Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The Future of Books
By Alan Caruba
There is, I’m told, a lot of hand-wringing in the book publishing industry these days over the advent of the new, electronic means of reading books. It is a general rule that new technology drives out old technology and we have seen how rapid the growth of personal computers and the Internet has become in just a decade or two.
Back in 1974, Ivan Sandroff approached me and other book reviewers to create the National Book Critics Circle. I had been reviewing books for some time at that point, so it is safe to say I have spent more than forty years professionally reading and reviewing.
My reviewing has gone through several transmutations. In the beginning, I syndicated a a column called Bookviews to weekly newspapers that used it, I suspect, mostly as filler. Now most weeklies use the information provided by the local librarians. Many of the dailies have ceased to publish book review sections.
In time, Bookviews became a stand-alone newsletter that did well enough, but it was replaced by an Internet site, www.bookviews.com of the same name and that lasted the longest.
When it dawned on me that I could transform the website into a blog that would cost nothing to post and maintain, it became http://bookviewsbyalancaruba.blogspot.com. As a website, it attracted about 50,000 visitors every month, but I have no idea how many the blog receives. I assume former website visitors now come to the blog because there is an automatic re-direct that occurs.
I tell you this because, for two months or so, the number of review books I have received has declined dramatically from an average of three to five daily to days when none arrive. Some book publicists have suggested that the drop in 2009 book sales of approximately 20% has something to do with the decline while others correctly point out that, between the peak book-giving Christmas season and the release of books in publisher’s spring catalogs, starting in April, the decline is understandable. Others have candidly said that publishers are sending fewer review copies.
Two things are not in decline. The production of novels continues and, if my seat of the pants evaluation is correct, it is increasing. The other thing is the production of self-published books by authors. The most distinguishing characteristic of self-published books is their general poor quality of writing and subject matter. Since they pass through no vetting process, there is no one around to tell the author they should take up another hobby.
I worry about e-books. For one thing, you cannot apply a highlighter to elements you want to recall later on. You cannot turn down the edge of pages that are important bodies of information to consult. With real books, you needn’t worry about a low battery or storage memory capacity. You can fill the shelves of your home or apartment with them and they become constant companions and references.
As I grew up, the living room of my former home of sixty-plus years had an entire wall of bookshelves and they contained the Harvard Classics, volumes of the world’s great wisdom, the Encyclopedia Americana, and many books about the current events of the day. My father was a voracious reader and my mother, an international authority on haute cuisine, had an entire book corner filled with the finest cookbooks of her day. She even wrote three of them herself.
You can give your children many things, but if you give them the loving of reading, they will find the answers to everything in them, an escape into wonderful imaginary worlds, and a guarantee of a better understanding of the complex world into which they have been born.
I do not know what the future of books will be, but I sincerely hope it is not one in which books become a purely electronic interface. When I put down a book I have just read, I feel a kinship with the author, a link to the past and to the future, and often valuable insights to the present issues of our times.
I am encouraged that books like Sarah Palin’s sped out of the bookstores or that books like the recent one revealing the behind-the-scenes events of the 2008 election campaign will help us avoid being taken in by media manipulation, stagecraft, and empty oratory. I am encouraged that millions of youngsters were stirred by the Harry Potter series. There are the many extraordinary books for children and young adults these days.
In the meantime, I will hope for new review copies that will help me understand the complex issues of our times and to pass the time in ways that avoid the mindless celebrity-driven drivel, predictable television dramas and sitcoms, and vile “reality” shows that pass for entertainment these days. As for the news, there is only Fox News and C-Span.