By Stephen Heuser
BOOKS ARE A PROBLEM. They weigh down your backpack, strain the seams of your briefcase, bulge out of your purse. Books deplete forests. Their bindings collapse. Their pages rip. They're useless when wet. Books occupy a long-obsolete middle ground--CD-ROMs are smaller and hold more information; TV moves faster and talks to you. Neither grows mildew.
It's time for somebody just to come out and say it: books suck.
Now, admittedly, this pronouncement comes from someone with a certain number of books in his life. My bedroom, for instance, is teetering with books: unread, partly read, and (a few) finished and saved for re-reading. My office--well, my office looks like the remainder bin at Borders, a home for little paper wanderers. How the Mind Works. The Junk Food Companion. A Byzantine Journey. Life's Little Deconstruction Book. Rock This!
I am, in short, oppressed by books.
OK, not all of them. I like the Chris Rock book. And I don't mind having a dictionary around, maybe two. But books have been getting a free ride, and someone has to put a stop to it.
I realized this when the November issue of Harper's magazine arrived in the mail. "In Defense of the Book," says the cover; inside, author William Gass delivers several thousand words on "the enduring pleasures of paper, type, page, and ink."
Does this sound familiar?
You've probably read a dozen other impassioned defenses of the book, all of them by novelists or professors or book critics. Sven Birkerts, an essayist, even wrote--of course--a book about it.
There are a couple of problems here. First, let me point out that normally, in journalism, this sort of interest-group advocacy is not considered OK.
When the president of the longshoremen's union shows up at Harper's with a manuscript titled "America's Crying Need for More Longshoremen," you can bet the editors ship him right back out the door. When Donald Trump submits "Sixty Great Things about Luxury High Rises," it's eviction time.
But one of your book-reviewing buddies bangs out yet another special plea for everyone's favorite cultural charity case, the Book, and it's cover-story city. I secretly suspect that the six people in the country who do still read books are so busy writing magazine stories about their pastime that they don't really have time to hit the bookstores anymore.
If they did find the time, they'd notice something. Books are not going away. Books are taking over. Three hundred years ago, when the book was the main way people exchanged ideas, there were about 100 titles printed every year in Britain, the hotbed of English-language publishing. Last year, there were 2.2 billion books printed in America alone. That's right, 2.2 billion.
We are drowning ourselves in ink.
IN THE HIGH-TECH BIZ, people keep figuring out ways to put more and more performance in smaller and smaller boxes. No such thing has happened with books. It's fair to say that, since the invention of movable type, the book has undergone no meaningful technical improvements whatsoever. (Of course, the history of publishing itself is one long downward spiral. Just look at the book cover through the ages: embossed leather; cloth-covered cardboard; Fabio.)
So every one of those 2 billion books takes roughly the same amount of resources to produce as each book did at the turn of the last millennium, when there were only a few thousand books in all of Europe. You do the math. It's lucky for William Gass and Sven Birkerts that trees can't vote, or their precious books would have been outlawed decades ago.
So the problem clearly isn't the death of the book. What we're mourning here isn't a lack of actual volumes, but a lack of filtering. In the rush to make money, bookstore shelves are becoming desperately polluted with celebrity memoirs, flaccid thrillers, how-to manuals for the proudly inept.
If the law of averages holds, our culture's literary legacy will be one novel by Don DeLillo and 1.9 billion copies of Telemarketing for Dummies.
The bookshelves of your average Barnes & Noble are fuller than they could possibly have been a century ago. But with fewer publishing companies, fewer booksellers thinking for themselves, and more editors tripping over each other for the same Rick Pitino motivational opus, those shelves are woefully empty of anything you might actually want to read in, say, 10 years.
Let me use a real-life example. A couple of years ago, the author of several popular books came to a party at my house. I'm sure he was secretly flattered to see I had a copy of his latest novel next to volumes by Hemingway and Gore Vidal. What I didn't have the heart to tell him was why I was keeping his book: it was so factually bankrupt that I was considering using it as the basis for an entire article on the woeful state of modern book editing. This is a bright guy, and his editor is known as a happening young publishing Turk, and between them they'd managed to generate a suspense thriller in which the hero gets stuck in a Boston traffic jam--at 5 a.m.
This is the trouble with books in 1999. It's true, as William Gass writes, that each book touches us by creating a world. But increasingly, those worlds are ones we wouldn't want to live in. Thrillers are fine, but who needs thousands of them every year? Twenty or 30 that make sense--maybe that will even last--are all any of us really need.
The solitary, contemplative pleasures of ink and paper will be with us for years--by the bedside, on the train, at the beach. Sure, you can take a laptop to the beach, but get it sandy and you're out $3,000.
And when, eventually, someone builds a computer you can read from at the beach--a device you can get sandy, and scribble in the margins of, and fold the pages down on--then guess who will have won? The book.
Think about this. Who's the threat to books? The infotainment moguls. Jim Clark. Michael Eisner. Bill Gates. And when one of them wants to get his ideas out--spread the word, market himself as an innovative thinker to the maximum number of people, inflict some pointless, underedited, self-aggrandizing vision of the world on the American public--what does he do?
Damn straight. He writes a book.
This story originally appeared in the 'Boston Phoenix.'
From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.