Publish and Perish: Amazons Kindle sizes up the soon-to-be-vanquished. s Kindle sizes up the soon-to-be-vanquished.
Publish and Perish: Amazons Kindle sizes up the soon-to-be-vanquished. s Kindle sizes up the soon-to-be-vanquished.

In 2003, I asked the managing editor of a national business magazine if he might be interested in a story on e-books. I got a befuddled look. “You mean, as a humor piece?” he asked. A few tech companies and publishers were tinkering with e-books, sure, but the devices weren’t there, nor were the customers. Spend money to read on a computer screen? What are you, funny?

Six years later, the devices and customers have emerged, and 2009 was the year the e-reader exploded; for a brief period in the fall, in fact, Kindle sales of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol were outpacing Amazon’s hard-copy sales. (I haven’t read it. For complete coverage of The Lost Symbol, talk to the person sitting next to you on Metro.) E-books come with undeniable conveniences—they’re generally cheaper, new books can be accessed immediately, and even Luddites admit that they offer their own tactile pleasures. There’s a tradeoff for all that, though, in that every e-book downloaded represents a tacit judgment on books in a larger sense: that they’re things we don’t need to live with forever.

We accept that a book won’t be a permanent part of our lives whenever we borrow one from a friend or check one out of the library. But 2009 was the first time large numbers of people appeared inclined to throw down cash money on books that won’t last. (How much money is unclear; Amazon hasn’t disclosed sales figures for its e-books or the Kindles; other businesses are similarly stingy.) How do I know they won’t last? I can start by digging out the three burned-out MP3 players I’ve owned in the past five years, all stuffed with scads of now-inaccessible songs—except, that is, for the ones I have backed up on CD. If Kindles have arrived, then people are now growing comfortable treating books as shabbily and disposably as MP3s. Every time I’ve talked to the owner of an e-reader, I’ve asked how confident he or she is that the e-books inside will be accessible in 10 years. Not very, is the usual answer.

This is no cause for alarm. Despite their increasing popularity, e-books don’t signal a massive cultural shift—e-book sales are booming, but they account for a very small percentage of total book sales. Nor do they signal a moral crisis, though that hasn’t stopped some from attempting to invent one. Alan Kaufman, the author of an affecting memoir, 2000’s Jew Boy, recently wrote in the Evergreen Review that e-books, combined with the increasing number of failed independent brick-and-mortar booksellers, meant nothing less than a “catastrophe of holocaustal proportions” that risked the end “of not just books but of all things human.”

Oh, Alan. If the only proof of the existence of Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong 10 years hence is a corrupted file on somebody’s dusty, malfunctioning Nook, we’ll survive as a species. I mention Jen Yates’ blog-turned-book on purpose, because I think it’s more than just coincidence that the rise of the e-book is matched by the rise of the blog as book fodder. From Cake Wrecks to Gaping Void to Fuck You, Penguin, whose owners all struck book deals in recent years, we’re entering an era when making a book means generating ephemeral content for ephemeral formats on ephemeral devices for people comfortable with reducing a book to an ephemeral thing.

The book-as-bloggy-souvenir doesn’t signal a new Kristallnacht, the death of literacy, or any other worst-case scenario. What it does suggest is that the inherent disposability of e-books means we need a new word for the book as we once reflexively thought of it—as a permanent thing, something to return to from time to time, something that, when you pass it along to somebody, you want back. As e-books make their slow march to prominence—as e-books become books, period—some wise marketer will come up with a smart term to distinguish the dead-tree versions. I can’t come up with a good one, except to say that even if I had e-book versions of all the books mentioned below, I’d make a point to hang on to the hard copies; call them my 10 favorite backup files of the year:

1) Zoe Heller, The Believers Though it has all the earmarks of a conventional story about domestic dysfunction, Heller’s third novel was a smarter, broader study on our fixations on God, sex, money, all run through the filter of one of the most captivatingly vicious mothers in modern fiction.

2) Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters! Nuts to the Mayans: The apocalypse hits in 2010 in Currie’s second novel, which opens as a postmodern romp before smoothly shifting into a more somber, considered work on our private pleas for second chances.

3) David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music Format wars are as old as player pianos and sheet music, and Suisman’s densely researched history of recorded pop music’s early days proves we’re living in just the latest iteration of a century-long debate.

4) Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson Jungk’s deliberately strange metaphorical tale, in which a man discovers his late father’s body, enormous and stretched across the Hudson River in the midst of a traffic jam, is surprisingly earthbound, thanks to Jungk’s vivid evocations of loss and parenthood.

5) Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier Everett picks plenty of easy targets in his very funny, willfully absurd novel—academics and Ted Turner most prominently—but he also picks one difficult one, race, and gets laughs out of it without coming off as dismissive.

6) Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life If literary greatness demands desperate alcoholic liquor runs at dawn with John Cheever and having a tone-deaf editor rewrite your work into unrecognizability, it’s probably not worth the trouble. But Sklenicka’s biography also reveals how Carver’s inherent talent ultimately redeemed him.

7) Richard Powers, Generosity: An EnhancementAmerica’s nerdiest living novelist now that David Foster Wallace has died, Powers forever struggles to successfully blend metafictional funny business with full-blooded characters. Here, in a story about a preternaturally happy woman, he gets as close as he’s ever come to having it both ways.

8) Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone Saying that this reissued 1947 novel about one Berlin family’s heartbreakingly tiny resistance to the Nazis doesn’t end well (note the title) probably won’t help make a sale. But this story actually moves as entertainingly and powerfully as any thriller.

9) Yiyun Li, The Vagrants Li’s debut novel centers on the execution of woman in China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, and in covering it from a variety of perspectives, she smartly exposes how a single event radiates outward through a community.

10) Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden Just seems doomed to be a writer’s writer, but his D.C.-set novels (including this one) are wholly accessible character studies on the moral conflicts of the diplomats, socialites, and journalists who fill this town. A brilliant counterpoint to the working-class lives that populate Edward P. Jones’ fiction—can somebody please get these two together on a panel?