Tuesday, January 31, 2006

One more for the road

I've just read an interesting and provocative book called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid (attractively translated by Natasha Wimmer). My first impression was of it being a clever but also very disagreeable little book. Gradually, though, I was won over (partly as I realized that he’s got a very particular angle that has to do with publishing, really, rather than with writing or reading in themselves; so that the provocative and sometimes annoying remarks he makes about reading and writing are to be seen in that context).

Zaid’s central insight comes around the question of whether we should bemoan or celebrate (he thinks the second) the fact that so many books reach only a small readership:

Books are so cheap that, unlike newspapers, radio, or television, they can be published advertisement-free for a few thousand interested readers. To finance almost any book, it is enough to find three thousand readers willing to pay six hours worth of minimum-wage salary. Naturally, if thirty thousand readers could be reached, it would be possible to lower the price—by half, say. But it isn’t easy to reach thirty thousand readers. Not because the lower price is still too high, but for a reason we prefer to ignore: the majority of titles published are of no interest to thirty thousand people—you couldn’t even give away that many copies.

He’s very interesting on this conundrum, that books may seem more expensive than other media from the consumer’s point of view but that the real cost of reading is time rather than money:

Time is by far the most expensive aspect of reading, excepting time spent in certain circumstances: in transit, ill health, prison, or retirement. In a wealthy economy, time is worth more than things, and it is easier to buy things than to find the time to enjoy them. To purchase books that one will never read is understandable: we think we might read them one day, and in the meantime, they can be shown off to visitors or mentioned in convesation. Reading is a luxury of the poor, the sick, prisoners, retirees, students. As students become young executives with overcrowded schedules, and as their salaries rise, reading (if it is not required) becomes a luxury for them, too.

(You see the style: it’s that rather dandyish grand way of sweeping one’s opinions around the place that I associate in particular with French essayists.)

Another passage that I think the lit-bloggers will find interesting (and which those who know me will see both [a] why I’m struck by and [b] why I find irritating):

A person comes late to a convesation and believes that he can’t follow it, that he needs to be better informed: as if knowledge were something other than conversation itself, as if it were something to be acquired elsewhere first. Friends recommend that he take certain classes, which bore him; that he study handbooks, which bore him; that he read the classics, which also bore him. The truly enlightened thing would be to recommend that he have more confidence in his appetitte for conversation; to tell him that if he is interested in something he doesn’t understand, he should pay more attention, ask questions, reflect, consult dictionaries, manuals, classics, but all in the service of his desire to participate in the ongoing conversation. There is no point in recommending that he try to learn the dictionary from start to finish, systematically, from A to Z. The dictionary, like all study plans, is justified by its use as an aid to convesration, not by its own merits. Naturally, if upon looking up a word he discovers others that interest him, or if upon consulting a classic he finds that his interest goes beyond the matter at hand, he should allow himself to be carried away by curiosity, surprise, astonishment, enjoyment. The desire to follow a conversation that you don’t understand is a healthy sign, not an incidication of lack of preparation. Discipline is good in the service of desire, not in place of desire. Without desire, there is no living culture.

Best trivia fact: the Guinness Book of World Records says that the slowest-selling book in the history of print was “a translation from Coptic to Latin that Oxford University Press sold at a rate of 2.6 copies a year from 1716 to 1907.”

At any rate, it should be clear that it's well worth a look if you're interested in this kind of question.

Two further thoughts:

1. This is the first book I've seen published by Paul Dry Books. It's a physically attractive as well as stylistically appealing little volume, and I'll look forward to seeing more of theirs--I heard about this at the Modern Language Association conference a year ago when I ran into Sarah Dry (who was in my brothers' class when we were all in high school & then went to the same college I did), who was working for the company--I believe her father is the publisher. Go and look at their homepage, though; they've got really cool stuff.

