I’ve taken a break these past two weeks. Too much stimulation can be just as boring as too little. I was sick and tired of so-called professionals making statements about the book industry. They sounded dumb. I listened to them present data -- random bits of suggestive data -- then watched them throw up their hands in the face of it. “We don’t know what it means yet.” No, we don’t know what it means yet that half of genre fiction is now being purchased in ebook format. “But we suspect it means something.” This was a big meeting of big minds. Thank god there were windows and outside the windows pigeons, a city, and, toward the west, the sky above New Jersey. I was moved to tears by my own inadequacy.
Perhaps everything will turn out okay. All those unfortunates who have lost their jobs will find new ones. All those empty storefronts where bookstores once thrived will be converted into homeless shelters. Every one of those hapless college-educated middle class Americans with a story to tell about their interesting and unique experiences will find an online self-publishing service to manufacture a couple of hundred copies of their “book.” And the earth too will heal -- I think it’s a safe bet that the rocks and minerals will be here long after we humans are gone. Effin bone meal.
It was such an unpleasant experience -- like a visit to the dentist, the one with oily skin who peers into your rotten mouth and grins -- to have a committee of MBAs present data as holy science. “We know exactly who downloads our books, what they’re reading, when they’re doing it, and how much time they’re spending doing it.” And what will the MBAs do with all this great data? Pitch bestsellers to their consumers at the optimum times of the day via email. In their minds, this represents an advance in the art of publishing. “We now know who is buying our books. We never had this information before.” This was said with a straight face to a room filled with publishing professionals, many of whom nodded in assent. The ones who weren’t asleep or checking their email.
I sat and doodled on the little white pad that had been provided. More speakers came and went. I thought to myself, this is what it has come down to -- a series of bad decisions and procrastinations masquerading as progress. Who among us is in charge of his or her own fate? During coffee break we chatted. “How is business?” A few were honest. “Business is lousy.” No one could say why. Perhaps it was the weather, or gas prices, or tsunamis, or the Middle East, or the inaction of Congress. Maybe it was the repeated recitation of headlines (as though they accounted for something), an activity that absolved one from thinking.
But that’s not why I took a break from writing this blog. The real reason lay inside me. I was being stubborn with myself. Books sickened me, just to look at them, their covers holding such promise, but their insides a blank. I wondered how I had gotten into this business. And how it had led to that big meeting of big minds. I wanted the world of books to be simple, like it had been when I was just starting out. I wanted to crawl under my bed with a flashlight and read Treasure Island again, while the rest of the family watched television. It was summer, the window was open. I could hear crickets. The dog lay in the opposite corner of the bedroom. The air was still. I was Jim, our next door neighbor was Long John Silver. I could smell the saltiness of the sea. When the flashlight grew dim, I’d shake it a few times so that it brightened for a few more minutes, enough to finish a chapter. My childhood was a happy one. I will always take joy in the created world.
There were other books, of course. Gulliver’s Travels, The Iliad, Ivanhoe. As I list the cherished texts of my boyhood, I come to realize how little I have traveled in fifty years. And how much of the imaginative capital those books bequeathed me that I’ve gone and squandered in the hawking of lesser works. This regret made me pause.