Bad boy Amazon and George Packer’s latest salvo

Until five or so years ago, every time I read yet another article about the perilous state of literary fiction I’d see complaints about how publishers ignore it in favor of airport thrillers and stupid self-help and romance and Michael Crichton and on and on. On or about December 2009 everything about the book business and human nature changed. Today, I read about how publishers are priestly custodians of high culture and the Amazon barbarians are knocking at the gate. Although George Packer doesn’t quite say as much in “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?“, it fits the genre.

Packer is concerned that Amazon has too much power and that it is indifferent to quality. By contrast, the small publisher Melville House “puts out quality fiction and nonfiction,” while “Bezos announced that the price of best-sellers and new titles would be nine-ninety-nine, regardless of length or quality” and “Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter.”

Maybe all of this is true, but here’s another possibility: thanks to Amazon, people writing the most abstruse literary fiction possible don’t have to beg giant multinational megacorps for a print run of 3,000 copies. Amazon doesn’t care if you’re going to sell one million or one hundred copies; you still get a spot, and now midlist authors aren’t going to be forcibly ejected from the publishing industry by publishing houses.

Read Martha McPhee’s novel Dear Money. It verges on annoying at first but shifts to being delightful. The protagonist, Emma Chapman, is a “midlist” novelist sinking towards being a no-list novelist, and pay attention to her descriptions about “the details of how our lives really were” and how “not one of my novels had sold more than five thousand copies” and that “the awards by this point had been received long ago.” She makes money from teaching, not fiction, and her money barely adds up to rent and private schools and the rest of the New York bullshit. Under the system Packer describes, Emma is a relative success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince Dear Money is a novel everything works out in the end, but in real life for many writers things don’t work out. Still, I would note that self-publishing as the norm has one major flaw: the absence of professional content editors, who are often key to writers’s growth can often turn a mess with potential into a great book (here’s one example of a promising self-published book that could’ve been saved; there are no doubt others).

Still, Amazon must save more books than it destroys. If you read any amount of literary criticism, journalism, or scholarly articles, you’ve read innumerable sentences like these: “[Malcolm] Cowley persuaded Viking to accept ‘On the Road’ after many publishers had turned it down. He worked to get Kerouac, who was broke, financial support.” How many Kerouacs and Nabokovs didn’t make it to publication, and are unknown to history because no Cowley persuaded a publisher to act in its own best interests? How many will now, thanks to Amazon?

Having spent half a decade banging around on various publishers’ and agents’ doors I’m not convinced that publishers are doing a great job of gatekeeping. I’d also note that it may be possible for many people to sell far fewer copies of a work and still be “successful;” a publisher apparently needs to sell at least 10,000 copies of a standard hardcover release, at $15 – $30 per hardcover and $9.99 – $14.99 for each ebook, to stay afloat. If I sell 10,000 copies of Asking Anna for $10 to $4 I’ll be doing peachy.

Amazon has done an incredible job setting up a fantastic amount of infrastructure, physical and electronic, and Packer doesn’t even mention that.

Amazon also offers referral fees to anyone with a website; most of the books linked to in this blog have my own referral tag attached. Not only does Amazon give a fee if someone buys the linked item directly, but Amazon gives out the fee for any other item that person buys the same day. So if a person buys a camera lens for $400 after clicking a link in my blog, I get a couple bucks.

It’s not a lot and I doubt anyone quits their day job to get rich on referral links, but it’s more than zero. I like to say that I’ve made tens of dollars through those fees; by now I’ve made a little more, though not so much that it’ll pay for both beer and books.

Publishing’s golden age has always just ended. In 1994, Larissa MacFarquhar could write in the introduction to Robert Gottlieb’s Paris Review interview that in the 1950s—when Gottlieb got started—”publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit.” Then Gottlieb is quoted directly:

It is not a happy business now [. . .] and once it was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.

Today publishers are noble keepers of a sacred flame; before December 2009 they were rapacious capitalists. Today writers can also run a million experiments in what people want to read. Had I been an editor with 50 Shades of Grey passed my desk, I would’ve rejected it. Oops.

But the Internet is very good at getting to revealed preferences. Maybe Americans say they want to read high-quality books but many want to read about the stuff they’re not getting in real life: sex with attractive people; car chases; being important; being quasi-omniscient; and so on. Some people who provide those things are going to succeed.

