The Book: An Elegy

February 21, 2013

Multiple Pages
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.

We’re reading an equivalent amount of stuff on the Internet, though, aren’t we? Yes, but it’s a different kind of reading. This case was made five years ago by Nicholas Carr in an Atlantic article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr thinks it is. I’m reading something (he says) when an IM or email comes in and diverts me; or I encounter a hyperlink, follow the hyperlink, and now I’m reading something else. (No, this is not just like a footnote, for reasons Carr explains: “Hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.”) Or even without the hyperlink, something occurs to me and I go look it up. (No, this is not like getting out of my chair to check a different book on my shelves. I don’t have to get up.) Carr: “The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

All right, you may say, but the way we take in knowledge and entertainment changes with technology and always has. Spoken transmission of ideas and stories gave way to writing; stage plays gave way to movies, radio, and TV. Plato thought the invention of writing meant we “would cease to exercise memory.” He was probably right, but writing gave words a permanence they had not had before, a positive that surely outweighed the negative.

Well, yes, but I’m just not seeing anything positive in the death of books. A few months ago I unmasked myself on Taki’s Magazine as a beginner-level Civil War buff. At that point my main source of instruction was audio: Prof. Gallagher’s very excellent series from the Great Courses company. A friend then lent me the Ken Burns video documentary, which I watched with interest. Historian Shelby Foote makes several appearances there, and I rather liked the cut of his jib, so my next port of call was Foote’s humongous three-volume narrative of the war.

(Concerning which, a brief bleg, if I may. A local independent bookstore gave me a deal on the three-volume set, secondhand and a bit battered but perfectly readable. Volume Two, however, has no dust jacket. If anyone has a spare of that dust jacket, please let me know.)

So I have “done” the Civil War in video, audio, and book form. I’d rate the information content per hour spent as roughly doubling from medium to medium: audio twice as informative as video, print twice as informative as audio. Books rule.

But I’m pissing into the wind, I know. The intelligence of our species is declining; that’s obvious. On top of that general trend, the USA’s overall bookishness is being dragged down by our huge new population of Mexicans, a people of zero civilizational attainment who do not read books.

Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, had the agents of an authoritarian state hunting down books and burning them. The actual future, almost upon us now, will be less dramatic, though just as enstupidating. We won’t burn books; we’ll just forget about them.

Image of books courtesy of Shutterstock

Daily updates with TM’s latest