Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

01/02/2010

Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?


There is nothing that can or will replace a book. No on-screen words have the same sense of depth and permanency. In fact, on-screen words imply frailty and impermanence inducing the reader to perhaps flee too quickly. Written-ness (I love this manufactured word!) is tied into our very democracy and how goes it may just affect the future of our own democracy.

Stephen L. Carter, Professor of law at Yale, has written a brilliant article on this very subject and I am excited to present it here:

Books are essential to American life, and if publishing perishes, Stephen L. Carter argues, democracy itself will soon follow.

Like a lot of writers, I am wondering when Congress and the administration will propose a bailout for the publishing industry. Carnage is everywhere. Advances slashed, editors fired, publicity at subsistence levels, entire imprints vanished into thin air. Moreover, unlike some of the industries that the government, in its wisdom, has decided to subsidize, the publishing of books is crucial to the American way of life.

Seriously.

Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.

One did not only read God’s word; one touched it. Many of us are old enough to remember when families routinely kissed the Bible. It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.
A couple of years ago, an enthusiast of the digital revolution wrote in the Times that Google’s project to digitize all printed books will lead us to “the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ – a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.” No doubt this is so. But the reduction of books and their contents to mere “information” helps illustrate the risk of the method.

In a library, you can stand beside the shelf and run your finger along the spines. You can feel the book-ness of what has been written. It is a very unsophisticated reader indeed who conceptualizes the library principally as a place to obtain information. A library is a shrine to the book. When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are, implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important; only its information content matters.

This is an error. With its weight and solidity, a book signals to the world that there are ideas worth preserving in a form that carries heft, and takes up space; by its touchability, a book signals the importance of our engagement in an arena external to and larger than ourselves; and by sitting on a shelf, along which we can run both hands and eyes, a book signals the possibility of still being surprised by what we discover. When I stand in an antiquarian bookshop, touching a first edition of Thackeray or Eliot, I am not simply absorbing information; I am connecting myself to generations past, touching the object that will persevere, in nearly the same form, for generations to come.

Read more at http://alturl.com/v22r

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