More than anything else, the Internet demonstrates that a lot of people really like porn (in its visual forms and its written form). People want what they want and while I not surprisingly think that a lot of people would be better off reading more and more interesting stuff, on a fundamental level everyone lives their own lives how they see fit. A lot of people would also be better off if they ran more, watched reality TV less, ate more broccoli, and the other usual stuff. The world is full of ignored messages. In the end each individual suffers or doesn’t according to the way they live their own life.

I don’t love Amazon or any company, but Amazon and the Internet more generally has enabled me to do things that wouldn’t have been possible or pragmatic in 1995. Since Amazon is ascending, however, it’s the bad guy in many narratives. Big publishers are wobbling, so they’re the good guys. We have always been at war with East Asia and will always be at war with East Asia.

Packer is a good writer, skilled with details and particularities, but he can’t translate those skills into generalities. He fits stories into political / intellectual frameworks that don’t quite fit, as happened last his Silicon Valley article (I responded: “George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia“). Packer’s high quality makes him worth responding to. But Packer presumably ignores his critics on the uncouth Interwebs, since he occupies the high ground of the old-school New Yorker. Too bad. There are things to be learned from the Internet, even about the past.

The critic’s temperament and the problem of indifference: Orwell, Teachout, and Scalzi

In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell points to an idea that almost any critic, or any person with a critical / systematic temperament, will eventually encounter:

[. . . ] the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.

He’s not the only one; in 2004 Terry Teachout wrote:

[. . . ] I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones–of which there were far more than too many.

Teachout uses the term “adequate.” Orwell says reviewers are “INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Together, they remind me of what I feel towards most books: neutrality or indifference, which is close to “no spontaneous feelings.” Most books, even the ones I don’t especially like, I don’t hate, either. Hatred implies enormous emotional investment of the sort that very few books are worth. Conventionally bad books are just dull.

Still, writing about really bad books can be kind of fun, at first, especially when the bad books are educational through demonstrating what not to do. But after a couple of delicious slams, anyone bright and self-aware has to ask: Why bother wasting time on overtly bad books, especially if one isn’t being paid?

That leaves the books one loves and the books that don’t inspire feelings. The books one loves are difficult to praise without overused superlatives. The toughest books, however, are Teachout’s “merely adequate ones,” because there’s really nothing much to say and less reason to say it.

Critics may still write about indifferent books for other reasons; John Scalzi describes some purposes criticism serves, and he includes consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemics among the critic’s main purpose.* Of those four, I try to shoot four numbers two and three, though I used to think number one exceedingly valuable. Now I’ve realized that number one is almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, the most notable being that literary merit and popularity have little if any relationship, which means that critics asking systematic questions about what makes good stuff good and bad stuff bad are mostly wasting their time. Polemics can be fun, but I’d rather focus on learning and understanding, rather than invective.


* Scalzi also says:

there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.

All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps.

I think that one challenge for most modern writers, and virtually all self-published writers, will be finding people like Russell Letson, who are capable of producing “a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view.” Most Amazon.com reviews default to meaningless hate or praise, both of which can be discounted; getting someone who can “give that critical opinion weight” is the major challenge, since most people are lightweights. Even the heavyweights don’t waste their energy on weak opponents who aren’t even worth engaging.

Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

No one can agree on how to make tea

Since reading “A Hacker’s Guide to Tea” (and this worthy discussion) I’ve begun drinking more of the beverage, which I rather like now that I know how to make it: tea isn’t hard to prepare. But I came from the idiotic “more is better” school of thought and figured the longer and hotter that tea is steeped, the better it must be. In reality, this just makes it tremendously bitter and vile.

In actuality, light teas—like green and white—need to be steeped at temperatures well below boiling for about a minute or two. Black teas should be steeped with boiling water for two to three minutes. Tea should be loose leaf and circulate freely with the hot water poured on it; I now use an IngenuiTEA from Adagio for one to two cups. The drink falls from the bottom of the device, rather like it’s peeing, but I find the overall effect quite amusing.

Still, the number of people with very strong and conflicting opinions about how to make tea is astonishing. “Very strong and conflicting opinions” would also have made an excellent title for Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, but today he merely offers bilious tea making instructions—and that’s as strange a construction to write as it is to read—in How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea: Ignore Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and heed George Orwell’s tea-making advice:

It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.

I love the overstated, overstuffed phrasing: “ridiculous business,” “dispiriting tampon surrogate,” “best thrown away.” But his advice is limited to black tea. He goes to to quote Orwell ” ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.” But, in The Story of Tea: A Cultural and Drinking Guide (which is not very good and reads like a travelogue), Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss say:

While millions of avid tea drinkers around the world ‘take the teapot to the kettle’ to use water that is as hot as possible to brew ‘proper English tea,’ we find that even the stoutest black teas prefer to be brewed in water that is slightly off the boil. Any perceived reduction in strength can be made up by steeping the tea a little longer.

