An article by Bill Keller in the July 17th, 2011 New York Times Magazine under the provocative title of “Let’s Ban Books” raises the interesting question of why, in a cultural economy in which books have become arguably its least desirable commodity and with an apparent decline in book reading into its second decade having pushed publishers around the globe into more or less permanent panic mode, does everyone want to write a book?
Keller, who is the executive editor of the Times, was writing tongue-in-cheek, but he’s also correct. Everyone, it seems, wants to write a book. Doctors do, lawyers do, and Indian Chiefs do—more than most occupations, actually. The motives can be wildly various: some want to tell a story, some want to tell their story, the fools think they can get rich, others want to proselytize ideas or products; the lunatics just believe they’re right and you’re wrong, and want you to know it. Writers on book tours hear about it endlessly from people who think they have something to say and want to be told what the shortcuts and tricks are.
Yet in a surprisingly large percentage of wannabes, there’s an underlying motive that’s identical. They want to take a crack at Western Civilization’s most difficult cognitive act: what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, long form thinking.
Until fairly recently, long form thinking was also among our civilization’s most prestigious activities. That it has ceased to be is a problem I’d have to write a book to explain, but the reality of the desire is beyond dispute and its implications offer a possible solution to the problems that are making book publishers crazy.
Much of what books used to do has been subsumed by other media through the 20th century, and many of them are done better (or at least more accessibly) by newer media. Story-telling and complex fictions have now been done better by both television and film, because those media transmit emotional nuance with greater economy and often with greater complexity. That neither pulp fiction publishers or the publishers of “quality” literary fiction have recognized this is more a matter of them clinging to the idea that people are somehow elevated by having their noses in a book, even if it’s a Harlequin romance or a formula thriller. But the truth is that housewives might be better off watching a soap opera than reading a Harlequin, if for no other reason than that they can fold laundry while they’re watching. It’s a little harder to make the same argument for a thriller. Maybe they can clean their guns or play with their testicles, and thus be less likely to beat up their wives out of frustration.
This is a roundabout way of suggesting that long form thinking, not fiction, is the true achievement of book publishing. That it might evolve into its primary purpose, cultural and economically, is a possibility that book publishers might want to take seriously.
July 26, 2011, 500 words