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Steve Wasserman on the Fate of Books After the Age of Print

Steve Wasserman
Contributor
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a principal architect of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, is a former partner of the literary agency...
Steve Wasserman

Is the printed book on its way to extinction? Will the e-book win the day? Will writers be able to make a living? Will publishers? Will booksellers? Will there be any readers? Is there life after the Age of Print? The new order is fast upon us, the ground shifts beneath our feet, and as the old sage put it, all that is solid melts into air. What will the future bring?

The only thing we can know for certain, of course, is the past—and even the past is notoriously elusive and discloses its truths in fragments whose meanings provide fodder for endless speculation and debate. The present is a vexing blur, its many parts moving too swiftly to be described with consensual accuracy. As for its significance, or what it portends, only the future can render a credible verdict. The future is, famously, an undiscovered—and unknowable—country.

That has not stopped the avatars of the New Information Age. For these ubiquitous boosters, the future is radiant. For them, the means of communication provided by digital devices and ever-enhanced software will democratize publishing, empower those authors whose writings have been marginalized by or, worse, shut out of mainstream publishing, and unleash a new era of book commerce. E-books, they insist, will save an industry whose traditional methods of publishing have been challenged by the new technological forces now sweeping the globe. Robert Darnton, one of our more sober and learned historians of reading and the book, believes that the implications for the ecology of writing and reading, for publishing and bookselling—indeed, for literacy itself—are profound. For we now have, as he notes in his recent and indispensable “The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future,” the possibility to make “all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web. It promises,” he predicts, “to be the ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.” In this view, we are living at one of history’s hinge moments.

 

book cover

 

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

 

By Robert Darnton

 

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

 

Buy the book

James Atlas, a former writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and now an independent publisher, says: “Once technology is discovered you can’t stop it. We’re going to have e-books. We’re going to have print-on-demand business. … The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not.” Jane Friedman, former president and chief executive of HarperCollins and a former longtime publishing executive with Alfred A. Knopf, proclaims that digital publishing “is going to be the center of the universe.” All the traditional models of publishing, she declares, are broken.

The predicament facing the publishing industry is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting publishers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly rendering traditional methods of production and distribution obsolete, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in the age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.

These crises, taken together, have wide-ranging implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democratic polity. The historical role of books in the spreading of knowledge would be hard to overestimate. That role, to say the least, is now in doubt. In analyzing this historic juncture, it is important to retain a sense of proportion, to steer soberly between the Party of the Future, whose members are true believers in the utopia they insist will bring us a new dynamic and open medium that will liberate the creative possibilities of humanity, and the Party of the Past, whose members fear that the dystopian tsunami now rushing toward us signals the death knell of civilization, the trivialization of the word.

I

Once it was the novel that was said to be dying. (Philip Roth, a doyen of the modern republic of letters, recently predicted that in 25 years the number of people reading novels would be akin to the number now reading Latin poetry; it will be an eccentricity, not a business.) Today it is the book itself that is thought to be on its way to extinction. Few thought this gloomy prospect was likely, much less to be welcomed. Authors and publishers alike consoled themselves with the thought that new technologies don’t always replace older ones, pointing to the comforting example of the way in which the advent of television didn’t supplant radio. The book, in this view—compact, portable, sensuous—was, despite the electronic devices challenging it, our most important information-retrieval system. For proof, one had only to point to Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world and founder of the global behemoth Microsoft. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about “The Road Ahead,” to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Press publish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on his Microsoft site. For Gates knew, despite his conviction that the digital future would carry the day, that the codex, the old-fashioned book, still retained the patina of authority that only time and tradition can bestow.

The attachment to the book as object was also deep, seemingly unshakable. When the late Susan Sontag was a girl of 8 or 9, she would lie in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. She had begun to read her way through the writers published in Random House’s Modern Library editions, which she’d bought in a Hallmark card store, using up her allowance. Gazing at that bookcase, she recalled, was “like looking at my fifty friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.” Will the invisible library concealed within the Kindle beckon in quite the same way? As a teenager, Sontag would visit Thomas Mann in his home in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. She would later recall the visit vividly as an encounter between “an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in exile.” Over cookies and tea, while smoking one cigarette after another, Mann spoke of Wagner and Hitler, of Goethe and “Doctor Faustus,” his newest book. But what struck Sontag were the “books, books, books in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered two of the walls” of his study. Neither of them knew that only a few years before, in 1945, the first faltering steps had been taken to create a Frankenstein called Memex, the first e-book.

