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June 25, 2003

The Book-Besotted

Friedrich --

Have you had a chance to eyeball the comments on the "Writing a Book" posting? A fascinating collection. Many were sweet, some were thoughtful, some even appreciative. Best, I thought, were the personal stories many people told. For a glimpse of what the book-writing life is really like, I can't imagine doing better than checking out the comments, which will tell you lots more than the lit mags ever will.

I got just as fascinated, though, by the commenters who quarreled with me, or tried to pick fights. Some went after my motives. Perhaps I wrote the posting because I'm depressed? (Never been happier.) Perhaps because I'm bitter? (Nope, sorry.) Others tried to take me to task for doing things I wasn't doing. Most of these commenters seemed to be under the impression that I was trying to discourage or even prevent people from writing books -- as though the only alternative to you-can-do-it-ism is you-shouldn't-do-it-ism. A few commenters questioned my handful of publishing-life facts, yet offered no evidence that contradicted any of what I offered up. (I covered the field closely for more than a decade, and lunched and partied with hundreds of publishing people and authors. I feel on pretty secure ground when I talk about publishing.)

So I find myself wondering: What were the carpers really up to? Any ideas here? Me, I'm guessing that they were feeling offended. But by what? I'm guessing here too, and perhaps I'm wrong, but: by my attitude towards books.

Why? Because they believe in books and I don't. Well, perhaps they believe not in books, but in "the book" per se. I can't tell you how often I've run into this particular form of semi-religious regard. I tend to forget how many people have this attitude. I'm very fond of certain literary forms -- erotic novellas, for instance, and psychological suspense. But "the book" per se means nothing to me, despite having been just as big a reader as most art-and-lit geeks are as kids. (Book-y kids sometimes grow up to be book-worshipping adults.) As far as I'm concerned, a book is just a bound-together container for a certain sum of paper and ink. It's a delivery system -- one that I've got a lot of respect for, and one that has many virtues. But, per se, "the book" is nothing more to me than a very cool delivery system.

Such is how I think and feel, in any case. (Covering the publishing biz for years will tend to knock the sentimentality about books out of you. But even so, I was never all that reverent.) But, to my eternal surprise, many, many people seem to care about books per se. They worship 'em -- or perhaps what it is they worship is the idea of "the book." Starry-eyed believers, they clearly aren't thinking of the actual bestselling thrillers, the cat books, or the politicians' memoirs that clutter up our lives. No, they're thinking of some Platonic ideal of "the book" -- the work that was labored over with care, talent and brains, the one that connects with you personally, and that engages, challenges, transports and changes. I'd never deny that some books have this kind of impact on some people -- but I would try gently to point out that it's the individual work that does the job, not "the book" in the abstract. Book worshipers, it seems to me, mistake the container for the spirit.

I daresay I'm as interested in the topic of reading-and-writing as the posting's commenters. And I'll bet that -- largely because I'm not hung up on The Book -- I'm more likely to be open to the virtues of articles, song lyrics, blogs, essays, poems, interviews, and emails than the true book believers are. Ah, the book-besotted, for whom nothing is real until it's appeared in, or as, a book. (How people can continue to feel this way after getting even the tiniest glimpse of the way the book-publishing process works is beyond me.) I mean, really: if Paul Johnson's next work of history were to appear as a website rather than a book, would it matter to you much? I'd be tickled by his audacity, and gobble it up.

Looking over the posting's comments, I was a little dismayed -- poor, pitiful me, I know -- that not one commenter took up what I thought was my real contribution to the discussion. Which was ask the question: if writing and publishing a book is so often such a financially and emotionally unrewarding thing to do, what kind of people actually do it? I mean, what kind of person are we likely to be dealing with when we sit down to read a book, given how discouraging writing a book tends to be? We often assume that book authors are book authors because they're better and wiser than the rest of us. I suggested that there's a good chance that the opposite may tend to be true, that the people who have written books have probably come from a very narrow demographic, one defined largely by ambition and obsessiveness. Perhaps I should also have included "book besottedness." I sometimes suspect that it'd be safest to assume that an author is a nutter until such time as he/she proves otherwise.

