The Loss of Reading
I heard a radio show in which a guy with some ideas about the future was predicting the end of reading within the next two or three decades. A silly thing to say; but these guys get their fees for their presence.
Now I visit quite a lot of bookshops; on and offline. And I have done so for 30 or more years now; and for that time I have been based in the same city in South Wales. I have seen a considerable amount of change come over books and bookselling in those years.
To be frank; bookshops are now filled say around 80% with materials which would have had difficultly finding a publisher 50 years ago. My personal opinion is that much of it should not have been published.
Now I am not some Puritan denouncer of popular fiction; there are in my opinion very good reasons why so much that is being published ought not to be published. I doubt many of these reasons are business ones.
I believe it was some philosopher who noted how one thought in one’s mind is able to drive out another; when the idea supplanting has sufficient force from some direction to supplant the idea exiting one’s consciousness. Simply, when the telephone rings and one is drawn away from what one is doing to answer; often once the call is done one is at a loss as to whereabouts one was up to etc.
The important thing to note in this example of the telephone call is that the call might be a spam call; whereas what you were in the middle of doing might have been a bit more important and relevant to your life; say, checking the dinner in the cooker? Thus it is not true to say or to believe that it is always the case that more important or urgent thoughts drive out the less urgent and less important ones. I believe it was Lord Byron who said, when at his desk writing poetry and he was asked by a lady whether she was interrupting him; ‘Yes: damnably so!’
My chief argument supporting my contention that much of what is published these days ought not to have been relates to a situation happening which is similar to Byron’s. The veritable avalanche of popular reading, of no special value and deliberately created and consumed as ephemera, acts to drive out – from the retailers’ bookshelves; thus from one’s mind and sight; from the publishers’ lists; from the school curricula; from the attention of a reading public in general; that core library of books which, as Mathew Arnold has it, represent ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’.
I do believe that so many titles are nowadays published by policy as a kind of scattergun approach of the publishers in an attempt by them to either hit or miss with the reading public. A palpable hit, such as Fifty Shades or The Jesus Conspiracies, is a moneyspinner of huge proportions, especially when movie and other franchise rights stack up alongside the paperback venture. Thus publishers are pursuing business models similar to those of large pharmaceutical companies; whose four or five ‘blockbuster’ drug items which go global virally, act to bring in the income which sustains the whole operation of research and development of many many other drugs which never get beyond the early testings of them.
And just as pharmaceutical patents are applied for by the drug companies on almost everything newly developed by them; just in case one or two unexpectedly turn out to be a massive winner; so patents applied for in general follow much the same pattern – their owners apply in the hope and faint chance one or two might be game changers for them and sometimes for the world. Thus in pharmaceuticals, in patent applications and in publishing of popular fiction; waste is rife and even encouraged, because the thought of letting that golden wining ticket get away from one is such a fearful and such a dangerous thought for its potential owners to contemplate There was a local man here a few years ago now who threw his old PC onto the corporation dump; instead of having it recycled for parts in the proper manner. Saved himself time and a small fee. Only later did he remember he had bought several hundred bitcoin in the early days of the crypto-currency and that he had left their credentials and whereabouts on his PC now eroding on the dump. In theory, could he find it again, he was a multi-millionaire. Could he find it again? No. The corporation dump is a vast wilderness of waste and of rejected goods; no maps exist; nor landmarks. That guy knows how it feels to have thrown away a golden ticket; and for a few pounds saved.
Pharmaceuticals, patents, and publishing are three pretty clear and parsable across the board items, shining examples, of the inherent enormous wastage built into how we do business. In the glorious and bogus name of freedom we hail such wastage as collateral damage – or rather ‘we’ do not, but only that public ‘we’ to whom nobody who earns less than £50k per annum ever dreams of belonging. This is the ‘we’ of the broadsheet newspapers, and the ‘we’ of the readership of The Economist and of Forbes and of Investors Chronicle and so forth; it is not the ‘we’ or even near the same ‘we’ as those of us who wander down to the pub on a Saturday afternoon for a pint and to watch the football. Our of-late Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was very soundly thrashed on the TV satire shows upon him having pronounced on the huge income deficit owned by the UK that ‘we are all in it together’. Perhaps he ought to have explained this to Google UK and to Starbucks UK and to several more dozen large enterprises whose total tax revenues for the past decade have been a very minute percentage of profits compared with the percentages the rest of the nation paid. But I am wandering off my topic.
Much, maybe most of what is published today is never sold; or at least never sold in quantities which make profits for its publishers. Thus either virtually or in actuality most publications are shredded and pulped. I mean virtually because I believe there is a ‘trial run’ a small ‘batch’ of a title in an initial run published; with a swift option at the ever ready to swing into gear and so print off those thousands more needed desperately were a title to suddenly ‘take off’.
This business model implies a few presumptions on the part of publishers. Firstly it implies that they themselves feel that they have no idea what sort of thing might ‘take off’ and what might end up on the corporation tip. Secondly, this state of unknowing of publishers is perhaps based on their experience of late years; and indeed publishers have been taken by surprise by the public several times in recent years, and so may have hammered out this model so as to make the best of the situation? I know of several massive-seller moneyspinner authors and their titles which have been ‘out there’ and ‘lying fallow’ for a number of years before they became massive commercial successes. So hanging onto the commercial rights to these works and to their authors becomes vital to publishers – on that off-chance of ‘liftoff’.
