The Book (review) is dead

Whilst not yet conceding that The Book is Dead, Steve Wassermann in the Columbia Journalism Review laments the decline of book review sections in newspapers and goes into bat for the book itself in the face of adversity:

Readers… know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs

He’s right, of course. Civilised humanity needs the slow, thoughtful conversation that only books can provide. What he doesn’t want to acknowledge is that books don’t have to be printed on paper, preferring instead to cling to dead trees. His argument, using Bill Gates as an example, is simply wrong:

Even Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world, has been unable to resist its seductions. 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.

Apart from confusing market success with innovative genius (we won’t go there though) and insulting Yoda fans the world over, Wassermann is suggesting that the web as we know it is the only alternative to the printed book as we know it. Millions of e-book readers the world over would beg to differ. True, Gates chose to publish a p-book, but that was 1996 not 2007. And things have changed in the last decade. As Wasserman’s article itself proves.

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2 comments so far

  1. Chris Oliver on

    Thought: Unfortunately book reviews, like author interviews and talks, are seductive but necessarily trivial substitutes for the hard business of reading. Plenty of books endlessly spin out one or two ideas, which could equally well be expressed in a short article (another reason to move from the book as an object which has to bulk up a bit in order to be marketable), but plenty of books don’t.

    Another thought: Michael Duffy, in his SMH article, A Farewell to Publishing, says one of the elements that shut down his company (Duffy and Snellgrove) was the lack of interesting ideas in the humanities. The trouble, to me, is that the 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of ideas in the humanities coinciding with an explosion in the number of serious books being published. The trouble is, almost all those ideas were inspired by muddled, self-flagellating in some ways, self-praising in others, ideas that progress is an illusion, trade is wicked, capitalism is a zero sum game, repressive developmentalism is evil, colonialism and imperialism likewise, and communism doesn’t have the moral cost of immiserizing populations and sponsoring repression. The wholesale junking of bad ideas is what we’ve seen. Grand theory has died. John Howard’s electoral success (and Rudd’s me-too, Hotelling’s Law in action positioning) suggests that all we want is competent economic management so we can be left to drink (or serve) lattes. Of course the death of grand theory makes life painfully dull in some ways, which is why some people oppose environmentally-friendly pulp mills – controversy (however ill-founded) gets the blood pumping.

    A third thought: The blogosphere ought to be a reading medium, a forum for serious ideas, teased out sequentially in the manner of the best books. But it, isn’t is it? It’s people who want to (but often can’t) write, blithering on for people who usually don’t read. It’s a world of unmodulated, black versus white thinking. It’s not about dialectics.

  2. Chris Oliver on

    The other problem with the blogosphere is that it doesn’t have sub-editors to weed out bad prose (the trouble is, the trouble is) or bad ideas. Sorry.


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