Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?
In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.
I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.
So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?)
What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone:
However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious…In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as “whining” — the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.
In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human.
This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead?
Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile.
These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers.
He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail.
I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”)
A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey.
By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love.
I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead.
As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained.
I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
Amazon sucked the all the air out of the literary room this week with its announcement of the new iteration of its Kindle reading device. That the announcement was coming had been no big secret to anyone paying attention and pictures of the device had been floating around online for at least five months, but nobody seemed to mind. The Kindle is just about the only game in town when it comes to sexy new gadgets for the book club set.With Kindles hitting doorsteps in less than two weeks’ time, however, and hands on reviews generally positive, if not glowing, it may be time once again to assess the ebook landscape.Interestingly, while a watershed event in the evolutions of ebooks has likely occurred this month, the Kindle 2 unveiling is only one of the nominees for that honor. Also in the running is Google’s “1.5 Million Books in Your Pocket” announcement last week. For those who missed it, Google has engineered a mobile version of Google Books, for use on iPhones and phones running Google’s own mobile operating system. Right now it lets people access the public domain books that Google has scanned and automatically converts the scanned pages into standardized fonts for ease of reading on mobile devices.Looking at the Amazon option and the Google option, you can begin to see two separate, though not necessarily mutually exclusive paths that ebook evolution will follow. The Kindle path is one of verisimilitude with the printed page, a uni-tasker that wants to provide an experience as close to that of being a book as possible while using technology to improve upon the book by, for example, being lighter and letting you carry multiple titles in one small package. Somewhat surprisingly, the early reviews of the Kindle from the gadget-hounds at venues like Gizmodo eschew their usual demands for “smaller” and “slicker” in wishing that the Kindle were more book-like not less, asking for things like a bigger screen and a sturdier rubber backing rather than “slick aluminum and plastic.” Moreover:Before they address the needs of some hypothetical super weakling who has the aesthetic sense of [Apple designer] Jon Ive, the cerebral voracity of Rain Man and the vision of Mr. Magoo, Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don’t really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that’s one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well.If the Kindle will evolve to become more and more book-like, Google’s path is much simpler. As our handheld gadgets have added ever more features – cameras, email, music and video playing capabilities – they have become ravenous multi-taskers, seeking out new functions to devour and turn into must-have features. If we are to be a society that reads its books on little electronic devices, one can sensibly argue, then this device will also be my cell phone, camera, mp3 player, and everything else. After all, we only have so many pockets. The Kindle may become the preferred device of the discerning and prolific reader, but the iPhone, or something like it, will do just fine for everyone else.Even as ebook evolution follows both paths, the expanding capabilities of the devices will open up huge opportunities for newspapers and magazines to blend print and electronic publishing, and who knows what new media business models may blossom out of this new hybrid medium.The final, and maybe most important piece, of the dual path ebook story, is the content. As has been the case with all “format wars” – VHS vs. Beta, HD DVD vs. Blu ray – the format that is able to attract the content is the format that wins. But in this case, the two formats may be able to exist and mature side by side because both have incredible access to the content for their devices. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the vision for Kindle is “Every book ever printed in any language, available in under 60 seconds.” The Google Book search vision is “We see a world where all books are online and searchable.” Both companies have the technical muscle and have built the relationships (and, in Google’s case, the legal foundation) with publishers to make good on these claims. With no clear edge in content for either format, both formats have the capacity to survive and thrive.This, of course, leaves out a third format – the physical book. As long as there is demand for books, they will survive as well. And with publishers and copyright holders maintaining a firm grip on their digital rights (and digital book piracy nonexistent) the new ebook formats represent new revenue streams for publishers that should exist comfortably alongside the old dead-tree model.
The launch of the Sony Reader is drawing nearer, and it has garnered another mostly positive review, this time from the Washington Post. The Reader gets high marks for its look and feel, as well as its ability to increase the font size for readers with vision trouble. With “twice the pixel density of most conventional LCDs, and on a par with the resolution of newsprint,” eye strain isn’t a problemThe device’s battery lasts for “7500 page turns,” and its memory can store 80 average length books. Sony has set up a store similar to Apple’s iTunes where readers can buy the books, and 10,000 titles are expected to be available at launch. Judging by the titles available for sale, the ebooks appear to fetch the same price as their paper counterparts. The device generally gets high marks, but not enough to make it worth the price tag for everyone, according to the reviewer: “Is the Reader worth $350? Only if you want to trim your luggage, stop collecting dead trees, or use the large-font feature for easier reading.”Given how impressed many have been with the technology, I suspect those reasons will be enough to make the Sony Reader reasonable successful, especially if it can keep expanding its library of titles. More broadly speaking, books – the old-fashioned paper kind – are far from an endangered species, but the Reader may appeal to people for whom lugging around a bunch of books has gotten to be a pain. Were Sony to add the ability to download newspaper and magazine articles (perhaps this is in the works, I don’t know), it would up the usefulness of this device considerably.According to the Web site, it looks like the Reader has begun shipping already, and is proving popular: “Due to overwhelming demand, new Sony Portable Reader orders may ship as late as mid-November,” reads a notice on the site.Bonus Links: I’ve written about the Sony Reader and ebooks a couple of times before: The digital future of the book and The Possibility of an eBook Summer.
You may have heard the news that Google is embarking on a new venture to digitize the collections of several university libraries. According to Google this venture “a part of our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Though I have heard some naysayers discussing this on the radio today, I agree with the folks who are saying that this could represent a great leap forward for the written word. In the centuries before the internet, mankind generated millions and millions of words. So much knowledge is “locked up” on the pages of books. If Google succeeds in digitizing the world’s books, people will suddenly be able to manipulate all that “locked up” information, finding hidden patterns or bringing to light details that have been tucked away in the dusty stacks, all with a few keystrokes. This is all still a few years out as Google gets to work, but it might be time to start thinking about what you’ll do with all of this information once it’s at your fingertips.Related:Coverage at CS Monitor.PC Magazine puts this development in the context of Google’s recent unveilings of Google Print and Google Scholar.Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine asks: What’s next?
Remember the fear that Google would start a print on demand business and put all the publishers out of business? Well, Google appears to be getting into the bookselling business, but there’s no printing involved, nor are they cutting out publishers. Google’s new service will allow publishers to set their own price for online access to books. Readers won’t be able to save copies of the books on their computers nor will they be able to copy text from the books, and the books will only be viewable within the browser window. This looks like a great opportunity for publishers to provide online access to their books without having to set up their own systems. (via)Update: Some good comments on this at Booksquare.