The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

BOOKS AND THEIR DINNER TABLE OF DISCONTENTS: Literacy is a good thing, all in all, but as with anything else, of course, there are some disadvantages. Most of us would rather not read income tax forms or the English language instructions on how to put a toy together written by someone who cannot actually speak English themselves, but has seen pictures of people reading English on the television and it doesn't look all that difficult, or the nutritional information on the sides of our favorite breakfast cereal when it tells us that one bowlful of the stuff has enough sugar in it to rot the teeth of a bucketful of white lab rats. This tends to depress us unnecessarily. We are awash in information these days, much of it unwanted.

But on the whole, the advantages of literacy outweigh the disadvantages. Literacy allows human beings to free themselves from the tyranny of the present moment, to compare one era with another, and to preserve and pass on to our posterity the knowledge we have gained so that they may prosper from it. Not that they actually do, of course. Most of human history sees people doing the same stupid things over and over again and hoping for a different result. It’s pretty silly, when you think about it, but that’s another argument. Be that as it may, throughout human history the central method for transmitting the hard won knowledge we pay little or no attention to is the book, which is arguably the greatest single invention in human history, although ketchup comes pretty close, and is easily one of the most popular. The demand for books increases from year to year. Thousands of new titles come out every year and publishers are hard pressed to keep up with the public’s insatiable appetite for them. Paper companies cut down thousands of acres of trees every year to keep up with the demand. If book publishing alone stopped tomorrow at 3:32 pm EST, and the presses stayed off for a year, the number of trees saved could provide enough wood to give a two story split level ranch house to every man, woman, and child in the Rocky Mountain states and all of Connecticut east of New Haven. Books sell at a truly impressive clip in this country and that does not include the books the author’s relatives buy in order to keep peace in the family. The publishing industry is one of the powerhouses of the modern American economy, a multibillion dollar industry dedicated to the buying and selling and promoting of books, which is a little strange since so few people actually read books anymore.

From what I’ve read the large bookstores estimate that some ten to twenty percent of their stock does eighty percent of their business, a statistic mirrored by library circulation figures. The rest of the books are there, for lack of a better way of describing them, for decoration. Given that the numbers of books published, printed, and sold in this country keeps going up, there must be some reason that people keep buying a product they have no intention of using.

The sales figures clearly reflect a respect for books, and any librarian who’s had to deal with a patron donating an outdated encyclopedia with three volumes missing, the collected works of Joseph Hergesheimer, and a run of the National Geographic that's been sitting out in the garage since the middle of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term knows that most people honor the place of the book in American society and regard the destruction of books, any book, no matter how ratty it is, with the same horror they would feel if their favorite child announced one fine day at the dinner table that he or she wanted to go to Canada over their spring break and club baby seals to death with a crowbar. So people drop their old unwanted books off at the library, which then performs the necessary bibliographic euthanasia and has them carted away for recycling into cardboard boxes or manila envelopes or brown paper bags that fall apart whenever the humidity level gets above eighty percent.

There is something almost Zen-like about a billion dollar industry based on a product almost no one really uses; restricting book sales to the people who actually read them would close down most publishing houses tomorrow or the next day; and there is no other industry I know of that tries to do this. If you found that eight out of every ten hot dogs you bought were just sawdust in a skin, which may be the case anyway, you’d be complaining left, right, and center about how you’d gotten cheated and no misplaced reverence about the place of the hot dog in American life and culture would stop you. But when publishers sell us books we do not read no one says a thing about it. Publishers might themselves some time and money if they just printed the dust jacket and some interesting book flap copy and filled the middle with the Chicago telephone directory. It’s a lot more useful than a lot of books you read these days, always assuming, of course, that you read books in the first place.

Soon improvements in printer and computer technology will give us even more books. With the mass digitization of books, no book need ever go out of print. Millions of books will be available to the public for a small fee, which will grow larger as time goes on because that’s the way life works. All you will have to do is call the book up on a computer and your local bookstore will print it out and cover it for you. And now we see that entire libraries will soon disgorge their contents onto the Internet, making the wisdom of the ages available to anyone who wants such wisdom at the click of a button, beginning with books that are now in the public domain. Yes indeed, books no one wanted to read a hundred years ago will be instantly available to anyone who doesn’t want to read them now. A vast new world of books is opening up here at the beginning of the third millennium, although one suspects that most of us will simply wait for the movie version, thank you very much, or maybe just watch television.


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