Tuesday, July 15, 2008

People of the Book

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, July 17, 2008:
I work at a computer. I prowl databases for late-night fun. I don’t leave home without a mobile phone. I shop online. I maintain a blog. I have been an early adopter of electronic gizmos from Bowmar Brain to Kaypro to Kindle, with many white elephants in between (Sony Data Discman, Psion handheld, Silver Reed palm-sized copier ... I could go on).

All the devices named above do one thing or another better or faster than a book, but none does so well what a book does. The book embodies tradition. It provides escape, and it makes connection. It transports us to other times and places and states of being.

I am a book person. I love the heft of a book, its smell, its design, its perfect marriage of form and function. I love running my fingers over the raised ink in a book set by letterpress.

People of the book may be not only voracious readers but also driven collectors. From the old and rare to the second-hand and remainder, the books with which we surround ourselves in our homes signal to visitors who we are, at a deep level. They also remind us, as we occasionally peruse our collections of well worn or guiltily unread tomes, of who we once were and still hope to become. Books furnish a home and burnish our souls.

Book people will shop in a chain store but will prefer a privately held one. Book people will buy a new or a used book at Amazon or Alibris when they know what they want to find ... but they will look for a used or antiquarian dealer when they want a book to find them.

And here we have a dilemma: not only is the number of such shops shrinking but, of those that remain, an increasing number regard their brick-and-mortar presence as a sideline and online sales as their bread-and-butter. Walk into a second-hand bookstore and try to haggle good-naturedly in the time-honored way and the proprietor will look up the volume on his computer and assert that the price is fair, and let that be an end to the discussion. No matter that the book cited online is a first edition in fine condition and his volume is a tattered fourth, with unsubtle traces of a library pocket. The thrill of the hunt — the chance of finding a rarity in the dollar stall outside the shop — is gone, unless one treks north to the book barns of New England.

But that is the lament of a foiled antiquarian, worthy of derision. Why not simply shift focus: find good books at great prices in places where they ought not to be — in antique shops, flea markets, library sales. To people of the book, such advice is as if Howard Carter had been told to look for Tut’s tomb in Kansas.

If the collecting of books is an only slightly diminished hobby, and the making of books projects no end (never have so many bound things been published, though one hesitates to call them all books), then one wonders if the reading of them is an endangered activity.

I read online A LOT, starting with the New York Times over morning coffee and extending into the night with vintage newspapers from paid database services, or public domain works from free sites such as Google Books or Project Gutenberg, or contemporary works from Questia, a paid service but well worth the money for its ease of search and clipping and shelving features. All of these combined to make me, in the estimation of my lady friend, an ideal candidate for Amazon’s venture into electronic books, the Kindle, which she purchased for me at Christmas.

The Kindle is a Jetson-inspired object that provides a satisfactory reading experience on a train or plane, with a black-on-gray display that is easy on the eyes and on battery life. But you’d never pick up a Kindle at home in preference to a printed product, or even read the morning’s Times on it rather than on the web. Its operating system is pleasingly invisible — one learns how to use the device in just a few minutes—but the amazing thing about the Kindle is its always-on Sprint wireless connection, permitting a lightning-fast shopping experience. Get an itch, order a book from the Amazon store, and it downloads to your device almost instantly. This is one interesting gizmo, and it can even be used, imperfectly, to surf the web and fetch email.

But as an electronic book the Kindle is, like its predecessor Rocketbook, either an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or adult male; or an attempt to smooth over the gap between one technology and its successor, like radiovision (the name Charles Jenkins preferred for his 1928 invention of a mechanical television system). Or the electronic book may simply be a mightily unappealing prospect, like an electronic hug. And yet, our captains of industry think that this is the way we will all read one day.

The move from print to pixels replaces a highly successful technology (movable type, sturdy paper, etc.) with a less satisfactory one. It is an answer to a problem no one perceives, except for the proverbial literary traveler on a slow boat to China who would rather schlep a Kindle than a dozen books. Ah, you say, but moguls cut from this same cloth made a craze of the bottled-water business, so why not the Kindle and its kin?

Recent history provides illumination. The calculator replaced the slide rule overnight in the 1970s because it was smaller, faster, more accurate and, quickly, cheaper. I paid $80 in 1971 (the CPI-adjusted $428 of today) for a Bowmar Brain whose equivalent may today be found at the dollar store. In 1971 dollars, $80 was not far from the cost of the Kindle, whose onset will not hurtle the book into oblivion alongside the slide rule.

Why do even those of my vintage only barely recall Bowmar’s name? Because it was an assembler of its products, buying semiconductor chips from such companies as Texas Instruments. Envious of Bowmar’s profits in the early 1970s, the latter (along with other semiconductor manufacturers), entered the calculator business, conducted a ruthless price war, and drove Bowmar into bankruptcy by 1975. Texas Instruments was vertically integrated, as Bowmar tried to become too late in the game.

Reflect upon Amazon’s ambitions for vertical integration. Before creating the Kindle they almost squashed ebook sales when they bought Mobipocket and barred other formats from their retail site. Print-on-demand titles now have to go through Amazon’s supplier, putting the squeeze on that industry. Amazon shoppers love the “Search Inside This Book” feature, but the online giant had Trojan Horse motivations for offering it. Several publishers who gave Amazon the green light to use its PDF files in the Search feature subsequently authorized the conversion of those files into its proprietary ebook format.

But do not fret about the Kindle. Despite the ebook reader’s several virtues, Amazon has almost surely committed a blunder in its razor-and-blade business model (yes, the Kindle cost $399 at launch but it will be half that price soon enough). The device that people of the book truly need to fear is the one that is already ubiquitous ... the mobile phone.

The current Authors Guild Bulletin reports that of the ten top-selling books in Japan in 2007, five were written as cell phone novels. “Many cell phone readers have never read a novel before, according to Japanese publishers. These books owe a lot to popular comic books. The New York Times said many of the cell phone novels read like diaries.”

Information may or may not want to be free, in the decade-old web paradigm inimical to author interests, but in the modern age it certainly wants to be mobile. In a time characterized by vibrant and stable community — say, the 19th century — the solitude of reading a book was a delicious experience: escapist retreat, like today’s audio-visual forms. In a time of loneliness and anomie — say, the present day — readers will tend to value media that promote or simulate community.

A 21-year-old Japanese who goes by the single name Rin actually wrote her first novel on her keitai (mobile phone) when she was at recess in high school, punching short, crisp sentences with her thumbs to display on her small screen. “Novels I had read had more words. My stories have fewer words and are very easy to read,” she said.

Rin later released her novel, Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...) on a website, where its popularity prompted a publisher to issue it last year as a 142-page hardback book. Her story about a high-school romance and the couple’s fight against the girl’s illness (this seems to be the winning formula for keitai shosetsu— mobile-phone novels— especially the illness part) sold 400,000 copies and was ranked second on the nationwide bestselling fiction list in the first half of 2007.

People of the book, be afraid. Be very afraid.

--John Thorn


Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Great post!!
I second your comments about book-buying, and hasten to note that they apply to record collecting as well. My best 45 and 33 finds have been in places they really shouldn't be--curio shops, garage sales, etc.

3:13 PM  

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