Friday, May 7, 2010

Watching from a Distance

Sometimes when I watch you, you seem like the same person that I once knew.
And watch from a distance, but never able to do more than I ever would.
Looking at you, I find again I am starving in your mystery.
So far away and some kind of helplessness.
          [Metal Storm]
Yesterday I read an article titled “Publish or Perish” by Ken Auletta in the April 26 issue of The New Yorker. Hat tip here goes to Joyce Simkin who alerted our circle to this fascinating eruption (I’m inclined to call it that, but don’t ask me why) about the iPad and the Kindle, the larger-than-life figures of Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and assorted dukes of actual publishing, I mean of actual books. An odd feeling stole over me as I read, the sort of feeling no doubt common to people in their seventies, a sensation of distance, of watching something from far away while yet moving still farther from it.

My sensation of floating, of rising up into the air, of a stratospheric view of something down below, at the same time suggests the exact contrary—namely that of an industry that has begun to levitate and, in so doing, is creating a distance between a man sitting on a white plastic chair next to the green grass in the back while it, the business, the distribution system, is gradually thinning on me as it rises up, up, up into a cloudless sky.

In this story the book business is all too real but books, alas, have disappeared. The title of a P.D. James novel comes to mind, Devices and Desires. The devices are electronic and have nicknames characteristic of the times (“the Jesus tablet” for the iPad). It might also be called Prices and Devices; numbers with dollar signs, each indicating a book price, appear fifteen times in the article, eight times citing the figure of $9.99, the dreaded (or desired) standard price for a book delivered to your device wirelessly, and now in color, in sixty seconds or less.

Inversions are on my mind of late, that transvaluation of values some have labeled Nietzsche’s “moral breakthrough.” The article of my focus today presents an instance of such a transvaluation (but I’m not knocking Ken Auletta, far from it—his choice of subject is straight-forward; he is, after all, talking about the book business, not about books, and he isn’t kowtowing or pulling punches). The transvaluation lies in the fact that we now spend so much time and effort talking about the trade in books. Our heroes are the giants of trade. The transvaluation actually takes place when the trade transforms the object (and its buyers) to serve its own desires—rather than performing its humbler role of simply delivering goods. Auletta illustrates this well in presenting two cases in which the retailer aspires to become the publisher. And, down the line, perhaps, shall aim to build that tower of Babel in which AI computers shall also write the books for an adequately pounded, marinated, and conditioned so-called readership.

Yes. I’m watching from a distance. Reflexes of a lifetime—in business, in publishing, in writing—cause twitches in my body as I watch, as if I ought to do something, as if I ought to do what it takes to adapt to this new and glittering environment. But I sink back and watch as an early wasp heads out over our stoutly leafing hostas. And I feel a kind of certainty. What is its essence? It essence is that that the Kindle and the iPad shall both pass away—and it won’t even take too long a time. But the book shall remain. And, somehow, it will reach the new readers who’ll still be there after the Age of Oil has seeped into the past.


  1. Wonderful post; first Magritte in a white chair, then Chance Gardiner rising into the sky, then Nietzsche's Transformation ( twilight of the old & dawn of the new ).

    The transvaluation is very complicated, but is pregnant with possibilities.
    Is not "Citizen Kane" a film of the same transformation? The publisher of the news transforms the News and the Public to serve his own desires?

    I agree they will pass. A book is much more robust.

  2. Does this illustrate our "Desire for Devices"?

  3. Montag: In sleep I am a surrealist, and sometimes catch the last trails of it if I sit down to write early enough. I once met Jerzy Kosiński at one of those author's get-togethers, by the way; I found it tough to get three words out of him. Soon after that he did himself in, which might explain his then surly humor... Best to walk out of one's nightmares -- even if it has to be on water...

  4. I have read this post about 8 times, and it still has a keen fascination, probably because I became a fool for books early on in my career - I was about 4 years old.

    Books today seems like tombstones in an antique cemetery where we wander, gazing at the old inscriptions...

    But for me, Books are the trees in a virgin forest, incredibly old and incredibly young, waiting in the furthest reaches of Siberia... where the ideas are discoveries always new and exciting...
    And I am Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala", hunter and man of the forest, who discerns the trail of the books, and follows the tracks of freedom.

    Somehow - and I can't explain why - the new types of electro-books seem baneful to me. They are a new type of ironical Firemen of "Fahrenheit 451".

  5. You captured one of the feelings that I too had upon reading the Auletta piece, "Publish or Perish." I found it very interesting and yet... lacking. It was like reading an article about the logistics of health care delivery when you're really looking for medical advice.This post describes that feeling beautifully.

    There is, of course, a real publishing trade still going on, at the lower level, where the real action is usually happening. In this case, way under the level of the "Big Six" about whom Auletta mostly speaks. And that's where the real publishing action is these days, I suspect. But the state of the industry is intersting.

    Stats to follow...