Sixty-five years later, there seems little doubt that a critical mass, or tipping point, is being reached. Ever more dedicated e-readers are being invented and marketed, with ever-larger screens. So, too, are computer tablets that can serve as giant e-readers, and hardware will not be very hard: A thin display flexible enough to roll up into a tube is soon to be on offer to consumers. Randall Stross of The New York Times asks the right question: “With the new devices in hand, will book buyers avert their eyes from the free copies only a few clicks away that have been uploaded without copyright holder’s permission? Mindful of what happened to the music industry at a similar transitional juncture, book publishers are about to discover whether their industry is different enough to be spared a similar fate.”

Certainly, in the United States there is a growing anxiety among publishers. The New York Times reports that hardcover book sales, the foundation of the business, declined 13 percent in 2008, versus the previous year. Last year, sales were down 15 percent through July, versus the same period of 2008. Total e-book sales, though up considerably, remain small, at slightly less than $82 million, or less than 2 percent of total book sales through July 2009. “What happens,” asks an executive of the Association of American Publishers, “when 20 to 30 percent of book readers use digital as the primary mode of reading books? Piracy’s a big concern.”

book cover

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

By Robert Darnton

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

Buy the book

U.S. sales of e-readers are growing. An estimated 3 million e-readers were sold in 2009 and it is expected that 6 million will be bought this year. Sales in 2009 for print books in Europe’s major markets of France, Germany and the U.K. held flat from 2008. E-readers haven’t taken off in Europe due to the lack of wireless connectivity, but all that will change soon with Amazon’s move to make the Kindle available outside the United States. In the fall of 2009, the Kindle 2 became the first e-reader available globally. Stephen Marche, the pop culture columnist for Esquire magazine, writing in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, considers this fact “as important to the history of the book [as were] the birth of print and the shift from the scroll to bound pages.” He insists that the “e-reader … will likely change our thinking and our being as profoundly as the previous pre-digital manifestation of text. The question is how.”

As vessels of knowledge and entertainment, books were unrivaled. It was unthinkable that they could one day disappear. Nor was it contemplated that bookstores too might vanish. Nearly 10 years ago, Jason Epstein, peerless editor at Random House, founder of Anchor paperback books and a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, ended his incisive 2001 book on publishing and its discontents by hailing the indispensable function of bookstores: “A civilization without retail booksellers is,” he wrote, “unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.” Boy, was he wrong. Tell it to the millions who are buying the modern Aladdin Lamps called e-readers, those magical devices, ever more beautiful and nimble in their design, which only have to be lightly rubbed, or have a hand passed over them like a wand, for the genie of literature to be summoned. And tell it to the thousands of independent bookstores whose owners have gone out of business.

In the United States, brick-and-mortar bookstores continue to disappear at a rate rivaled only by the relentless destruction of the Amazonian rain forest. Twenty years ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores. Today, only about 1,500 remain. Even the two largest U.S. chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—are in a precarious state: Borders is said to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble is trying desperately to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the vast real estate it occupies across the nation.

The contrast with Europe is stark. There are important structural differences in bookselling in America and in Europe. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal notes that many of Europe’s major publishing markets, with the exception of the U.K., are bolstered by laws requiring all bookstores, online retailers included, to sell books at prices set by publishers. Nowhere is the fixed-price tradition, now 120 years old, as deeply rooted as in Germany. The system protects independent booksellers and smaller publishers from giant rivals that could discount their way to more market share. Thus, Germany with a population of slightly more than 82 million, less than a third the size of the United States with its 300 million citizens, boasts 7,000 bookshops and nearly 14,000 publishers. The Wall Street Journal quotes Gerd Gerlach, owner of a small Berlin bookshop named after the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine, as saying: “The smaller publishers get to publish quality works they never could afford to do without the fixed book price. Everyone benefits, not least the reader.” Together, German companies published in 2008 more than 96,000 new titles.

