Friday, February 27, 2009

The Death of the Book!!! (dun dun dun)

You know what I'm talking about, right? Every other item I see in a magazine or on the Internets, especially among my Facebook buddies, is about how publishing and bookstores as we know them are ending, in a flaming mushroom cloud, right now. The publishers are completely freaking about how bad business is and they are preparing for things to get even worse. The main way they are preparing, it seems, is by publishing fewer and fewer of the kinds of books my friends and I care about. The remaining entrenched independent bookstores to survive the nineties are now starting to go belly-up one by one. Borders is trying to sell out, but no one wants to buy them, including Barnes & Noble. Often that Reading at Risk study by the NEA is cited at some point.

Scholars, there's nothing I can say to argue with any of this, as these are facts. And as a professional consumer AND producer of literature, I'm not in a place to take any of it lightly. If publishing and bookselling and, lordhelpus, libraries were to stop being what they are, that would be really bad for me and the people and things that I value. I'm working on another book right now, and I hope that at such time as I might finish it, some publisher will be willing to spend money to make paper copies of it, and that some bookstore might spend money to stock some of those copies on shelves-- both of which seem like sketchier propositions by the day.

But here's what bothers me about the way we tend to talk about this: I generally hear a tone that I'd describe as decrying— you know, decrying the plight of literature. But my question is: whom are we decrying?

We can't possibly blame the bookstores themselves for going under—if any of their decisions have led to their desctruction, it's their tenacity in continuing to devote floorspace to poetry instead of High School Musical DVDs. We might like to blame publishers, but the same argument sort of holds, right? Even if they have been reacting to declining sales by throwing more money at less literary books, it's in an effort to continue publishing books, which after all, is what we want.

The only people left to blame are the people who don't buy books, and this is what makes me squeamish. It makes me feel like we (you know, we consumers and producers of literature) are huddled in a little latte-sipping mob, sniping at the Philistines who should be spending their money on $24.95 literary hardcovers instead of Xboxes. And that's just troubling to me on a number of levels. One being that every new technology has pissed off the devotees of the technology that came before it, the purists (or Luddites, take your pick) who champion (cling to) the noble (outdated) medium they feel gives their art meaning. The first example to spring to mind is the people who freaked over Gutenberg's moveable type because it made irrelevant the skills of calligraphers and illiminators(?) who had theretofore cornered the market on bookmaking. And I get that, the clinging to the beautiful manuscripts, but I get even more the unstoppable force and undeniable democratic appeal of moveable type, which made knowledge available to more people, more cheaply, thereby changing the world forever. For the good, I think we can all agree.

I guess what I'm saying is that if people aren't buying books, it's not because they're stupid, it's because books, as a technology, are over. (One could make an argument that if you agree to live in a capitalist society, you must accept all of the results of capitalism, but I won't argue that.) I do believe that The People, in making these changes, are never stupid, scholars, even if beautiful things might get trampled in the process. I know, I know, if I think books are over why have I chosen to work in that medium and devoted my day job life to helping the young to read and write in that medium? I guess I hope that the art form itself is not really over, but there's a major transition, an upheaval, going on in the way people want to experience narratives. It's this transition that seems so badly glossed over and misunderstood by the sort of facile "oh god soon books will be completely replaced by [fill in ridiculous philistine invention here]." I tend not to be on the side of arguments that take that tone, a tone that, frankly, has not a small whiff of classism mixed in.

Because we, even we who do the decrying, watch TV and watch movies that come to us on DVDs in little red envelopes and play Wii and read the Times online and talk on the phone and type our musings into blogs rather than manuscripts intended to become paper books. WE do. We spend more time doing these things than we do reading words on paper (or we would if you don't count our day jobs). So I feel like we should take our noses out of the air and think about how to find a place for literature as we know it in and among a wash of newer media, all of which turn out some art and some crap, without blaming people for failing to uphold our preferred dying medium. WE should take the responsibility for helping the narratives we value (the ones based on words) survive somewhere in this ecosystem, rather than just copping Sorrowful (and Superior).

You know what I mean? No, you think I'm way off. I can tell.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it won't be the worst thing in the world if literary publishing reverts back to something closer to its more modest pre-conglomerate state. There'll be a lot less money, no doubt, and a lot less glam, but at least we could be more realistic about who the readership is, and literary books could be respected for the humble, niche objects they are, rather than as the gross disappointments commercial houses inevitably find them to be.

Stu said...

I think you're right on Marge. There are authors out there who are pioneering the change you advocate. Scott Sigler is a good example. He gives away his work at, and his fans still buy his hardcovers and turn him into a bestselling author.

Cory Doctorow does the same thing. He releases all his books at under creative commons. Doing so, he has developed a huge fan base who reliably propel his dead tree editions to best sellerdom.

Both of these authors maintain an active channel of communication with their fans. They have built communities around their work.

It's almost like there's something to this whole internet/social media thing. Authors need to get out of the latté enclave and reach out to their fans and potential fans.

By the way, these communities don't have to be huge. If you haven't read it, I recommend this excellent article called "1000 true fans."

In my own pathetic way I've attempted to do a bit of this with my own book.

Sejal said...

Excellent post Margaret. I remember being around when you made your transition from typing all your stories/papers to using the maclab and handing you one of those disks that no one uses anymore. I finally threw some of those disks out. The world / the reading world is changing/has changed. I especially liked your point about decrying. In academia print publications are the ones that count but I wonder how long that can last...

MLD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kirk said...

I am going to be *so relieved!* when I don't have to read books any more! Don't get me wrong, I loved yours, Ms. Dean, and I don't know what I'd decorate my house with if I didn't have a bunch of them, but still.

Szonjaz said...

Maybe the Kindle will save our souls.

I think that was an attempt at humor.

Jonathan said...

before I post this observation, let me say that I enjoyed your post (essay) and believe that the middle ground between nobility and out-dated is the artistic landscape which we stand upon, and perhaps books as we know them are quickly heading towards irrelevance but it has nothing to do with the state of art(right?)

I was reading farther down on the page about your encounter with the geologist astronaut, and after I watched the video (presumably of him), posted in the middle of the writing, I watched more videos, one of an astronaut dancing about in much the same manner as the previous video, it was tagged "astronaut acting retarded". then was a video that looked authentic titled "fake astronauts on fake moon"... these videos were available by scrolling previews that were presented by association of tag-names at the bottom of the small youtube window. I pulled the mouse over them and to the left and they flew off to the right in curious unity, one being enlarged as though hoping that, since the mouse was over it, it was about to be picked and viewed...

This didn't seem contradictory or antithetical to your piece on the death of books((even though I did get distracted from reading by viewing (but aren't they just as passive) (active)), but internally reflexive, it seemed to comment on the post in the subsequent post, and well, it made me a little excited, the connection felt like an authentic, unintentional (?) comment on the blending of media that is perhaps escalating artistry towards an unknown future of conveyed feelings as rich as actual experience, or richer (I mean I was sort of on the moon for a moment there) or at least near the experience of seeing like a robot,