Books: Still a Load of Crap


I've finally chosen the topic for my descent into everything-sucks-now-because-everybody's-younger-than-me old fartisanship: the death of email.

Email was a perfectly good way to communicate. It instilled good writing habits. It motivated people to keep you up to date without wasting your time. It could contain either subject-line-only tweets or charming 2,000-word rambles from friends who just wanted to talk. You could reply in one second or six months, and for the most part people were cool with that.

And now, within the space of a year or three, email has been declared dead. Now there's something wrong with you if you still send people email.

So it's a little hard to get worked up over the gathering wave of book-decline hysteria. The institutions of publishing have, like the institutions of other print media, already shown themselves to be completely unserious about loosening the restrictions that make them uncompetitive. Retail prices have not come down in any degree that reflects changing reality. Publishers have not availed themselves of exciting new print-on-demand technologies. Books, despite their leisurely lead times, are under-edited in ways that are shocking to anybody with experience in the newspaper or magazine industries. And the promotional channels are still clogged by snootiness. (At a signing for Marisa Meltzer's excellent new book Girl Power the other day, the author indicated that she was not expecting a New York Times review because the Grey Lady still turns up its nose at paperback-only runs.)

Why should anybody mourn an industry determined to collaborate in its own death? It's possible, and maybe desirable, that within a few years most physical books will be micro-runs of self-published or informally published works rather than boxes of mass-printed doorstops sent to the remainder tables by the usual gang of idiots at Random House.

But will the physical book endure at all? Matt Thomas makes the case for good ol' paper and ink, in the process finding a way to work a moreover and an indeed into a single paragraph:

Moreover, new doesn't necessarily mean better. Indeed, printed books may actually be technologically superior in many ways – at this stage of the game at least – to the e-books vying to supersede them.

To explain what I mean by this, I turn to Gabriel Zaid's wonderful little book So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. In it, Zaid gives six reasons why books are superior to other forms of media.

Three of the six reasons are plausible: Books are easy to skim, handy for pacing your reading, and relatively cheap (you can buy about 1,000 used paperbacks for the price of an iPad). Three seem like stretchers: Books are portable (but less portable in large quantities than a Kindle); they offer more variety (already a debatable point, given how quickly online capture of the print world is occurring); and you don't need to make an appointment to read one (at this point you don't even need an appointment to watch a TV show). Left out of Zaid's six points* is the most obvious advantage to those of us who believe Ben Bernanke is leading America into a new bronze age: You don't need electricity to operate a book.

Veteran Hit & Run commenter Andrew Lynch sends along this Times story on e-book malcontents and points out one way e-books recreate the vices of print: They're overpriced. "Honestly, who would pay $14.99 for something that doesn't even have a dust jacket or full-color illustrations?" Lynch asks.

At the HuffPost, Dan Agin says those price issues are quickly resolving themselves, and dismisses the publishing industry with a Rupert Pupkinesque "So long, suckers! Better luck next time!"

Anyone with an imagination about the future of technology and commerce knows that the printed book on paper is already on its way to obsolescence. The wrangling and beefing and whining about prices and protecting demand for printed books by publishing executives is both amusing and tragic.

It's tragic because when an industry dies because of corporate blindness, people do get hurt. When the automobile put the horse and carriage trade out of business, blacksmiths and carriage makers became irrelevant overnight. But before that happened people were up to their eyeballs in media baloney that the automobile was only a fad.

Some fad.

The problem with smartypants takes like this one is that, while print dinosaurs deserve great helpings of scorn, the degree to which they depend on the old economic model is not some made-up thing. A while back I attended a panel wherein the entrepreneur Jason McCabe Calacanis scoffed at the Los Angeles Times for not hiring him as its top web guy after he suggested getting rid of the Monday-through-Saturday print editions and only printing on Sunday. My hatred of the L.A. Times is as sharp and finely honed as the sword of Siegfried, and Calacanis is right that newspaper zombies spend too much time managing their industrial-age machinery. But you know what? Nobody will hire you when you tell them to get rid of six-sevenths of their income. As Pete Viles, creator of the paper's LA Land blog, put it: "We're doing everything wrong and we're going out of business. But we could be doing everything right and still go out of business."

I am positive that the next person who reads a book through on an e-reader will be the first, and that anybody who tells me she reads everything on a Kindle is really saying, "I don't finish books anymore." Now there's plenty to be said for finishing books. (Did you know, for example, that only about half of the Odyssey is about Odysseus' wanderings, and the rest is taken up with killing the suitors and a bone-dull coda in which Odysseus works out a compensation package for the mentally anguished families of the suitors?) But there's no shame in picking the information you need, rather than forcing your eyeballs through a 500-page slog.

So, I ask again, why is anybody trying to reproduce the book? It's a mediocre vehicle for transmitting information. That's why it has been on the fade not since the beginning of the 21st century but since the beginning of the 20th. It's why Philip Larkin said in 1964 that books are a load of crap. Even in 1773, by Jove's beard, Samuel Johnson replied (tartly), "No, Sir, do you read books through?"

In my day, the internet was carried on lighter than air dirigibles and the term for this was "shovelware," the steaming pile left behind when an old media pachycephalosaurus like George or Modern Bride would make no effort to engage on its own terms the then-young world wide web (the graphical and multimedia portion of the internet).

E-books are shovelware in a more expensive form. The more useful they become, through searchability, connectivity and writeability, the less they resemble books. So why not ditch the metaphor?

I hate to sound harsh. The truth is that while I can tolerate current technology, I can only love obsolete technology. So by all means, save your iBooks and Kindles and such, because in 15 years they'll be as rare and hilarious as 8-track cassette players.

Related: Get over to Amazon and help my pal Amy Alkon fend off a negative-wave attack by the mob of haters at Sadly No against her funny polemic memoir, or polemoir, I See Rude People.

* Although electricity is not specifically noted in the list of Zaid's points, Matt Thomas does address this in his post.