Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Where I dream

I work at 2 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, on the northwest corner of the 24th floor, but most of the time I'm staring out, contemplating the state of the publishing industry, just like my colleagues at other houses. We’re all a bit sick. If I look out the north-facing window up Park Avenue toward Grand Central I have an unobstructed view of the Chrysler Building, one of the prettiest tall buildings anywhere. Chrysler the car company may be a ward of the state, manufacturing junkers, but the building is solid. A bright shining lie. If I look out the west-facing window I see the Empire State Building right in front of me. Though not as pretty as the Chrysler Building it is, of course, iconic and formidable in its own right. And, in post-9/11 New York, a comforting tall presence amid the undistinguished glass towers. Unless the weather is awful, the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street is always aswarm with tourists waiting to ascend to the Observatory on the building's 86th Floor. If you're running westward toward Penn Station or the Port Authority to make a train or bus, you want to avoid the obstructive crowds, badly dressed clods who move slowly and take up the whole sidewalk, oblivious to the life going on around them. They shoot trite and disposable pictures and stuff their faces with junk food, but the city needs them like a host needs its parasites. They wander around and gape for a while, then they spend real dollars on the plastic shite you see in the souvenir shops. Keeping the immigrants in business.

I think to myself, it’s okay, calm down, this too is the authentic New York experience, especially now that the city's gone Disney, sanitized and safe, sporting Brand Name Retail Outlets and the kind of cultural lethargy one associates with public television: nostalgic doo-wop specials, a few mangy animals copulating, lurid sunsets, wart-healers offering advice on how to live by hawking their latest books, earnest announcers begging for money like evangelicals. It's a pretty dreadful scene, like 42nd Street in the early evening, when the neon and the dusky sky converge in a blaze of pinks, purples and oranges and the enervated masses sleepwalk between McDonald's and Madame Tussaud's. Hey Johnny, you want a neck massage? Pretty lady, I do your portrait? Cops on horses keep their eyes out for terrorists. Meanwhile the city quietly slips into a coma. Not too long ago you could get fucked here, now you get fleeced. No wonder the kids have flocked to Greenpoint, Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Astoria, Coney Island, East Harlem, Washington Heights, little pockets of seeming authenticity sewn onto the Big Cash Machine. There'll always be someplace hipper than here, but Brooklyn will do for now. Effin pierogi.

Meanwhile Manhattan is breathing through its maw, its tonsils visible. Through the open window you can sense the asphalt seething in the rain. Sirens wail and choppers buzz overhead. Here we are, home to big-time publishers living on borrowed time. My friend S. says, "Hey, give it up, we're all living on borrowed time in this business." Yeah, but we're small potatoes, an independent press, we’re not carrying expensive overhead like the big boys, except for the lease on this little corner office suite at 2 Park Avenue. We've got a chance of surviving because we're focused on one thing: publishing books that have a reason for being. We don't need a barnful of unprofitable cash-cows to keep the air-conditioning on. Hell, we don't even need air-conditioning: we can open our windows. Screw the sirens. Can’t concentrate anyway. We just need to keep our noses clean so we can sniff out a few good manuscripts a year. Let the big palookas duke it out over format superiority: all flavors of e-books, hardcovers, trade paperbacks, mass markets, audios, downloadable this, uploadable that.

The center of gravity has shifted to the West Coast when it comes to format -- nobody in New York is gonna be able to compete with Apple, Google, or Amazon. They've got the juice and the know-how. Around here, all we have is our finely tuned sensitivity to the English language, the ability to shape a story, and the passion that drives us to make that story public. We like to see our stories circulating amongst living human beings, the community of like-minded souls who constitute a reading public, and let the gambler's chips fall where they may. The size of that community matters much less than the quality of their attention. There’s only so much you can pitch to multi-taskers; we’re looking to reach the folks who think slow food is good food. Give me an independent bookstore any day of the week and let the big boys worry about some buck-toothed Jimbo in Bentonville asking for merchandising dollars. Funny money.

It’s hard to reckon what’s real for you have no idea how you got here, looking out the window on a rainy day. Your life has been unintentional. That’s how you came into it and that’s the force under your effin wings lifting you up to god knows where. Books speak to you, so does the city. Haltingly, memory ties the threads together. You can see the way the grid operates, you know how to make a book. Low clouds have obscured the spires of both the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. You see the red taillights and traffic lights looking west down 33rd Street. It comes to you -- you don’t work here. This is where you dream.

1 comment:

  1. So, the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon have the momentum when it comes to format and delivery model. You and your colleagues have the raw talent to transform ideas and inspiration into books that evoke emotion,and lead readers to deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

    I don't know your business but your post leads me to think you have the opinion that the modern delivery mechanisms are at odds with the fundamental value that you and your colleagues deliver. If I am correct, I don't understand why.

    The format and delivery mechanism are meaningless unless your raw talent is part of the product. Yet, the format and delivery also make reading material more accessible.

    Personally, I love physical books. I love the slight crackling noise that the binding makes when I first open them. I love the fresh smell of a brand new book. I make books my own. I doodle in them, fold pages, make notes, sometimes the notes cross-reference other books I have read.

    I perceive myself as a very active reader rather than a passive reader. Years ago, I read a book my wife shared with me called "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (Copyright 1940, Simon and Schuster) that influenced how I read. My wife often teases me - saying that the weight of the books in my office will cause the house to sink.

    I don't like electronic books. It might just be cultural - I don't know. I spend enough of my time reading from "back lit" computer screens. Paper is easier on my eyes. I can't bend the pages or scribble on ebooks.

    Yet, eBooks sure make it convenient to access new reading material and those gadgets could enable me to carry around loads of reading and reference materials during my travels. So, I sometimes ponder buying one. But, 1-2 books are all I can absorb on any given trip anyhow.

    By the way - you allude to multi-tasking. Multi-tasking sucks!!! The human mind doesn't work that way. I consider myself successful and productive in my career without it. Give me slow cooked food any day.