Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Heresy in the Penny Press!
Who among us (certainly who in the extended community represented here at Stevereads) could help but feel his blood run cold upon seeing the cover of the latest Newsweek?
There is imp-faced Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com, holding up his latest assault on book-reading discrimination, a paperback-sized gadget called the Kindle. And the accompanying headline? 'Books aren't dead (they're just going digital).' The story is called 'The Future of Reading' by Steven Levy, and its interior subtitle goes like this: 'Amazon's Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind's most divine creations: the book itself.'
We here at Stevereads realize that such things are more often than not added by copy-writers, but even so: it's rare to have an article-writer's status as a whore so openly announced before the piece has even started. And what follows amounts to little more than a five-page advertisement for the Kindle, which represents the next generation in electronic reading devices designed to supplant the humble book as the means by which readers read.
But even before we get to the piece itself, we're objecting: Bezos hasn't built a better bookstore - he's designed a better book catalogue. You can only find there what's presented to you, or what others have found before you. There are no quiet nooks at amazon.com where you can take yourself away and give a not-quite-randomly chosen half-dozen books equal crack at winning the honor of being the one you take home. Nowhere on amazon.com will you find any book not connected to the one you came in seeking. And needless to say, nowhere on amazon.com will you find anything equivalent to the amiable, challenging, guiding expertise of professional book-clerks. Your barren alternative online is little better than the baying of the mob. This is not a better bookstore - this is no bookstore at all but an electronic shopping-hub. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not confuse our terms.
And none of this changes the fact that the Kindle, or something like it, may very well represent the death of the book as we've known it these five hundred years.
It fits neatly in the hand. It runs for 30 hours on one battery-charge. Its font-size can be changed according to the ocular shortcomings of the reader. Electronic marginalia can be made. Thousands of volumes can be kept on the one gizmo. It costs $400 right this moment, but it'll cost $50 by the time this post is made public. It could very well catch on in a way its previous electronic brethren have not.
The reason it will, if it will, is simple: the American public has seldom been stupider than it is today. More than half of them never pick up a book in adult life; a full third of them couldn't actually read it if they did. These numbers grow worse every year, and they spell the doom of the American Republic even if nothing else changes (since America is incomparably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, that doom will come from within, through despotism, rather than from without, through barbarian invasions). The members of the moneyed classes who still tell themselves they're 'book people' will sign up for a Kindle for one (non-bookish) reason and one (non-bookish) reason only: through it, the latest James Patterson bestseller will cost you $9, not $25.
Yep, that's right: The latest James Patterson thriller, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (he's got to be the only writer alive whose career will end the instant he runs out of childrens nursery rhymes)(and the irony that such a simplistic writer would utilize such rhymes is surely unintended), the latest oh-so-serious ghost-written campaign autobiography, A Promise to Promise, the hit self-empowerment tract, You! You're the Best! Go for It! - if you want to (so to speak) read any of these, you can download them instantaneously for less than half the price it would cost you to buy them at your local Barnes & Noble the day before you take your flight to Bangladesh to bilk the brown natives out of some huge amount of money they didn't know they had a right to. In short, since you yourself are evil, why in Hell shouldn't you buy your 'books' in as evil a manner as possible? And now, why shouldn't you read them in such a manner, busily, on the go, angrily, eminently distractable (the Kindle allows for in-breaks for the latest headlines from Google News, or Perezhilton.com, or the latest footage of a cat masturbating himself on Youtube - because, as we all know, reading can be so fucking boring after the first, like, fifteen pages or so), and most of all conveniently? Convenient because you haven't actually picked up a book in fifteen, twenty years - you learn everything you need to learn (although that word should be accompanied by quotes, since you aren't in fact interested in anything that doesn't directly affect your wallet) from an LED screen. And more importantly - most importantly for this particular debate, and in terms of humanity in general - through an LED screen whose use is paid for by a not-at-all disinterested mercantile third party. In other words, in the pristine new world Bezos promises, the 'books' are being 'provided' by the corporations that stand to profit most from the distribution of their wares. Of bookselling itself, the actual task of putting the right book in the hands of the right person, Levy's article is silent.
Instead, we get lots of quotes from Bezos (Levy has the effrontery to characterize Bezos as one of the aforementioned 'book people'), things like "Books are the last bastion of analog," and "This isn't a device, it's a service." Bezos seems incapable of opening his mouth without a soulless irony spewing out, as when he says of books "Why do I love these physical objects? Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?" It's like if Phil Sheridan had rhapsodized about the glories of Indian culture while his soldiers were destroying village after village.
But Bezos can be ignored, despite the enormity of the evil he's doing; his motivation is plain and simple greed (a word that never occurs in Levy's piece), and so he is contemptible but dismissible. But either his device will catch on or the next one will, and the changes it will unleash are not to be underestimated. The entire world changed when the printing press became practicable - changed in ways that even now, six hundred years later, we perhaps do not fully understand. If there's to be a second such revolution, the effects will be no less profound.
