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translated by Natasha Wimmer
Perhaps the most preposterous notion of my godded youth was not that the Man in the Sky cared about me, but that He cared about what I read. And not just with an air of “What, Grove Press again?” censoriousness. No, I actually believed that the books that were making me into whatever sort of person I was to become were guided to me by divine providence. Although I was eventually to experience the loss of faith as a great unburdening, the one thing I really missed was my cosmic Oprah making sure I wouldn’t skip any of my personal must-reads.
So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance does not create the impression that its author, Mexico City-based poet, cultural critic, and business consultant Gabriel Zaid, is a terribly devout man; still, there are enough mentions of angels (or miracles) squiring books safely to their destined readers as to raise the suspicion that, regardless of your opinions about faith under fire, these days there are no atheists in bookstores.
The problem is surfeit, and it is ably, horrifically captured in the image chosen for the paperback’s cover: a photo of Tom Bendtsen’s Argument #5, 8,000 books arranged into a fortress of battered spines. There’s barely enough room in the corner for Leon Wieseltier to tell us that this book, this one more book, is “genuinely exhilarating.” Zaid knows that the odds are stacked against him, and he makes his casewhich is basically in defense of small press runs and in service of the liberation of the beleaguered readerby tallying up just what they are.
Zaid is an odd duck, a winning combination of light-handed literary essayist and inspirational self-help guru who doesn’t shy from the necessary math. He plumbs the depths of the Unesco Statistical Yearbook 1999 to turn up evidence of a Malthusian explosionnot of people but of books.
The human race publishes a book every thirty seconds. Supposing an average price of thirty dollars per book and an average thickness of two centimeters, thirty million dollars and close to fifteen miles of shelves would be required for the yearly addition to Mallarmé’s library, if today the poet wished to be able to say: The flesh is sad, alas! and I’ve read all the books.
Zaid quickly reaches the conclusion that, given the finitude of a single human life and the near-limitless expanse of the ocean of words that surrounds us, for any of us to do better than skim the surface of one small patch of sea is a mathematical impossibility. And if each book is to be read by somebody, no book is to be read by everybody. The average volume is fated to find a relatively minuscule audience. “Almost all books sell thousands of copies, not dozens or hundred of thousands, let alone millions,” he explains.
And this, to Zaid, is not a bad thing at all: “[J]ust a few thousand copies, read by the right people, are enough to change…our intellectual life.” Diversity is a cultural strength, uniformity a weakness. Because publishing, unlike film or television production, is a fairly inexpensive business to get into, the book is, generally speaking, not a mass medium. Cheap production leads to a multiplicity of choice, and the more books there are, the smaller the chance that very many people are reading the same thing. Instead, you have countless small groups of like-minded souls improbably fascinated by the same strange topic drawn together by a title devoted to their fancy.
Zaid likens reading to entering a cultural “conversation,” and if you can get past the metaphor’s overuse, you may find it serviceable. A conversation values intimate engagement over public address, democratic give-and-take over dictatorial stand-and-deliver. And a conversation, Zaid argues, is not an infinitely scalable form of communication.
There exists a belief that at least a few things should be read by the whole world. But what could be said to everyone? If there were a permanent universal assembly, at which a microphone was passed around so that each person could speak to the crowd, we would scarcely have time to say hello and sit down. The universal dialogue would be reduced to a recognition of the self, a kind of Babelian poem of creation consisting of everyone saying “Good morning” to one another.
The trouble is the task of finding people to whom you have more to say than simply “Good morning.” This is where the small-press publisher, expert in catering to the “segmented clienteles, specialized niches, and members of different clubs of enthusiasts,” comes in. And, of course, cultural conversations aren’t guided merely by the middleman; readers and their coteries exert pressure on others who they imagine might heed a particular book’s call to duty, often disguising the imposition of the chore of reading as a gift.
