ABIGAIL M. SCHILLING
Humanity has read, hoarded, discarded and demanded books for centuries; for centuries books have been intimately woven into our sense of ourselves, into the means by which we find out who we are and who we want to be. They have never been mere physical objects–paper pages of a certain size and weight printed with text and sometimes images, bound together on the left–never just cherished or reviled reminders of school-day torments, or mementos treasured as expressions of bourgeois achievement, or icons of aristocratic culture. They have been all these things and more. They have been instruments of enlightenment.
Once the invention of movable type and various commercial advances in the early modern era enabled printers to sell books to anyone who could and would pay for them (no longer reserving them for priests and kings), they became irresistibly popular: their relatively sturdy bindings gave them some permanence; the small-format ones were portable and could be read anywhere; and they transmitted sensory pleasures to eye, hand and brain. Children learned to read with them; adolescents used them, sometimes furtively, to discover the secrets of grown-up life; adults loved them for the pleasure, learning and joy they conveyed. Books have had a kind of spooky power, embedded as they are in the very structures of learning, commerce and culture by which we have absorbed, stored and transmitted information, opinion, art and wisdom. No wonder, then, that the book business, although a very small part of the American economy, has attracted disproportionate attention.
But does it still merit this attention? Do books still have their power? Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we’ve been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren’t necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.
People in the book business, like the readers they seek out (a minute fraction of the literate population), hate to think that books might be moribund, and signs of vigorous life in some quarters belie the grim 2009 forecasts. Also, publishers have always mournfully predicted that the end was nigh–they must share either a melancholy temperament or sensitivity to the fragility of culture–so today’s dire predictions aren’t in themselves news. (I’m speaking here not of technical books or textbooks, which are facing their own crises, but of what are called general trade books–literature, politics, history, biography and memoir, science, poetry, art–written for the general public.) When I first got a publishing job almost half a century ago, my elders and betters in the trade regularly worried about The Future of Books, even though manuscripts continued to pour onto our desks. They worried, too, when firms changed ownership. The eponymous boss of the house where I first typed rejection letters and checked proofs sold his company to Encyclopedia Britannica in 1966; The Viking Press, which I joined in 1968, was sold by Thomas Guinzburg, son of its founder, to Pearson in 1975 and went through many permutations of a merger with Penguin Books, also owned by Pearson; Alfred A. Knopf, where I worked from 1987 to 1992, was a jewel of a firm that in 1960 had become a dépendance of Random House, in turn owned by RCA, then sold to the Newhouse brothers in 1980 and sold by them to Bertelsmann in 1998; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which I joined in 1993, lost some of its independence when Roger Straus sold the company to Holtzbrinck in 1994, and more after his death in 2004.