By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
I have on my desk two new books on a subject that now seems to be so last century. The title of Jeff Gomez’s offering, Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age, speaks for itself. The cover illustration shows a USB connection, wire trailing off behind it, plugged into the front jacket of a spineless book. And I mean “spineless” concretely, not metaphorically. Gomez’s book, far from spineless, is fairly fearless, if sometimes arrogantly so. Still, while pooh-poohing the romanticization of the book (“the smell of the glue; the feel of the paper”), he actually provides a mixed but essentially upbeat assessment of the biblic future.
Mikita Brottman, a psychotherapist and literature professor from Baltimore, has written a book with the intentionally provocative title, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. We all know what the other solitary vice is, of course, and what serious reader hasn’t made the fairly obvious analogy to masturbation at sometime or another? We slip into bed with a book; when books are good, they’re sometimes better than the real thing, and by that, I mean reality; they eventually put us to sleep — unless, of course, we have to stay up for the climax.
Nothing is new about the writing of books about books, but the incessant drumbeat of books about the death of books has increased over the past decade. Everyone knows why — as I sit at my desk, writing these words, I stare at the enemy — and even those who point to previous assays on the subject, books that were written in the early days of both movies and television, know that our times are different. Yet, ironically, we live in an age when more books are being published than at any other time.
When people talk about the death of the book, they are generally referring to fiction in general, and to the novel in particular. I don’t think anyone much thinks about a time in which, for example, a guide to rose gardening won’t be printed (ever try to read a laptop with a spade in one hand and the midday sun overhead?), and if tax guides are replaced by online services, so much the better. Poetry must have print on paper to give substance to its insubstantiality and effervescence (or, as a friend once put it, to put the “Fore!” in metaphor), or else poems are doomed to disappear into the vapors. Art books are, of course, objects unto themselves, “artifacts” in the current lingua critica.
But the novel, which is at its heart a contained story, seems to be the perfect passenger for the vessel of the book. Everything is so right about it. The board covers on either end, the curtain-raising title page, the sectioning into chapters, the ability to see how far one has come and how much there is to go, the time size of a commitment the reader has made, and the self-pacing inherent in the form. Finally, it’s such a close and intimate thing — like the grave, a fine and private place — but unlike the grave, entirely embraceable.
In my experience as a bookseller, the novel has never wavered in its appeal and its ability to excite. When I first came to Lou Virgil’s Brentwood Book Shop, soon rechristened Dutton’s Brentwood Books, I found a business situated in a perfectly Edenic spot for a bookstore with a clientele that was sophisticated, educated and curious. At that moment, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine seemed to be the rage among serious readers, having garnered positive reviews and a sizable number of literary prizes. Hers was a new voice — how lovely that writers on the silent page possess voices — and the subject matter seemed to matter. I also had a particular staff member who pressed that book into as many hands as he could, to generally grateful responses. But the world of fiction is a high-risk market, and none more so than the specialty of “literary fiction.”
The term itself, literary fiction, is a miserable moniker. It reeks of cultural elitism and snobbery, and carries an air that scares off many potential readers, whereas it’s really not much more than adjectival leavings: After you’ve used up the genre, definitions of mystery (and its myriad subclassifications of police procedurals, cozies, whodunits, thrillers and suspense), science fiction, fantasy, romance, sagas, etc., all you’re left with is a story based on character and told by style. Even with its high-risk stakes, there has been no shortage of winners in this categorical foundling. There’s no way to write a history of the genre in these too-few allotted words, but the mere listing of names such as Kate Atkinson, John Banville, J. M. Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, William Gaddis and Oscar Hijuelos got me neatly through nearly a third of the alphabet without much effort and without my having to resort to a reference book on books. (Compiling a second or third author list would scarcely make one break a sweat: I was, for example, sorely tempted to replace Coetzee with Chabon or Cunningham, and then fretted over not including Carey or Carkeet.)