Inside Story

Shelving books

The iPad goes on sale in Australia tomorrow. Jock Given reads two books about books and wonders what to do with the rest.

Jock Given 27 May 2010 2380 words

Amanda Oliver/Flickr

Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age
by Jeff Gomez | Palgrave Macmillan | $32.95

The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
by Ted Striphas | Columbia University Press | $44.95

I’m renovating. So many decisions.

When it’s furniture, it’s less permanent. Get it wrong, you can shift it somewhere else, give it away, leave it on the street.

Renovation is for keeps. The future. Decisions that can’t be turned back, choices requiring assessments about where everything is headed. Power – solar heating, solar everything, or stay with the mains? Water – how much to store? Tanks all over the backyard or bladders under verandahs? Broadband – re-cable the place so fibre-to-the-home can pump ethernet into every room, or leave it to wireless?

Get these decisions wrong and you’re stuck, not just with the stuff you built but with the whole picture you had of how the world would be.

It’s the books that are killing me. The place is bursting with them. Some I’ve never read, but will, next holiday, definitely. Some I’ve never stopped reading. Others read just the other week, resting now, reminding me of what it was like to be inside them. Others still, mined over and over, reference points for whole universes of facts and ways of thinking.

Do I build them in, remake the home now for these beauties, work them into the walls, the way I am now and have been? Or will that lead to some grim day when the place is for sale, crawling with strangers, and the serious ones ask, “Are the bookshelves original?” as though they were fireplaces, relics once used for a purpose now performed more cleanly and efficiently by something invisible, and I have to answer, No, I had them all custom-built in 2010, about the time the iPad came out.

And they avoid each other’s eyes and chuckle as if your bookshelves were a gramophone or a sailing ship launched the day steam took over, or worse, much worse, they don’t ask at all, but puzzle, silently, “Whatever can they have done with these?”

Print Is Dead, says Jeff Gomez. Sometimes.

“In terms of Print Is Dead,” he writes, “what I’ve tried to do is lay out my arguments in a concise, three-part structure that first shows how publishing needs to change. I then describe the current conditions in terms of what’s happening in other industries… Finally, I discuss the issues going forward in terms of what life will be like in a digital world…”

Actually, Gomez doesn’t think print is dead but he’s worried about the state of some things we have come to think are inseparable from the physical print media of books, magazines and newspapers, things like words and stories, ideas and culture. If the people who write and produce these media don’t wake up to the digital world, Gomez thinks there might not be too many readers left.

Senior director of online consumer sales and marketing for Penguin Group USA, Gomez gives his own readers a useful, quick tour of the current state of books, magazines and newspapers and the changing ways people are using them and emerging media forms. He explains why predictions about the dominance of electronic books have not yet come true, but “Just because the digital tide stopped at the feet of publishing doesn’t mean the flood’s not coming; it only means that the water’s getting close.”

Print Is Dead is rich with the clichés of the genre – “The biggest change in the past fifty years, in terms of life on Earth, has been the introduction of the internet and the abundance of gadgets that have arrived along with it”… “nothing can bring us back to the era of Grub Street”… “Whether or not you think this is utopia or dystopia depends on your viewpoint, but one cannot possibly argue that things are staying the same.”

Gomez acknowledges the obvious question: why a physical book about the end of printed publications? His answer is oblique, a reference to a Simpsons episode when Sideshow Bob appears on television to decry the cultural destruction caused by television. It’s not really enough. Anyone who reads the voluminous mainstream media and blogosphere coverage of the future of print media will probably want more than Print Is Dead’s digestible overview of familiar trends and hypotheses. If you are not persuaded already that something big is under way, this book is probably not going to change your mind.

Ted Striphas is a more subtle analyst of print media’s present and future. He’s neither as gloomy as the readers and writers that John Updike has called “holdouts, surly hermits refusing to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village,” nor as warm in that sunshine as Gomez. This chapter in book history, Striphas thinks, is one “in which books remain a vital if slippery and perhaps not quite as central a force in the shaping of dominant and emergent ways of life.” Borrowing Jay David Bolter’s term, he calls it “The Late Age of Print.”

Books, says Striphas, “were integral to the making of a modern, connected consumer culture in the twentieth century.” Today, they are part of consumer capitalism’s slide into what Henri Lefebvre called a “society of controlled consumption.” He is not interested in making a fetish of books, but in “the prevalent and pedestrian character of books today.” This takes him to intriguing places – bookshelves, ISBN numbers, Barnes and Noble, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and Harry Potter.

Built-in bookshelves were a “growing fad” in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Writing in Publishers Weekly in November 1929, the president of the National Association of Book Publishers implored his industry to get behind this trend. “The problem is twofold: how to get all those who build new houses and who own old houses, to understand the value and ease of putting in as many as possible of these modern conveniences; and how to bring the consequent business into the bookstore.” Building bookshelves was, according to Striphas, “less about the content of books than about the appearance of respectability and plenitude the presence of books could confer on homeowners.”