II

Marshall McLuhan, that manic exaggerator and media seer, noted long ago in his “Gutenberg Galaxy” that something is always gained and something is always lost when a new technology vanquishes an old one. In the transition from scrolls to the codex, from quills dipped into inkwells, their marks inscribed upon parchment, to the invention of movable type to the typewriter and then onto the computer, something is gained and something is lost. What is most vulnerable is an entire worldview, a mentality, a way of thinking.Readers in the 15th century, for example, had, according to Robert Darnton, a hard time accepting the invention of printing with movable type. He cites the example of Niccolo Perotti, a sophisticated and erudite Italian classicist, to make the point. Perotti confessed his doubts in a private letter, written in 1472, less than 20 years after Gutenberg’s invention:

“Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or better still be erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.”

He was not alone in his concern. Anthony Grafton and Meg Williams, in their recent book “Christianity and the Transformation of the Book,” point to the remarkable 15th century Benedictine scholar Trithemius, who assembled a library half the size of the Vatican’s and was the author of “In Praise of Scribes,” a polemic in favor of writing things out and against printing them. For Trithemius, printed books could never rival the beauty and uniqueness of a copied text; copying, he thought, prompted a state of contemplation which was spiritually beneficial; hand-produced books were, he believed, inherently holy.

book cover

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

By Robert Darnton

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

Buy the book

As Darnton sees it, book culture reached its highest peak when Gutenberg modernized the codex; and, he argues, the codex is superior in some ways to the computer. You can, he says, annotate it, take it to bed and store it conveniently on a shelf. He finds it hard to imagine that a digitized image of an old book will provide anything comparable to the excitement of contact with the original. Moreover, he argues, for historians it will always be important to get the feel of a book—the texture of its paper, the quality of its printing, the nature of its binding. Such physical aspects provide clues about its existence as an element in a social and economic system. Digital reproduction fails to convey the texture of the printed page, its layout, its typography, which suggest subtle shifts in ways of viewing the world—nothing can be pinned down with precision but nonetheless there is something in the physical aspect of the book itself that underpins human experience and which historians strive to understand.

Darnton also rightly fears the obsolescence that is built into the electronic media: “Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost in cyberspace.” He insists on the point: “All texts ‘born digital’ belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old.” History offers a cautionary precedent: “We have lost,” he notes, “eighty percent of all silent films and fifty percent of all films made before the Second World War.”

What is most threatened, most in danger of being lost by the digital revolution, however, is our nearly 600-year-old literary culture. The role of publishers is up for grabs. Elisabeth Sifton, one of our most astute and experienced editors, in a recent piece in The Nation, observes: “Publishers and writers have for centuries conspired and fought over words, sentences, chapters, fonts, illustrations, paper, trim size, binding materials, jacket design. Publishing decisions made distinctive differences to literature in every century. A publishing rationale lay behind Descartes’ wish that Discours de la methode have an unusually small format. The publisher of “The Charterhouse of Parma” wanted to issue it quickly and needed it shorter; Stendhal concurred—hence the rushed compression of its ending (a flaw the consummate professional Balzac noticed). G.B. Shaw insisted on a specific typeface (“I’ll stick with Caslon until I die,” he said, Caslon being the font Benjamin Franklin also used for setting the Declaration of Independence); Edmund Wilson on an unusual trim size; John Updike on all physical aspects of his books. If you speak of the death of books, you are speaking of the extinction of this shared culture of choice, correction, revision and presentation, along with its craft skills. If you talk of the future of books, you must somehow anticipate how it might continue.”

But is it really true that the Internet, as Sifton insists, has devolved from “the pure, open-access Eden that the Internet’s founders claimed they wanted” to a “habitat unnatural for the true life of the mind, politics or art”? There is little doubt, of course, that we live in an increasingly noisy culture. Gaining attention among a wide public for deserving work is increasingly difficult. Does the Web make this easier or harder? At first blush, it appears to make it possible to publish books much the way the military is said to have developed “smart bombs,” heat-seeking devices that when launched fly directly to their intended targets.

