Sometimes when I watch you, you seem like the same person that I once knew.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.
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.
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.