Installing bookshelves in private middle-class homes “signalled the home’s passage from a site dedicated primarily to strengthening one’s moral and spiritual fibre to one increasingly suffused with worldly pleasures.” There might even be a danger from too much of this pleasure. An article in the New York Times two years earlier said some homeowners “build their bookshelves to the ceiling in the ambition some day to fill them up,” but then found “they are sometimes book lovers with an eye for a bigger display than their purses can afford.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos chose books to found his online retailing giant not because he loved them but because the industry was more “meticulously organised” than almost any other consumer good. The ISBN numbering system, adopted in the 1970s, was ideal for the kind of highly automated inventory-control and distribution systems he thought would be possible online. Integrating this system with the barcoding developed for other consumer products provided an intriguing challenge for the book and wider retail sectors at a time when non-specialist outlets like supermarkets and department stores became much more important sellers of books.

Oprah Winfrey has created a phenomenon, a televised Book Club whose selection of a title for discussion reliably adds 500,000 to a million copies to its sales. Striphas tries to get inside its informal rules by contrasting Winfrey’s response to two potential crises. When The Corrections was selected, its author Jonathan Franzen agonised publicly about the company it would be keeping on Oprah’s show, the Oprah badging his happy publisher slapped on the covers of a new edition, the risk that male readers would be turned off, and the show’s need for a homely Manhattanite-author-returns-to-his-roots segment filmed in his mid-western hometown. After a few weeks of this, Winfrey withdrew Franzen’s invitation.

But when James Frey’s “autobiography” A Million Little Pieces turned out to be a fake, Winfrey got him back on the show twice to fess up. Frey’s story of drug addiction and recovery was discussed on the show in October 2005 and became the bestselling trade paperback of the year. Franzen could be ignored “precisely because the trope around which so much of the controversy had turned – the distinction between high and low culture – was more or less irrelevant to the book club’s worldview and ways of operating.” Frey’s dishonesty had to be confronted, partly because he had already been on the show, but also because it “contravened what is probably the core value of Oprah’s Book Club: the grounding of books in actual events… Truth is an inviolable category and lying constitutes a serious moral breach.”

The Harry Potter books give Striphas a foundation to explore contemporary ideas about the ancient notion of originality. While English language publishers took astonishing security measures to try to ensure the simultaneous global release of the latest instalments of Harry’s official adventures – or, at least, astonishing media coverage of the release – and while many who unwittingly found themselves with pre-release copies volunteered to respect the embargo, Chinese readers were absorbing Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon and Indians were reading of Harry Potter in Calcutta sharing the stage with classic characters from Bengali literature. Harry’s Russian sister, Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass, was selling well in Moscow and Porri Gater and the Stone Philosopher was shifting copies in Belarus.

Harry Potter is an exceptional case, Striphas acknowledges, not the entire book industry, but it is not a mere anomaly. “You don’t know much about mass culture unless you come to grips with the intricate imbrications of legitimacy and illegitimacy prevalent throughout the entire circuit of production, distribution, exchange and consumption.”

The Late Age of Print is no simple celebration of this era. Striphas understands, for example, the distance between the nature of work in a hip inner-city independent bookstore and an Amazon warehouse in Coffeyville, Kansas. He’s with Raymond Williams, believing that “Dismissing the value of an industrial society may be an exercise in futility,” but also that “Embracing an industrial society’s excesses may be an even more damaging exercise in servility.”

The day back in January when Steve Jobs went on stage in California to launch Apple’s entry into the book business, the iPad, J.D. Salinger died at home in New Hampshire. Salinger’s most successful mobile reading device, The Catcher in the Rye, is reported to have sold sixty-five million copies since it was first published in 1951. It still sells about 250,000 a year in the United States alone. There’s a fair chance some of these devices will never be read right through, but a good chance also that many have already been read more than once by borrowers and dedicated fans.

Salinger’s novel didn’t do much for me when it was supposed to, as a teenager. Too much self-absorbed angst, too cool for a reader who wasn’t, but his death made me want to try it again. I had a copy, easy to locate in those temporary bookshelves, but I was travelling a long way from them. One bookshop said sorry, our stock has been cleaned out, but the publisher is reprinting. A day later, another store had a pile of them. I read it on a plane, the 180 pages perfectly filling the hours from take-off to touchdown. This time it caught me from the first line, one of those perfectly crafted stories that finds a voice and holds it, note-perfect, to the end, telling me something about my teen self that I had not known then or now.

I was still inside it, standing in a queue for coffee at the airport. Overloaded, as always, with one too many bags to keep an eye on, I collected the Tall Americano and the plain water, swung one bag on one shoulder, another on the other, grabbed the handle of the Samsonite tagged “Heavy – Bend Your Knees,” and realised I was a bag short.

The little one, the one with the books, had gone. I looked quickly at the obvious suspects behind me in the queue but they were chatting or concentrating on their own coffee choices. Had I left the bag in the toilets? Maybe, but it wasn’t there now. I thought quickly and desperately about what was in it. Wallet? No. Passport? No. Mobile phone and MP3 player? No. Laptop? No. Flash drives? No. Digital camera? No. All still with me, stored and monitored much more securely in one of the other bags. It was just the books that had gone, my travelling companion The Catcher, a hardback about a river and the first book of poems I’d bought in a while.

I wondered about the thief, discovering the contents of the stolen bag. No wallet, no passport, no mobile phone, no laptop, no iPod, no digital camera. Just books. Books! The Catcher in the Rye.

Next time there’ll be an iPad and no extra book bag. It’ll hold all the books invisibly and I’ll be more inclined to keep an eye on it. The Samsonite will have no books either. I might even be able to lift it.

The bookshelves? I’ve finally decided. They’re going in too. High, wide and deep. The past is coming with us into this future. •