumphalists who think reading headlines on Huffington Post passes for research, that TED is deep thinking (as opposed to motivational speaking for the rich set), and their focus group of silicon valley friends is indicative of the rest of the country.
But I’m just a contrarian old coot, so I would say something like this. Well, here’s an essay by Richard Nash in the Virginia Quarterly Review. (Thanks to BoingBoing for bringing this one to the surface.)
Nash gets at a couple of things that people overlook. The first is that books are not victims of technology or capitalism. In fact, books helped drive both.
What is particularly crucial to understand is that books were not dragged kicking and screaming into each new area of capitalism. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered the twentieth-century public the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as Striphas outlines in The Late Age of Print—by quoting Rachel Bowlby—that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket.
The second is that you have to pay attention to where all the garment-rending and teeth-gnashing is coming from:
The social thinker Clay Shirky has a rule named after him: “Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.” The past five to ten years have witnessed a great degree of anxiety from the editorial class in book, magazine, and newspaper publishing (relatively less so from literary-journal publishing, it should be noted). Some of the anxiety is economic and well-founded: Editors have been laid off. Some of it, though, has to do with a perceived loss of relevance, a loss of prestige, and the response has been a series of paeans to the valuable qualities of editorial judgment. Look at all the crap out there, says the editor, you need me to fix it, sort it, curate it.
Hey, I’m an editor. I get it. I think editors are necessary. And I think many are getting squeezed out, often leading to a loss of quality in some places. But such is life. The point here is that you should consider the source. Some of these publishing company and book store folks screaming the loudest aren’t much different than record execs. Ultimately a lot of businesses built around books will go under, but others will spring up in their place.
Look, I’m not trying to start a fight with people who love books. Or even people who love bookstores. What I’m saying is quit whining, quit acting like martyrs and adapt. And quit worrying about “the book.” I’m sure Nash is going to get his ass kicked up and down by the literature community for writing this piece, but he actually ends on an optimistic note.
Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.