The real fear is that, as Sifton has also observed, the nature of reading itself has been fundamentally changed. Reading on the Web, she writes, “is of a completely different order than reading in a book.” Doing one’s schoolwork on a computer, growing up text-messaging and Twittering, it is said, produces a qualitatively different way of listening and comprehension. “Teachers and writing instructors report big changes in their students’ habits of attention and modes of expression,” reports Sifton. This is why, she concludes, “we must still ask … what kind of imaginative energy, what kind of reading—or readers—will Kindle, the Sony Reader, [or the Nook] or other electronic devices attract in years to come? And what kind of writing?”

The historian David A. Bell, writing of “The Bookless Future” in The New Republic five years ago, shares this concern. He writes: “The Internet revolution is changing not only what scholars read, but also how they read—and [he adds] if my own experience is any guide, it can easily make them into worse readers.” Why? Because, argues Bell, the computer encourages sampling and surfing and this is where the greatest dangers lie because “information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.” Thus it is possible to search for key words, for many apt quotations, which can be conveniently harvested, cut and pasted. What is lost is the experience of reading a work in its entirety. The computer, concludes Bell, encourages one to read in exactly the wrong way, leaving the user with little but a series of disembodied passages.But even a cursory look at the history of reading reveals that people have been reading in precisely this way for a very long time. Darnton cites one William Drake, “a voracious reader and bit player in the conflicts that convulsed England from 1640-1660. Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and of incorporating them into himself. He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life. Reading, he felt, should be aimed at helping a man get ahead in the world and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books” and carefully copied into the commonplace journals Drake so scrupulously kept. He was not alone. “Early modern Englishmen seem clearly to have read in the same way—segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover.” “Segmental reading,” concludes Darnton, “compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own patter on their reading matter.”

Our ancestors, as historians of reading have noted, lived in different mental worlds and so too must they have read differently. We know, as Darnton has written, that “reading itself has changed over time. It was often done aloud and in groups, or in secret and with an intensity hard to imagine today.” It was one thing to unfurl a scroll, it was quite another to leaf through a codex. “Texts shape readers’ responses. Typography as well as style and syntax determine the ways in which texts convey meaning. The history of reading is arguably as complex as the history of thinking.” Or, to put it another way, just as different languages offer entirely different ways of understanding the world, so too must different ways of reading suggest different ways of apprehending the world. Reading is, writes Darnton, a mystery: “How do readers make sense of the signs on the printed page? What are the social effects of that experience? And how has it varied?” And how will the arrival and ubiquitous spread—indeed the likely coming hegemony of the World Wide Web—affect and shape the very ecology of communications and our habits of attention and comprehension? Does the ethos of acceleration prized by the Internet diminish our capacity for deliberation and enfeeble our capacity for genuine reflection? Does the daily avalanche of information banish the space needed for actual wisdom? “Change is good” is the mantra heard everywhere. Perhaps that is so, but arguably only up to a point.

book cover

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

By Robert Darnton

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

Buy the book

Although the printed book continues to dominate the marketplace, it no longer holds pride of place as the only possible kind of book. Today, if Bill Gates were to offer up a new visionary work, he might well first post his prognostications as an e-book. Few readers would consider his sentences any less worthy or his ideas somehow less serious by having been conveyed through a technology invented the day before yesterday. Not very long ago it was thought no one would read a book on a computer screen. That now is demonstrably wrong.

The fear that literature itself is under siege may also be misplaced. Perhaps new forms of literary accomplishment will emerge, every bit as rigorous and as pleasurable and as enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. After all, does anyone hold the haiku in contempt? Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give birth to a form as admirable and as elegant as haiku was at its height. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling each other the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. And perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only just begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

We’re not yet there, of course. The predicted paperless world has yet to materialize. By one measure, the old world of book publishing is robust: According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, 700,000 new titles appeared worldwide in 1998, 859,000 in 2003, and 976,000 in 2007. Soon a million new books will be published every year. One is tempted to say that almost no new work, however mediocre, goes unpublished. And now that technology has democratized the means of production, the cost of producing a book is within reach of nearly every aspiring author. The arrival and increasing sophistication of the Internet is steadily democratizing the means of distribution, rendering traditional bookstores increasingly irrelevant.