How do you feel about the book? Not about literary forms, or individual works, but about "the book" per se. Sacred vessel of wisdom? Or container for paper and ink?



posted by Michael at June 25, 2003


Ah, heck, you know me--I'm a container man every day. But I suspect to the book besotted that the idea of seeing one of their own productions in print is so seductive because it implies social validation. And not validation by any old group of idiots, but by the brotherhood of the book.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 25, 2003 02:17 AM

Yes, I agree that authors tend to be obsessive and ambitious. And I agree that getting published in book form has a lot to do with social validation. Because the book, by a long shot, remains the privileged "literary" medium. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, or that some form of electronic publishing won't supercede it eventually. But for the moment, if you're serious about writing something that you feel might have some enduring value, you seek out the publicly acknowledged medium for such writing. If that perception shifts, then people's desire to be published in book form will shift. Sure, it's about vanity, but it's also about respecting your own work by finding the proper audience for it.

That's not to denigrate blogs, which are breaking new ground in information delivery. But the content is to some degree driven by the delivery method. Blog entries tend to be short and snappy, something you can digest in a few minutes. Although people are happy enough staring at a screen for three hours to watch a movie, they're not happy about reading a sustained piece of writing that way. Until that changes, books will remain the preferred "serious" medium for longer-length texts.

Posted by: Hugo on June 25, 2003 04:57 AM

If "a book is just a bound-together container for a certain sum of paper and ink" then burning it means nothing, right?

And I'd guess that most book authors, especially in the non-fiction arena, are writing books which are directly related to their day jobs. I don't think it's reasonable to assume that these people are nutters.

Posted by: Felix on June 25, 2003 10:05 AM

While I appreciate the comments thus far, and have little doubt of the veneration of the book, I think it may be a little more basic than that. Writing for the Web, in all the ways possible, is still largely a temporary act, preserved only as long as a specific Web place exists (and the server isn't struck by lightning, etc.). There's also the aspect of riffing that accompanies Web-based writing, which more often than not comes out as 'here's what i ate for breakfast, then watched on tv'. Writing as good as this site's isn't common, and serves more as an exception.

I think it has a great deal to do with the perpetual aspects of a physical book. There's a reasonable chance that words recorded in one will be found long from now, providing a sense of continuation and life beyond the limits of biology (at least for one's ideas).

Perhaps, though, I'm just influenced by my own bookish nature - there seem to be stacks of them all over my house, office, in the car...

Posted by: Metropolitan on June 25, 2003 10:44 AM

Perhaps I missed mention of the "ebook"?

Of course that's probably because the ebook really hasn't really happened yet. Soi what's there to talk about? Ebook reading is a technology-driven phenomenon. The ergonomically-comfortable and affordable ebook reader has not yet been manufactured.

I am thinking of something for
* about $75,
* weighing 2-3 pounds,
* bound in leather (or such like) and
* with a screen bright-enough to read at the beach (ok, in the shade at the beach.)

_When_ we can buy such an appliance and carry a hundred books with us and also surf the web though the same tool, well then the boundaries will disappear between paper and web, and I think to the disadvantage of the book as physical object.

I know that people have been predicting its demise (incorrectly) for a while, but I believe that the days of the paper book are numbered. I believe that the ebook can be a far superior product--- not simply a "complete" physical object but an ongoing process --- with easy updates by the author, questions, clarifications, URL links to sources etc. etc. In the course of my own work I have constantly thought "Oh gee I'd like to put a link in here to that site so that readers can get further info" but of course you can't with a paper book.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 25, 2003 12:45 PM

"If "a book is just a bound-together container for a certain sum of paper and ink" then burning it means nothing, right?"

Oh good Lord, Felix, what on earth do you imagine your getting at? Burning books is bad for the children? Merely suggesting that some books are less than holy relics is tantamount to Fahrenheit 451? Run for the hills, lock up your daughters, blah blah blah.

Again, being nastier than the Michael Blowhard, I’ll suggest that “book worshipers” don’t merely mistake the container for the spirit* but cling frantically to the glorious image of bookishness because, while somewhere deep in their desperate souls they can see that something interesting is going on, they have no spirit.

Again, I am not willing to listen to book talk from anyone who has proven, repeatedly, an inability to read carefully. Therefore, I had to write off most of the posters.

No one – no one – should be allowed to use the phrase “I have something to say” without explaining exactly who might benefit from hearing the tale.

What do I think of “the book”? Look, Michael, when it comes to one human expressing ideas to others, I’ll take it whatever I can get. Why do people do it, for all the wrong reasons, 99.9-percent of the time - meaning it's a lot of work for me to find that .1-percent of worthwhile writing.

