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.)
This is not to say that the huge best-sellers of the past two decades didn’t make a serious impression in the market. Few will wax over the style of a Dan Brown, but many who read The Da Vinci Code did so with passion and abandon. Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County was a genuine word-of-mouth best-seller that appealed to readers, almost exclusively women, of all literary interests. And, of course, no discussion of contemporary literature trends would be complete without some acknowledgment of the enormous impact of Oprah, whose love of books, and most notably fiction, is genuine, authentic and infectious. Many booksellers resented the secrecy that surrounded the announcement of the “next Oprah book,” especially in ordering a book blindly by only its ISBN, but few objected to the regularity of predictable best-selling titles.
It is perhaps the predictability factor that perversely most rankled booksellers, critics and book pundits. Part of the joy and pleasure of literary fiction is the surprise of the delivery. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas may be one of the more interesting test cases for the resilience and durability of novels and fiction. Structurally, it is one of the most intriguing novels I know of: Based on the musical “arch form,” it tells its story in a series of pieces that move from the mid-19th century through the present to a time in an unspecified future, then reverses the process, completing the story that began in Chapter One. The voices change with each chapter: Historical novel, quasi-memoir, mystery, humor, science fiction and futurist, and though the language changes with each style, the author’s voice does not. Voices within voices within a single voice. The effect is at once kaleidoscopic and as tightly knit as an Othello, and it produced a book that was both a critical and a commercial success. Mitchell defied predictability, played with formal assumptions and invented new languages. It is the surprise factor, the continuous and continual renewing of the old form, that holds the key to the novel’s endurance and strength, and to why readers continue to buy, digest and recommend to friends literature’s most basic, malleable, individual and vital instrument.
Most importantly, the novel evokes both the bookseller’s and the reader’s most cherished mantra: “If you liked this novel, you might want to try ...”
Doug Dutton recently closed his store, Dutton’s Brentwood Books, after 33 years in the business of selling (and reading) books. The reading continues.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
Renewing the Faith: McSweeney's Goes Back to Basics, Makes Publishing Fun By MARC WEINGARTEN
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The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books By NATHAN IHARA
In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge By THOMAS PERRY