On that score, naturally, authors are even worse, for the only admiration more importunate than that of the devoted reader is that of the fellow who himself made up the object of devotion. Zaid is particularly astute in identifying all the ways in which a book becomes a burdenand particularly amusing when recounting tales of obligations shifted, shucked, and resaddled. He notes the unusual onus an author places on his friends and associates whenever he publishes: “It is understood that the elegant sidestep in such cases is to reply immediately with a card that reads: ‘I just received your book. What a wonderful surprise! I congratulate you, and I congratulate myself in advance for the pleasure that reading it will give me.’” Lest you think such tactics are fail-safe, Zaid also remarks on “the story about the Mexican author who found his bookuncutin a used bookstore, and bought and resent it to his friend, ‘With the renewed affection of Artemio de Valle-Arizpe.’”
Zaid is particularly impressed with the persistence of the board-and-paper delivery system in an electronic age. He is quick to extol the virtues of the portable, venerable, yet relatively random access-friendly book. But the belletrist has clearly spent much more time between the pages than before the screen, and he slips when attempting to catalog the demerits of more modern media. Anyone who says a TV show or movie can’t be skimmed is not TiVo adept. Anyone who says, “It is easier to find things in books…” has not spent 45 minutes tracking down an improperly cited quotation. And anyone who says, “A disc, tape, or film whose speed is altered is no longer legible” has just not discovered the utility of fast-forwarding to the good parts.
Zaid is on firmer footing when assessing “the cost of reading,” and his book has the most profound effect when it asks us to consider the taskcustomarily thought of as an unalloyed good, regardless of what is actually being readin light of what economist Ronald H. Coase calls “transaction costs.” “If a mass market paperback costs ten dollars and takes two hours to read,” Zaid writes, “for a minimum wage earner the time spent is worth as much as the book. For college graduates earning fifty to five hundred dollars an hour, the cost of buying and reading the book is one hundred to one thousand dollars.” Not all time spent reading could or should be converted into billable hours, but nothing makes harried Westerners reconsider their priorities like a hefty price tag. Which conversations, Zaid asks, are you willing to make that kind of investment in?
Noting that many of us have acquired much more reading material than we can hope to conquer, Zaid writes, “Confronted with the choice between having time and having things, we’ve chosen to have things.” He suggests that we might have richer livesthat books might be better able to do for us what they oughtif we were to make the opposite choice.
I’m trying it out. In the past several weeks, I’ve attempted to stem the tide of information that was swallowing my house and overwhelming my mind. I’ve canceled all three newspapers and once again can have supper with my wife without having to kick stacks of newsprint away from the dining room table. I’ve cashed in my bonus points and canceled all my duplicate record-club memberships. I’ve unsubscribed from e-mail mailing lists whose missives I never read. I’ve made another culling pass through my library, which had ceased to function because I could no longer get to the books I needed, hidden as they were behind stacks of magazinessome read, some notmost of which got sent to the curb.
I’ve vowed that after I get a faster computer I’ll stay caught up with the news online. But of course I won’tand that’s precisely the point. I’ll read fewer stories about suicide bombings, fewer stories about the bad cops and bad schools and plain bad government that, truth be told, don’t have that great an effect on my life. I don’t mind relinquishing those cultural conversations to people more likely to take action on them. I’ll work fewer crosswords, skim fewer cartoons, flip through fewer profiles of minor celebrities whose names I can’t recall a week later.
I plan to find the things I ought to be reading, the conversations to which I might conceivably have something to add. And I’ll have to do it myself, because, as Zaid acknowledges, those angelic “miracles” of discovery are really the result of chance favoring the prepared mind. I’ll be more judicious about which books I crack open, more heartless about which ones I don’t bother to finish. I ought to be old enough to know when something gets to me and when I’ll need to get to it again; when that happens I’ll find a place for it among my things. And I’ll weed out all the titles I shouldn’t bother rereading, whichfor all the good it’s done me and pleasure it’s broughtjust may include Zaid’s. There are so many books I’ll never get to, and I don’t imagine I’ll need to hear his lesson twice. CP