Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2010

The Book is Dead, by Sherman Young

When ANZ LitLovers voted for this title for the 2010 schedule, I was a bit dubious.  Books with catchy, come-hither titles to lure the buyer often turn out to be a disappointment, as if all the publisher’s energy has gone into a marketable title at the expense of the contents.  But my suspicions were unwarranted; The Book is Dead is very interesting reading.

It was published in 2007, and much has happened in the world of the book since then.  Our household, a bastion of books if ever there was one, now boasts two eReaders, a Kindle and The Spouse’s iPad.  Before the arrival of the Kindle, I was reading books such as Orwell’s essays via my netbook which perched on my knees so that I could read in bed on a lazy Sunday morning.  Radio National dumbed down its Breakfast show and so I began routinely listening to audio books during the daily commute.  I’ve even read two huge classics by email instalments through Daily Lit (Moby Dick and Don Quixote), though I saved up the instalments and read a sizable chapter each weekend rather than via inane segments which made no sense on their own.  These are exciting developments, and the Kindle will make make travelling with enough books to read much easier, but I’m still buying and reading and trying to find house room for 100+ real books every year, not to mention borrowing them from the library as well.  (The Spouse is a compulsive book-buyer/reader too, and neither of us willingly part with a book once we’ve read it, so you can imagine the shelving problem).

Sherman Young, however, is on about more than the technology which is messing about with the way we read books.  His point is that for all the books produced and bought in ever-increasing numbers, most people don’t read them.   Book-buyers have become a market, and sophisticated marketing techniques seduce people into acquiring whatever is ‘hot’ but the book sits on the shelf unread.  (Young is an academic, and this book is the chatty and readable version of his research so he has the stats (albeit often US ones) to back up these claims).  His point is that the book as a medium for the transmission of ideas ‘died’ a long time ago:

Our everyday thinking is largely shaped by other media products ranging from the television, film, magazines, newspapers, music and the newest electronic bogeymen: videogames and the internet. The book has become a peripheral, a literary fashion accessory for the few who join book clubs or go to writers festivals  (p5.)

Now if you react to this (as I did) with rebellious thoughts about all those readers on the train, or the kids who litter the school library at lunchtime with their noses in a book, or the zeitgeist about The Da Vinci Code which most people did seem to read, at least until the movie came out, this is what Young has to say:

Apart from its relegation to the cultural sidelines, it is dead because most books published and sold are more ‘anti-book’ than book.  There may be more titles available in the closest [insert name of large American bookshop which squeezed out many lovely little indie bookshops worldwide but was vanquished here in Melbourne by Readings in Carlton]; there may be books in between the confectionary aisles of every supermarket in the country.  But they are books in name only.  The vast majority of books do not speak to the 500-year history of book publishing; they are not part of what might be called book culture; a culture centred on ideas and furthering the human conversation. (p6)

Writers of popular fiction, especially the ones making a lot of money out of it, probably won’t like Young’s claim that books used to ‘contribute to our essential humanity‘ (p6) and now they don’t.  Publishers will like even less his scornful dismissal of the contemporary industry:

Some time in the last half of the twentieth century the business of books changed.  The intellectual butterflies of the publishing industry devolved, not into caterpillars but slugs, as they were absorbed borg-like by multinational corporations intent on taking an industry that had traded on ideas, into one which traded in those ideas on some fast-buck shifting of product. Books became yet another victim of the apparent need to redefine return on investment in terms of purely short-term monetary gain. (p7)

Electronic media, says Young forced the book to morph into something else  (and remember, he’s writing when the only eReader was a very clunky Sony with a pitiful range of overpriced books):

The need for speed and instant gratification has resulted in the anti-book object that dominates today’s book trade.  Books are now designed to capitalise on particular moments; to leverage off other media assets; to profit from corporate synergies; to buy into the five minutes of fame demanded of modern celebrity culture; and to pander to the get-rich-quick schemes that pass for self-help.  And books themselves reflect this cultural shift, with shorter chapters, fewer words, splashier graphics and absolutely no ideas.  What’s more, these books are now only given a few months to be successful before they are yanked off the shelves. (p9)