The debate over the means by which books are published is, of course, terribly important for publishers worried about profit margins, the habitual ways of conducting their business, and the looming threat of obsolescence. Authors and their agents are understandably anxious. For many readers, however, much of this debate is sterile. For them, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of consumers at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or on the Web, or can access them on an application on the smartphones that are already in their pockets by the scores of millions, matters not at all. Content and cost and ease of access rule.

III

Even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of cultural literacy. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented and sold for reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but reclining in a semi-darkened room just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.It’s almost enough to give one hope. This apparent utopia, however, masks a bitter truth: The arts of reading are under siege. Despite the claim that with the steady availability of personal digital devices more people are reading more, the content and character of that reading are open to question. In the United States, the matter is a serious one. Eight years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning 20 years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play or poem. This was true for all classes and categories, whatever their age, sex, education, income, region, race or ethnicity.

Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We’ve known that ever since Dr. Johnson. “People in general do not willingly read,” he said, “if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of people—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirely understandable pleasure of escaping the drudgeries of daily life or in the United States for moral, spiritual, financial or physical self-improvement, as the history of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger, the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the inspirations of such secular saints as Warren Buffett—all are the golden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing have traditionally battened.

book cover

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

By Robert Darnton

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

Buy the book

Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. That will be especially true in the new digital age now fast upon us. Acquiring the knowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are a peculiar breed. The late Elizabeth Hardwick, an exemplary lover of literature and one of our most intelligent critics and a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, always knew this. “Perhaps,” she once observed, “the love of, or the intense need for, reading is psychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, that is, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which is controlled by inner forces and which in turn controls.” For this kind of reading is, it might be said, a profoundly anti-social act: It cannot be done in concert with friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whose entertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ’n’ roll, can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you ever say as a child: “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m reading?” We may yet hunger for a movement of Slow Reading, like the Slow Food movement.

The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magical technology with a potential of deepening the implicit democratic promise of mass literacy, so essential for the very notion of citizenship itself, we also totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth’s old aphorism about communism and the West: “In the East, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters.” In today’s McWorld, the forces seeking to enroll the populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism and gossip are increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. The cultural conversation coarsens and is held hostage to these trends. The corporate wars over who will control the technology of publishing and electronic communication and data and distribution are increasingly fierce. No one should forget that the battle for profits and market share is at the very center of the reigning publishing order. Yet the terrain upon which this contest is fought lies at the always uneasy intersection of Art and Commerce.

But perhaps this is too gloomy a view. Golden ages always are to be found in the past, and nostalgia for the past is almost always evinced by those who find themselves no longer young. I, for one, am convinced that however the means of storytelling may change, books—or, to be more precise, long-form narratives—will continue to be written in order to deliver to readers the news that stays news. For there is no more useful framework for understanding the world we inhabit. It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.

Readers know that. They know in their bones something we forget at our peril: that without books—indeed, without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing a decade ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a policeman if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that one cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.

IV

Jason Epstein, in a particularly lucid and sober assessment of book publishing’s likely future, writes in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books of his conviction that “E-books will be a significant factor in the uncertain future but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.” He ends on an uncharacteristically sentimental note—and here he speaks for many of us—when he confesses: “I must declare my bias. My rooms are piled from floor to ceiling with books so that I have to think twice about where to put another one. If by some unimaginable accident all these books were to melt into air leaving my shelves bare with only a memorial list of digital files left behind I would want to melt as well for books are my life. I mention this so that you will know the prejudice with which I celebrate the inevitability of digitization as an unimaginably powerful, but infinitely fragile, enhancement of the worldwide literacy on which we all—readers and nonreaders—depend.”

Steve Wasserman is literary editor of Truthdig and a former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He was editorial director of Times Books when it was a division of Random House Inc., as well as editorial director of Hill & Wang at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He is currently a literary agent with the firm of Kneerim & Williams, based in New York. Portions of his essay previously appeared, in somewhat different form, in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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