Here is my proposition for Hitchens and innumerable others: instead of insisting that one way is better, why not take the Coke-Pepsi challenge? Brew a large number of cups both ways, give them to a large number of people over a large number of occasions, and see which one works better? More likely than not, neither will work out. Based on the large amount of contradictory advice I’ve read regarding tea, I would guess that once one has a reasonably fresh, loose leaf and a reasonable knowledge of approximate brewing temperatures, the rest is superstition.

The analogy to wine is probably appropriate: except for people with very highly developed senses for wine, most of us probably can tell “bad” “better” and “best” but little more. So we decide what wine to drink based on price and innuendo more than anything else. By the same token, I bet that Hitchens can’t really tell the difference between tea brewed off the boil or not, but he probably derives a certain amount of status by having very strong opinions about how tea should be brewed. I leave to the reader who is familiar with Hitchens’ work to decide whether this general principle might apply beyond the realm of caffeinated beverages.

Finally, Hitchens is only writing about black tea, but he doesn’t say as much. Making green or white tea as he recommends will be terrible. Still, even there the advice is contradictory Tony at The Chicago Tea Company—quoted in the first link—says black tea should be steeped for one minute or so. “A guide to tea” by the foppish Chris Cason says that black tea should be steeped no more than five minutes, while white teas are more forgiving and could be steeped as long as seven. I am more inclined to agree with Tony, based on experiment. The issue of making tea should not, however, be one argued with the fervor of someone discussing Middle Eastern politics.

EDIT: I’m now reading Orwell’s “A Nice Cup of Tea,” in which he says:

“If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than 11 outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial” {Orwell “Essays”@990}.

To me, the most interesting part of this is his comment about how only “two” of 11 points “would be in pretty general agreement,” while “four others are acutely controversial.” This indicates that tea-making preferences have been an issue for at least sixty years (the essay was published in 1946) and are likely to continue to be controversial in the near future. So far as I know, “violent disputes” haven’t resulted from tea making, but then perhaps Americans, especially those in overheated Arizona, are not so particular about tea, or there isn’t the critical mass necessary for violent factions to form.

EDIT 2: A redditor pointed me to the ISO 3103 standard on making tea. Even the parody, however, leans toward black tea: “The method consists in extracting of soluble substances in dried tea leaf, containing in a porcelain or earthenware pot, by means of freshly boiling water [. . .]” Follow the standard regarding green tea and you’ll find a less-than-optimal cup.


As long as we’re discussing Hitchens, here’s one of the more amusing quotes from Hitch-22: “I always take it for granted that sexual moralizing by public figures is a sign of hypocrisy or worse, and most usually a desire to perform the very act that is most being condemned.”

March Links: The Watchmen, Orwell, and Goldengrove

* “From Comic Book to Literary Classic:” Does The Watchmen deserve all the hype? The WSJ asks. Their answer is mostly “no,” a verdict I concur with.

* Speaking of Watchmen-related hype, Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes my feeling toward movies:

I think I’m mostly done with comic book movies, and big budget movies in general. I don’t think (with a few exceptions) that they’re made for me. Which is fine. But the more comic book movies I see, the more I value the imaginative space created by books.

(For more on this, see Why are so many movies awful?)

* Orwell wasn’t a mensch or a lout or an ideologue in the normal sense, and trying to define him is as much a challenge today as it must have been in his time. Julian Barnes tries to make some sense of him in “Such, Such Was Eric Blair:”

All prophets risk posthumous censure, even mockery; and the Orwell we celebrate nowadays is less the predictor than the social and political analyst. Those born in the immediate postwar years grew up with the constant half-expectation that 1984 would bring all the novel described: immovable geopolitical blocs, plus brutal state surveillance and control. Today, the English may have their sluggardly couch-potato side; their liberties have been somewhat diminished, and they are recorded by CCTV cameras more often than any other nation on earth. But otherwise 1984 passed with a sigh of relief, while 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a louder one.

Orwell believed in 1936 that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” That “never” was a risky call. And on a larger scale, he believed throughout World War II that peace would bring the British revolution he desired, with blood in the gutters and the “red militias…billetted in the Ritz,” as he put it in private diary and public essay. And after the revolution:

The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten….

One out of four on the vision thing; and tractors were hardly a difficult pick.

I’ve mentioned his collected Essays before and will no doubt again; even when they’re infuriating, they’re enormously clever.