If my analysis is in the right area of the field then it follows that the reading public itself not only calls the shots with their purse strings; but their shots go off haphazardly and to no predictable pattern. Publishing then becomes a lottery; just as are the pharmaceuticals industry and the patent applications aspirations.
Once again businesses and business men are playing poker blind and are ‘hoping for that card that is so high and wild they’ll never need another’. Only it is the public consumer who is funding their bad gaming habits; who is obliged to pay astronomical prices for a dose of medicine whose materials and manufacture cost next to nothing; who is obliged to pay monopoly prices for a patented item which is a two a penny thing in fact; who is obliged to pay a minimum of £8 for a thin paperback because so much else in the shop will never sell in quantity.
These three industries will have justifications for the ways they run their businesses; and for the huge waste this running of them entails implicitly and explicitly. These justifications will be couched in terms of the benefits of their models to the consumer; it is for them just as Robert Browning said: God’s in His heaven; and all’s right with the world’.
Thus our corpus of readers of popular fiction do not show any consistency in the choices they make, nor of whom they escalate to authorial stardom, and whom they leave to wallow; so that those titles which ‘take off’ are to all appearances random and chaotic successes; what might this say about our popular taste? That this itself is changeable and unsettled; liable to whim and to chance occasions? And if this is the case then what might the prospect be for those titles which have been crowded out of the booksellers’ bookshelves and of which it has been claimed that they represent ‘the best that has been said and thought in the world’?
I had always believed and had been taught to believe and my own experience has borne out this belief that by reading from that corpus of books which might be called the canon of classic literature (not forgetting also other subjects of study) a person is thus developed in one’s taste into a settled and discriminating reader. Yet when there are but few classics of the canon available, as is the case right now in all of the booksellers stocks who sell new books in my home city, then how might a settled and sound taste for good reading be developed these days? (The classics of the canon are in my city and in other cities of the UK more likely to appear on shelves at secondhand dealers in books, and at completely stupid bargain basement prices – you cannot give them away! Many of these secondhand outlets tell me they pulp many of these canonical items. ‘A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit’ said John Milton. What are we doing to these master spirits’ life-bloods?)
So, reading is on course to disappear within two or three decades?
The business model of the publishers which is one which is profitable for them to adhere to, with its scattergun approach to numbers and kinds of titles published, necessarily requires a great reservoir of authors writing – for it to be sustainable. Now in a generation of writers, and considering there is a universal literacy in the UK today, say two hundred persons writing in any fully literate generation will be survivors of the tests of time, and be known by name at least to some persons living a century hence. Thus the competent writers are very few and far between.
Thus the reservoirs of authors held in hand by publishers right now comprise far and away mostly low quality writers; writers who might be better doing something else. Each of them is hoping for just that 15 minutes of fame bequeathed to them by the late Andy Warhol. By my reasoning in this article it appears to follow that occasionally some of these authors waiting and hoping do get their day in the sun. Certainly there are titles I can mention which fall into this category of ‘time and chance happeneth to all’.
Were the business model to be different; so that room was available once again on the bookshelves for more titles from the classics of the canon; it does seem to follow that readers would become more discerning; and so more appreciative of books and of a growing refinement of taste. The classics would become, as they always had been, steady sellers, not megabucks in a flash in the pan, but a steady income, and pretty solidly guaranteed. But we all want to live in California, and we won’t settle for a dream of a warm, dry, comfortable semi detached in South Wales.
A few things to note. When I first came to my now home city there were many classics of the canon to be found in just two or three new book bookshops. There was a remainders bookshop which discounted many books which were of considerable literary or technical value. Over the years, as the classics of the canon have passed on and died from, disappearing from, National School Curricula, the presence of these classics in the shops has dwindled likewise. It’s not just the schools; the rise of silicon and nano tech; of CGI and of adventure movies; of a hundred and one new things for children and adults to spend time on relaxing; this has all helped to relegate the classics of the canon to a very distant back seat.
Yet for all these one hundred and one new things to do life as a whole for many people is far more ‘samey’ than it was 40 years ago – there is little in the range of subject matter in these one hundred and one new things from which to choose. Everyone complains and they perceive and are correct that from 4 TV channels forty years ago to over one hundred now; and yet too often there is nothing on to watch. Because of this ennui of ‘sameyness’. A few main genres and that’s it. Very little daring, experimentation, off the wall, out of the box, risky to produce, and pushing boundaries stuff; only the same safe staple bread and butter police/detective; action/thriller; horrid degrading reality shows; and ubiquitous sport.
Our pastimes have become machine-like; factory-manufactured formats and content; as if there was a magic formula one dare not deviate from which is assured to sell and to keep us to our sofas. Our reading is a reflection of this aiming for a magic silver bullet. Harry Potter hits the world for six; and starts a flurry of novels and movies in the same vein, all attempting to reinvent the wheel; and to hope to patent it.
The masses of titles of popular reading published likewise are aiming at quirky; aiming at niche; aiming at that odd and novel angle; but in all by far the most are very much yesterday’s creatures of a day successes done into fancy dress. Of all the things to be in the world to be novel and do something new is perhaps one of the hardest. Einstein ‘stood upon the shoulders of giants’ Dr Johnson maintained that ‘for a man to write one book he has to have digested many’; and the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps overwhelmed by the difficulty in being new; ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ he laments.
And perhaps the paradox of it all lies in this from Alexander Pope:
“True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d,
Something, whose truth convinc’d at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.”
You can also find this article at our anomalist design blog: http://blog.anomalistdesign.com/the-loss-of-reading/
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