I might contest some of these claims – blockbuster family sagas are absurdly long, and the modern literary fiction which I read is usually rich with ideas and gets short thrift if it’s not – but I take his point.  And I like very much his consoling argument that it’s the new technologies which we bloggers embrace that will save book culture and reinvigorate the idea of ideas.  Writing only three years ago, he wasn’t witness to the all the current eSocial networks which have evolved around books and reading:

  • book-blogging, and the conversations that arise through comments
  • online book groups like ANZ LitLovers, 20th Century Literature, Classics, and Bookies Too where rich discussions take place
  • online reading challenges (which usually link to sharing ideas from the books on readers’ blogs)
  • social networking sites like Good Reads and Library Thing where reviews and their associated discussions cross over into recommendations and discussions about similar books or books by the same author
  • customer reviews on bookseller sites (problematic, I know, but the excellence of some creates their own dynamism, spurring other readers reviewing the same book to address issues raised by the original review)
  • online societies like the H.V.Morton Society to which members contribute essays and articles about the author’s ideas
  • group reads, such as reading Ulysses with DoveGreyReader, where readers have shared aspects of a difficult journey with energy and aplomb.

These are just some of the communities I know about, and my bias is towards ideas in literary fiction.  The Spouse enjoys arcane chats online about politics and philosophy.  Of course a lot of what’s out there is rubbish, but the web is a supermarket and we have to learn to choose wisely from its shelves and know when to leave to seek what we want elsewhere.

The Book is Dead is both thought-provoking and entertaining.  Its form and structure – overtly tongue-in-cheek – exemplifies some of the author’s critique of modern publishing: it’s short (only 166 pages) and it has the short chapters that I’ve quoted him complaining about above.  If this is a text-book that Young assigns to his students they won’t be complaining about it because his style is light, casual and easy-to-read.  It has an excellent index and comprehensive notes at the back, but with its stylish minimalist cover design and layout it is nothing like a text book at all.

(Alas, the book has, as this pedant has gloomily come to expect from this particular publisher, grammatical errors such as the occasional hanging clause, like this howler on p11: ‘But like most authors, money wasn’t the motivating factor’.  Younger readers won’t mind that because their generation makes this mistake all the time, conspicuously now because these grammarless folk are now often working unsupervised in the media, including the ABC.  Sadly, the often hilarious results are recognised only by those of us of a certain age.)

The Heavenly Library that Young writes about in his final chapter is now in being, through the eReader.  It’s evolving like the ‘heavenly jukebox’ which has transformed the way The Spouse buys his music.  He still haunts Thomas Music whenever he makes a trip to the CBD and he loves fossicking through the bins in country towns to find obscure releases long since sold out in The Big Smoke, but more often he buys from iTunes, especially when Margaret Throsby plays some wonderful new version of a well loved piece of classical music on ABC Classic FM. Goodness knows how many tracks he has on his latest iThingy but just as well because storing the CD collection is a problem too; it keeps breaking out of the extensive shelving in his office and into the rest of the house where the CDs seem to multiply of their own accord and have to be evicted out of the sitting room, the Left Wing, the kitchen and the bedrooms before the cleaning lady comes and puts them all back in the wrong jewel cases).

As I’m sure Young will have noted on his blog, his Heavenly Library – where every book is available for instant download –  has been around in embryonic form for classic and out-of-copyright books over at Project Gutenberg for a while.   I’ve lost track of the furore over Google Books which is digitizing books without asking authors first (including me) but I have no doubt that once the value of a digitized book and recompense to its author is sorted out the concept will be relentless.

