The Demise, and Rise, of the ‘Book’

Here’s an intriguing, and for some, disturbing, take on the publishing industry:

The title is a bit misleading, in a provocative way, for people are still ‘buying books’, just not in the traditional and historical manner in which people used to buy books. Most of the money is made off what is called the ‘backlist’, those books that are perennially popular:

The backlist includes all of the books that have ever come out. Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, points out that their backlist includes bibles (an $80 million business), coloring books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, magic trick books, calendars, puzzles, and SAT study guides. It also includes perennial bestsellers like Don Quijote, Steven King’s Carrie, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—these books continue to sell year after year.

Then there are celebrity books, those written by famous people just because they’re famous. They’re given large advances, in the expectation that people will buy a book just because their favorite athlete or singer or politician wrote it (and whether they did indeed ‘write it’ is disputable, since they often use ghost writers, whether attributed or not).

As far as new authors go, well, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and slim pickings. Many authors are now self-publishing, which has its own issues, for at least publishing houses could, and usually did, sift through all the rubbish, and editors could refine what was good into readable format. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing – and please don’t judge these few words by that standard!

The speaker at our recent graduation ceremony, retired professor Peter Erb, used books as his theme, mentioning that in the classical era – that is, the Latin and Greek world – the word ‘book’ meant a ‘chapter’, in which one encapsulated one’s thoughts, which were never-ending. Saint Augustine’s word for ‘book’ was ‘verba‘, words, and you just kept writing, until your thoughts had run their course. Our notion of a book, with a beginning, middle and end – especially in the context of a novel – is, well, rather novel and modern.

Here’s some food – verba – for thought:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Dr. Erb quoted this from Ecclesiastes 12:12, eliciting much laughter from the graduands.

Perhaps, as the divine author alludes, there shouldn’t be so many books. One advertising line I read years ago from a bookstore in the U.S. declared that “99.9% of the books ever published are out of print…and they should be”. My dim memory recalls that Aristotle, the ‘master of those who know’, once quipped that the ‘wise man is a man of few books’ – but that could be apocryphal. I have often pondered and wondered, from a thinker who wrote so much. How many is a few? Three or three thousand?

I don’t think Aristotle is advocating for little reading, but, rather ‘a few’ likely means ‘not too many’, nor reading just for reading’s sake, to wear one’s learned lumber on one’s sleeve. Dr. Erb mentioned a disconcerting phenomenon, that people now claim to have ‘read a book’, when, in fact, they have perused only an excerpt.

A little learning is a dangerous thing

The point is that reading is food for the mind and the soul; and like our bodies, should be fed with healthy and nourishing fare; not too much, not too little, just the right amount.

We will leave the reader for now with the heavenly exhortation heard by just such a wise man, again, the great Saint Augustine from his Confessions:

Tolle, lege, tolle, lege…”

Take up and read, take up, and read.