Levy takes stabs at various of these changes (inevitably, he paints pictures of deserted bookstores, "lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting - and jarring - post-Gutenberg era"), but he stresses one above all others: that widespread electronic reading and publishing will change what reading and especially writing are. As Levy gleefully puts it, company's coming.
Books will no longer be complete when their author writes them. They'll no longer be complete when their author wrangles with a good editor to get them in finished shape. No, in the brave new world whose threshold we cross, every reader will have the potential to change what they read, because the whole process will be electronically open. Writers will post their thoughts on each chapter as they're writing it, and readers with knowledge - or even opinions - on the subject matter of that chapter will be able to chime in and perhaps change the final product. And that 'final' isn't final either - authors will have the ability to go back into their books and change anything they like, forever fine-tuning and tinkering, like Leonardo Da Vinci carting the Mona Lisa around with him for years, never fulfilling his contract, never selling it, changing it by minuscule changes whenever the whim struck him.
Levy writes about this new era of transparency with the exuberant enthusiasm any whore feels for the john who's paying the day's way. He's talked to people, you see:
"Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public. Readers, of course, are already enjoying a more prominent role in the literary community, taking star turns in blogs, online forums and Amazon reviews. This will only increase in the era of connected reading devices. 'Book clubs could meet inside of a book,' says Bob Stein, a pioneer of digital media who now heads the Institute for the Future of the Book, a foundation-funded organization based in his Brooklyn, N.Y. town house. Eventually, the idea goes, the community becomes part of the process itself."
We speak for ourselves here (although we know without asking that Beepy whole-heartedly agrees), but we speak it nonetheless: the very idea of this is awful, just awful. We want no truck with writers so feckless they need the rabble's aid in their endeavors - what would Flannery O'Connor have said? Or Jane Austen? Or Tacitus? Writers absent themselves from felicity a while - that's exactly what we want writers to do. Levy writes as though the 11,000-year-old divide between writers and readers were one more pathetic artificial analog construct, to be swept away in the face of the Top Ten objections Anne-Marie of Elksbone Michigan has to Anna ("We almost have the same name! LOL!") Karenina's death.
This is the essential flaw of the whore's article, just as it's the essential flaw of the alleged book-lover Jeff Bezos' new gizmo. Music is an arrangement of notes in sequence - it can survive transmutation into any medium that can produce the physical sounds of which it's composed. Visual images - be they pictures, movies, or what have you - require lightwaves and receptive eyeballs and that's all ... they don't require pigment, or canvas, or cathode rays. They might have required those things to come into being in the first place, but not afterwards: the Mona Lisa doesn't need you to buy a trip to France.
Likewise reading - marks on a contrast of whiteness can be conveyed in any number of media and count as reading. Website people read, if this is what constitutes reading;; even wretched bloggers (surely the lowest of the low - we here at Stevereads have nothing but a kind of amused pity for them) read, if this is all that's required.
Seeing images, yes. Hearing music, yes. And reading text, yes. But not viewing paintings, for which of course there can be no digital counterpart, nor either experiencing live music, for which electronic media can offer no succor. And especially not reading books - reading, yes, but not reading books. Because it's no more possible to say 'Books aren't dead - they're just going digital' than it is it say 'Bodies aren't dead - they just not alive!'
Reading, yes, but not reading books. For all that the satanic Bezos gets wrong, there's one thing he gets right: he says the essential thing about books is they disappear. And so they do: they are our essential companions, silent, self-sufficient, always ready. We roll over them in bed, we scribble all over them (sometimes in successive chronological order, as we reread both the book and our old comments), we stick things in between their leaves, we invest them with histories - where we found each volume, what we paid for it, who was with us at the time maybe - and when we're done with all that, we pass them on, just as we take them, eagerly, hand to hand. The ones we keep with us comfort us with their familiar, silent serried ranks on our shelves - a totally impractical use of space, true, but how bare, how uninhabitable the room would be without them! They aren't storing the data of their contents - they are inextricably bound up in it. A $500 satellite-dependent liquid-screen 30-hour-lifespan handheld device locked into the stock of an internet booksite ... it's not only laughable to think such a thing could be a 'better' book, it's vaguely obnoxious to do so.
Which isn't to say this new Kindle gizmo or something like it won't succeed in supplanting the book - but when it happens, it won't be because books failed the ongoing march of technology ... it'll be because the reading public failed books. Not all the reading public, naturally - not the real readers, who'll always know themselves and each other - but the huge cresting tide of page-turning idiots who've always made sure Tom Clancy outsold Gilbert Sorrentino. Unlike in all past eras, that majority of non-reading readers now has the power shutter bookstores and eradicate the very idea of a backlist.
We here at Stevereads urge everyone reading these words to fight this usurpation of the few by the many. Don't let the Kindle - or anything like it - start a bonfire of the vanities. This thing is not the future of books - it's the killing of them. It and its exponents must be forcibly rejected, mowed under like crabgrass, in favor of a future in which there are still bound and printed books. That we write in. That we lodge $1 bills in. That we write our hearts into. That we then ill-advisedly lend to the unreturning unworthy. We live in our books, and we should fight all attempts at eviction.