(This issue of paying the author for time spent in writing the book may seem peripheral to some – and Young treats it scantily – but it’s not.  Despite pressure to continue, I stopped producing books for Australian Indonesian language teachers because it didn’t pay me enough for my time, and it wasn’t enough fun for me to want to do it for 0.95c per book, reduced to a third of that when the publisher (HBJ) sold the rights to a different publisher.  I made more money out of self-publishing my Word Puzzles series but got fed up with teachers photocopying pages and pages of it to give away to other teachers – and occasionally claiming them as their own work.  Writers and editors need to be adequately for their work, or they won’t do it.)

Back in the Heavenly Library, the availability of instant purchase for contemporary books is undergoing rapid expansion as the eReader has surged into the market.  Although there are hassles with rights holdings from which we suffer in Australia, (a problem that will eventually go away), the Amazon Kindle has hundreds of books on instant offer.  My father was astonished when I bought, with one click in his Webless house in Queensland, a Kindle copy of Finnegan’s Wake.  The Spouse can do the same with his iPad, and now there’s the Kobe…

In a first for Australian readers Kobe has stitched up an agreement with the forward-looking Michael Heyward at Text Publishing (one of my favourite Australian indie publishers) so that (if I had a Kobe, and if I didn’t already have a first edition, autographed copy) I could buy Kate Grenville’s The Secret River at two o’clock in the morning without getting out of my chair at home.  I think I would always want to have any new book of Kate’s as a real book, but I suspect that offering an inexpensive digital form would grow her market and enable a small number of maybe print-on-demand first editions to be profitable for her publisher? I hope so.  I’m always going to want to have real books too.  (Yes, Sherman, I’m still unrepentantly wedded to the book! (p124)

Another manifestation of the Heavenly Library, although it’s not quite what Young meant, because delivery isn’t instant (yet) it’s also possible to click on that link above and buy Grenville’s book (or any of countless others) right now at any other online bookstore and it will arrive in the post box in a few days. Very different to just a few short years ago when I used to have to wait frustrating weeks and sometimes months for books not stocked in the local marketplace.  I love being able to do this, and again, my father was astonished when on my last trip up north I located a second-hand impossible-to-find book about Wellington on Amazon and ordered it for him while he made a pot of tea.  He was even more astonished by the low price ($1.50USD + postage) and was ecstatic when it subsequently arrived in almost pristine condition.

Conscious even as he wrote in 2007 that things were in a state of flux, Sherman Young writes more about the transformation of the book on his blog and you can preview the book at Google Books too.   Rachel Morley in the Global Media Journal admired Young’s prophecy of The Heavenly Library and David Carter in the Australian Humanities Review liked the irony of writing a book about the death of the book but wasn’t entirely convinced by Young’s generalisations about the book industry.  Reviews by non-academics are thin on the ground – which is a pity because this is a book for anyone interested in the future of the book, as can be seen from this short review on GoodReads and this one at For What It’s Worth.

Highly recommended. (I wonder if Young will produce an updated digital version and make it available online through a more forward-looking publisher?  Are you reading this, Text?)

Author: Sherman Young
Title: The Book is Dead
Publisher: New South (University of NSW Press), 2007
ISBN: 9780868408040
Source: Personal copy


Responses

  1. Wow, this was an amazing review and sounds like a great, thought provoking read. I will be adding this book to my wishlist with a link to this review.

    • Hello Becky, thanks for joining in the conversation:)
      From my quick look at your blog, I think you’ll love The Book is Dead!
      Lisa

  2. I think he is far from being the first to proclaim the death of the book, but it seems rather incredible to me. Sure, the “industrial” side of publishing continues to churn out vast amounts of pulp, and I agree that many books bought with the grocery shopping probably remain unread. However, the literary culture is as strong as ever as evidenced by literary festivals and journals and the burgeoning number of book groups in homes and libraries.

    A very thorough review – thanks.

    • Hmm, Tom, I agree that it’s strong, but as strong as ever? I think there has been a dumbing down of what young people read at school and that spills over into what they read – or don’t – in their adult lives. Half the people who claim to ‘love’ Jane Austen have only ever seen the films. They’ve never read the books. Lisa


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