The State of Books & the NYTBR, Part 2

In Part 1, I tried to ascertain the state of books before responding more completely to 2 Blowhards’ take on the NYTBR brouhaha. I concluded (and agreed with a few previously voiced perspectives) that the book was a medium that was nowhere nearly as democratized as the movie, and that, because there were so many books out there to select from, it was almost impossible for a neophyte (or even a literate type) to keep track. The additional problem, determined partially from an empirical approach, involved an outsider trying to discern “literary” books from “popular” ones — particularly, when the distinctions between these two subsets had often become blurred with crossover titles.

I feared that I was subconsciously channeling Marshall McLuhan in my last post. So I dug up my dogeared copy of Understanding Media. He had this to say:

Under manuscript conditions the role of being an author was a vague and uncertain one, like that of a minstrel. Hence, self-expression was of little interest. Typography, however, created a medium in which it was possible to speak out loud and bold to the world itself, just as it was possible to circumnavigate the world of books previously locked up in a pluralistic world of monastic cells. Boldness of type created boldness of expression.

Uniformity reached also into areas of speech and writing, leading to a single tone and attitude to reader and subject spread throughout an entire composition. The “man of letters” was born. Extended to the spoken word, this literate equitone enabled literate people to maintain a single “high tone” in discourse that was quite devastating, and enabled nineteenth-century prose writers to assume moral qualities that few would now dare to stimulate. Permeation of the colloquial language with literate uniform qualities has flattened out educated speech till it is a very reasonable facsimile of the uniform and continuous visual effects of typography. From this technological effect follows the further fact that the humor, slang, and dramatic vigor of American-English speech are monopolies of the semi-literate.

McLuhan’s suggesting that technological development of the printing press created a distinct chasm. Since books could be printed off en masse (and for the starving grad student, the invention of the copy machine assured that any given screed could be further distributed for overpriced books), nearly everything was game for distribution. The reader, by way of throwing himself substantially into books, risks being tainted by a tome’s vernacular. And, in turn, the book’s influence upon a reader’s conversation and everyday manner, likely to be an exchange with other readers recognizing bookspeak, creates an additional chasm between the average person who reads a mere three books a year and the literate person, who may read the same in a week.

So factoring in the Oprah Book Club, we may have a taxonomy along these lines:


Encouraging people in the popular camp to step up the ladder isn’t helped by English instructors who speak in literate vernacular, which involves the facsimile McLuhan was talking about. But it would be foolish to dismiss the power of Oprah. The astonishing book sales which follow an Oprah selection indicate either a desire to read, or a hope that one can read, and thus advance further up the ladder. Likewise, the spectacular profits from the Harry Potter series indicate that reading is far from dead. Humans still need their stories. There are never enough of them.

Going back to the movies comparison, there’s one major reason why I think the public is smarter than the media conglomerates give them credit for: dropoffs. When word got around that The Matrix: Reloaded stunk to high heaven, it plunged from its initial week’s gross of $91.8 million to $45.6 million. This would suggest that audiences have either developed short attention spans or that they have less tolerance for the dumb lavish movie. But when we consider “the Oscar bounce”, we see people flocking to movies almost immediately upon learning that a particular film’s been nominated. There are perceived merits in these films, or at least conscious efforts by people to be on top of the competition. Even last year’s low-key ceremony, with reduced ratings, had 37 million people watching.

Does the book world have anywhere near that kind of impact? No. At least if you’re looking at it from a commercial point of view. Sure, you could catch Stephen King’s NBA speech on C-SPAN. But it was hardly the sort of thing advertised in the newspapers, trumped up with overwhelming ads and news coverage. In fact, the whole NBA ceremony was shot with one camera.

But in long-term impact, books beat out their movie counterpart. Because while movies can be gobbled up almost immediately, books are not quite so immediate for the mind to digest. Bookpiles accumulate, bookshelves are loaded with titles that are never touched again. This is both good and bad: good in the sense that a 1998 award-winning book still has validity (by contrast, who today actually wants to talk about that year’s Best Picture winner, Titanic?), bad in the sense that a quality book (or literary book) or author is likely to go out of print, if it does not sell or even if it does.

If there is a commonality between Oprah and the Oscars, it involves television. Both reached out to their viewers, and both elicited a response. A sales spike for an Oprah Book Club in one; the Oscar bounce for the other. In fact, I’ve never understood why the publishing industry doesn’t use television more. One of the reasons there are so many Scientologists running around is because there were all those silly mid-1980s commercials with exploding volcanoes.

Most recently, television’s power was on tap in the UK, where David Brent’s quotations were more memorable than Shakespeare. More 25-to-44 year olds recalled, “Remember that age and treachery will always triumph over youth and ability” over “Brevity is the sole of wit.” While this is dismaying to say the least, I don’t necessarily believe that this means people are stupid. They are still capable of recalling quotes, but only (and this is the distinction) because the quotes were framed in a manner that they could understand, rather than the literary facsimile. Shakespeare has continued to endure for centuries, but only because compelling instructors could convey passion and speak to their students in a language they could understand. It’s quite possible that, through the power of television, the vernacular chasm has widened, with the latitude allowed by students narrowing.

Television, on its basic level, involves a person sitting in a room watching an image, and sometimes responding to it with peers. One of the DVD’s fascinating developments is a distinct rise in chatter when people go to movie theatres. The chatter goes down as the movie’s happening. Now, the theatre is confused with the Dolby Digital-enhanced living room. In fact, multiplexes have become compartmentalized to the point where a theatre may very well be the size of a living room. The lack of distinction between theatre and living room has become increasingly prominent with commercials placed before a movie — in many theatre chains, replacing the quiet pre-movie chatter.

But the television (or the movie) doesn’t involve the sense of touch that a book offers, nor does it quite offer the book’s lack of interruption. There are no ads in a book. Unlike television, a book can be taken anywhere: under a glen, within a bedroom, in a cafe. It involves a silent contemplative process that offers nothing in the way of auditory offense save the rustling of pages. Offensive to no one, unless an adjacent stranger is psychotic. (Which is more than you can say for a blaring television in a bar or a stereo blasted on the back of a bus.) And as a form, the book has remained an intact medium ever since its Gutenburg beginnings.

If anything has changed about books, it has been marketing. To dwell upon these many factors would produce another essay, and already I fear that I’m heading into chapbook territory. Needless to say, on a basic people-reaching level, the publishing industry’s answer to television has been the book tour. The author now must head out on foot, shuffling from city to city, looking and speaking well (in addition to writing well). In other words, the author must convey a telegenic image not through the boob tube, but in person. And even then, since an author signing is free, there’s no guarantee that a single book will be sold even with a full house sitting in a bookstore backroom.

So given these environmental circumstances, how does a book maintain public awareness? Where does book review coverage fit in? And will I ever get around to addressing Michael’s post? Tune in for Part 3, where I’ll try desperately to conclude this thing.