* Jacket Copy reports that, 27 years after John Cheever’s death, the man is everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except for my bookshelf: I’ve never read his novels, which are on the ever-expanding “to be read” list. This week’s New Yorker also has an article about Cheever. It includes this bit:

“How lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions”—no wonder Cheever’s fiction is slighted in academia while Fitzgerald’s collegiate romanticism is assigned. Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s.

Really? I’m not sure I agree with the premise that Cheever is slighted in academia, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d buy the reason stated.

* The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, calls Cheever The Audubon of Suburbia:

“Cheever: A Life,” arriving as it does with the publication of Library of America editions of Cheever’s stories and novels, edited by Mr. Bailey, seems intended to spur a rediscovery of the author. It won’t be the first, or the last. Cheever occupies a secure place in the literature of the American dream, forming the link between Fitzgerald and Updike. The formidable achievement of his short stories alone ensures that he is destined to be the subject of periodic rediscovery, reassessment and biographical shading-in.

* Maybe I will read Francine Prose’s Goldengrove:

Prose’s book is filled with characters who comprehend their experience of the world through the lenses that art–high art, popular art, and everything in between–offers up. Even though Goldengrove tells a sad story, I found great comfort and pleasure in reading about these characters and their attachments to and imitations of art, and appreciated Myers’s identification of this kind of activity and attachment as a subject of the novel. “We learn what we were like as children from such books as The Mill on the Floss, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and Goldengrove,” he says. Our experience of art is as much a life experience as anything else.

I didn’t care for The Mill on the Floss, but the overall point is well-taken.

* The best article on Kindle economics and bookstores that I’ve seen: Digital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business.

* Speaking of book publishing, MobyLives reports:

Exact data on how the used book market is eroding the market for new books is hard to come by but the consensus is — it ain’t helping.

The Wall Street Journal predicted in 2005: “While the market’s size is still modest — about $600 million, or 2.8% of the $21 billion that readers spent on consumer books in 2004 — it is growing at 25% annually. Jeff Hayes, group director for InfoTrends Research Group, suggests that it could reach $2.25 billion in U.S. sales by 2010, or 9.4% of a projected $23.9 billion in consumer book sales.”

The chronic fear of reading’s demise set against its benefits

As if you needed more on reading and its benefits (as I discuss here, here, here, and here), see People of the Screen from the New Atlantis. It’s a long article worth reading in full, but these paragraphs stand out:

Whether one agrees with the NEA or with Bloom, no one can deny that our new communications technologies have irrevocably altered the reading culture. In 2005, Northwestern University sociologists Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright identified the emergence of a new “reading class,” one “restricted in size but disproportionate in influence.” Their research , conducted largely in the 1990s, found that the heaviest readers were also the heaviest users of the Internet, a result that many enthusiasts of digital literacy took as evidence that print literacy and screen literacy might be complementary capacities instead of just competitors for precious time.

[…]

Just as Griswold and her colleagues suggested the impending rise of a “reading class,” British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that the time we spend in front of the computer and television is creating a two-class society: people of the screen and people of the book. The former, according to new neurological research, are exposing themselves to excessive amounts of dopamine, the natural chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain. This in turn can lead to the suppression of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls functions such as measuring risk and considering the consequences of one’s actions.

Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”

[…]

But the Northwestern sociologists also predicted, “as Internet use moves into less-advantaged segments of the population, the picture may change. For these groups, it may be that leisure time is more limited, the reading habit is less firmly established, and the competition between going online and reading is more intense.” This prediction is now coming to pass: A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.”

I realize the irony of sharing this on the Internet, where it’s probably being read on the same screens criticized by the study, and perhaps demonstrating the allegedly rising divide between screen readers and book readers.

Compare the section above to my post on Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, which discusses the innumerable articles on reading’s decline (or maybe not). Alan Jacobs has an excellent post on Frum and Literature in which he observes that reading, especially real books, has probably always been a minority taste and probably always will be. Orwell opens his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel” by saying “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” The whole piece is available in the collection Essays.

Finally, consider From Books, New President Found Voice in the New York Times, which I’m sure every book/lit blogger has already linked to by now:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.

Without his experience in books, Obama probably wouldn’t be where he is, and millions of others must silently share the same condition of achieving what they have thanks largely due to their learning. But they seldom get a voice in the pronouncements about reading’s decline, and those articles seldom acknowledge that, while society might lose a great deal from the allegedly decreasing literacy of its members, those members will lose vastly more on an individual level, and few will even realize what they’ve lost.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

%d bloggers like this: