The Book: An Elegy

February 21, 2013

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The Book: An Elegy

I’m nine months out of chemotherapy and getting back up to speed now. I started reviewing books again: just did Roger Scruton’s latest for the upcoming American Spectator, a couple on different topics for future issues of The New Criterion, and the new Coolidge biography for (this week, unless I miss the deadline). I get all the Coolidge books; I expect to get the next one for review any day now. You write a book about Calvin Coolidge, I’m your reviewer. I don’t mind: I let myself in for it.

All of which has me thinking about books. The thoughts are not happy ones. I have a house full of books. After this recent close encounter with Azrael, I have been glumly pondering the fate of all my books when I finally turn in my lunch pail. For sure the kids won’t want them. Though they are bright and capable, their souls belong to the gadget age; neither reads books. Probably my books will just become landfill.

“We won’t burn books; we’ll just forget about them.”

Who does read books anymore? Well, some people do. A few weeks ago I had lunch with a senior editor at a major publishing house. When I asked him how the book business was doing, he said things were…OK: the fiction end nicely propped up by mass-market storytellers catering mainly to the female market, nonfiction likewise by human-sciences-lite authors such as Malcolm Gladwell selling to air travelers. (When I got home I checked the fiction side. What was Mrs. Derbyshire reading? This was the answer. The authoress, whom I confess I had never heard of, is doing pretty well.)

But then a few exchanges later, my lunch companion observed: “Books don’t cause a stir anymore.” Being naturally argumentative, I tried to think of a counter. Nothing fictional came to mind, but I said I thought Steven Pinker’s last had been much discussed. Likewise Charles Murray’s last. “Nah,” said my editor. “A brief buzz in high-end outlets, that’s all. Not like it used to be.”

On reflection, he’s right—as he darn well ought to be, given his experience and seniority. Interesting and unusual quality books, fiction and nonfiction alike, used to make a huge splash, and that “used to” is not so long ago. In 2001 everyone seemed to be reading McCullough’s biography of John Adams; and before that, Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain. A few years earlier, it was Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories if you wanted to keep your end up at dinner parties—I read the first 17 of them seriatim. (And a biography to boot.) Even further back, in the 1970s, you could get a conversation going with lower-middle-class cube jockeys about James Clavell’s Shogun or Julian Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness. It’s been a decade and a half since I worked in a business office, but I feel pretty sure they’re not talking about books around the water cooler nowadays.