2. Zaid’s very negative here about the possibility for e-readers, but I wonder whether his skepticism doesn’t already seem slightly out-of-date. I am actually dying of curiosity to see & try out one of those Sony Readers. (Imagine how convenient it would be if you could, say, put the images from Gale's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online onto it and read the books that way rather than printing out huge swaths--though even here, since those books online were transferred from microfilm, you'd be losing a lot of quality compared to an actual printed book from the eighteenth century.) I like the idea of being able to go on a trip with five or six books in a lightweight format. But of course it really is different from the music-iPod thing; you don't need all your books with you in the same way you need (well, 'need') all your music.

The thing that I am surprised not to see more people linger on concerns costs. This seems to me the real issue. I was just thinking about it. Admittedly I read a great many more books than most people, but I depend on these sources for them, probably roughly in this order: (1) for the great majority of books, a university research library, including services like BorrowDirect and interlibrary loan (particularly for contemporary fiction of the small-press-from-another-country kind); (2) review copies from friends or publicists or whatever; (3) Amazon, i.e. online bookseller; (4) public library; (5) local independent bookstores (2-4 are all probably roughly equal in proportion); (6) train-station or airport bookstores; (7) used books, either from stores or from, you know, like that guy who has a table of excellent science fiction and crime stuff on Broadway in front of Milano Market. If you count work-related books, which I suppose we must, probably somewhere between 400 and 500 books enter my apartment every year and I read most or all of most or all of them. And let's say that one quarter to one third of those books are pretty new and the others are old, i.e. been out a while or possibly published early twentieth century or eighteenth century or whatever. I don't know how much money I spend on books in a year, probably rather more than $500 but less than $1000 (or am I completely lowballing it? hmm, better not think about that possibility...); it's nowhere near, though, what it would cost if I had to pay for everything I read. Probably 90% of the books I read are from the library.

But how are publishers going to deal with libraries as far as electronic texts go? The thing that makes me wary is that it sounds like a way of jacking up prices. It's as though you said to me, "You can keep on reading all the lovely new novels you want, but they will only be available in a $29.95 deluxe hardcover edition. Six novels: over $200. Isn't it great?" And this is why I cannot see eReaders ever really and effectively superseding the old-fashioned kind of book. Books are great partly because they're free, or virtually free, as we experience them in our lives.

Oh, this has just been a remarkably enjoyable couple hours of blogging, wouldn't be good to get in the habit but for now & then it seems intellectually enriching as well as just enjoyable, like a kind of five-finger-exercise for the brain....


  1. I couldn't find the quotation, but at one point he says that authors should stick dollars in between the pages of their books when they give them to their friends rather than just complaining they don't read them! i.e. to pay for their time...

    Of course the thing I personally find bizarre about this--though I think all it means is that I am a bizarre person myself with a singularly anomalous life--is that my time is fairly cheap to me when it comes to reading at least. I have always been perplexed by the popularity of the expression "life's too short." Although I fear this makes me sound like an insane depressive, I never in my life have felt that life's too short, more that it's much too long! And that like a bird that eats its own weight in food every day I must devote many resources to getting myself an adequate supply of reading material to keep myself stimulated.

  2. What frustrated you about Zaid's comments re: conversation, reading, and knowledge? I liked the sentence about taking part in an ongoing conversation rather than chiding oneself for coming late to it. It's a good way to think about being in grad school: I enjoy myself most and learn the most when I proceed by conversation with other students and faculty; I feel less productive when I worry about all the books I haven't read. Preparation for oral exams (at least at Columbia) works on a similar philosophy: make a list of books to read, talk about them with faculty, change the list, and so on.

    I'm less sure, though, about the value of the last sentence in the section you quoted; that move to "living culture" is very abstract.

  3. Well, the things I had here were the things I liked; I think what made me annoyed was a rather dour set of assertions (very much in that French Marxist style, do you know what I mean), deeply pessimistic about reading, overly pessimistic in my opinion. Or he makes a discouraging assertion about how many books even an avid reader is going to read in the remainder of his/her life (and saysit's something like 1000) and it makes me annoyed because I'm thinking, well, _I'm_ certainly going to read a lot more books than that assuming I'm not hit by a bus tomorrow; and surely lots of others are too? There is something mandarin and elitist in the first encounter with his style, although I felt this less once I got an angle on his particular intervention.