Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Will We Always Have Books?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Will We Always Have Books?

Did anybody else read James Gleick's defense of publishing and books in today's New York Times and fail to be reassured? He titles his essay "How to Publish Without Perishing," and his subject is Google's plans to digitize all the world's books and make them available online. Although the title is optimistic enough, it's not really clear Gleick shares that outlook. At one point, he writes:

Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms.

Well, we'll see, won't we? One type of book he acknowledges that's pretty much over is reference books--encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. He does have higher expectations for literary works of great writing, though.

It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover.

There's reading and then there's reading. There is the gleaning or browsing or cherry-picking of information, and then there is the deep immersion in constructed textual worlds: novels and biographies and the various forms of narrative nonfiction - genres that could not be born until someone invented the codex, the book as we know it, pages inscribed on both sides and bound together. These are the books that possess one and the books one wants to possess.

Is it just me, or does Gleick's entire argument boil down to: We'll always have books--people love books!

As a member in good standing of the publishing industry who's worried about his long-term prospects, that doesn't give me a whole lot to hang on to. As crass as it may be, it's that profit motive he so easily disregards that keeps the industry moving.


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