And yet people wonder why I always read the notice boards at biker bars.

*This phrase makes me see spirit bottles, which lead to casting the authors who understand the spirit as elderly backwoods women working hoodoos.

Posted by: j.c. on June 25, 2003 03:43 PM

For a writer, being published on a permanent (well, semi-permanent) dead-tree medium is always going to be gratifying because it's a symbol that someone else thinks what you have to say is worth printing, and even paying to print. I've been published many times, and although I've never convinced myself that I know enough about any particular thing to write a book, I can understand why for most writers seeing their book issued by (a real, not vanity) publisher is the Holy Grail.

There are also practical virtues of books; I can read one for longer than I can look at a monitor screen, and it's easier to take a book with me on a trip than a laptop (which I don't own, anyway). And of course old books, as objects, have some of the same appeal as antiques or long-owned, well-worn articles of clothing.

But I have to admit that there is something immensely seductive about writing on the Internet. For one thing, there's a dangerous thrill in knowing that what I say and how I say it are absolutely down to me: I have neither the benefit of a good editor who can catch my goofs, nor the plague of a bad editor who rewrites bits of my work to please himself.

There's also the instant communication factor; I write, click the button, and such thoughts as I have willed into words are there and able to be accessed instantaneously by thousands of people. If you've ever written something and waited months for it to be published, you know the exhilaration that publication within seconds brings, however ephemeral the medium. It's also more of a direct relationship with the reader, who can reply.

I hope and believe that books will never disappear, and I strongly support the movement to stop libraries from trashing paper documents once they've been scanned. But electronic publishing is exhilarating!

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 25, 2003 04:22 PM

"Book-besotted." I've recently been dipping into C.S. Lewis' last scholarly work, an introduction to medieval literature (mostly because I'm a Lewis fan); according to him, "book-besotted" would be an excellent description of the literate classes during the Middle Ages.

Books were absurdly difficult to produce and preserve at that time; when a old book (almost the only kind) came to hand, there was an automatic presumption that it said something important and true. Much of the medieval world view was based on a synthesis that attempted to reconcile the content of the various available texts. Given that these ranged from the Bible to the Greek philosophers to Greek and Roman poets, this wasn't easy; it often involved peculiar and abstruse allegorical interpretations (say that five times fast!) of texts that were really wholly inconsistent.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 25, 2003 04:32 PM

I agree with Michael that it's the individual book and not the Holy BOOK that matters. I wonder if the second attitude is more common to writers of what must be called Literary Fiction (pardon all the capitals.)

I am to a degree book- besotted-- I have thousands. But it's more for Rick Darby's reasons (EXCELLENT post!) than other, "higher " ones-- they are still handier to carry, bookmark, read in bed-- hell, just plain read! Also, I live in an isolated town and can't rely on libraries (and even if I were as fond of film as Michael, the nearewst good film rental is 100 miles away!) I long ago decided to have any book I needed/wanted very much on hand.

I also, for my interests in travel and natural history, have many OLD books, even many from the 19th Century.

That said, I am more word- besotted than book- besotted. I read books, magazines, blogs, websites. I write articles, reviews, comments, e- mails, and fairly recently still wrote literally hundreds of letters on ink a year! I also have little conscousness of genre-- I read (mostly old) literary fiction, any Russian fiction, thrillers, Michael's beloved "psychological suspense", science fiction, MUCH biology, natural history, and evolution (my original study ) biographies, certain travel writers, poetry, and some political philosophy, history, and military history. Oh, and anything about Central Asia, the biology of communicable diseases, falconry, domestication of animals, or Emperor Frederic ll. And I'm sure I left something out.

And I'll write, for money preferably but for fun if I have time and energy, about any of the above!

Which circles around to Michael's big question. My answer is: writers are obsessive-- it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. They are obsessive about putting ideas and / or stories into words . They have to be able to want this enough to postpone (usually uncertain) pleasure for long amounts of time.

Therefore they are usually a bit nuts and often a bit hard to take. More of my friends are not writers than are, although most of my closest are-- and these relationships are often more difficult than those with non- writers. (My wife is not a writer though she writes well: my stepson, God help him, may be a writer (he has a blog). If a writer's work involves any kind of research in the real world, they must emerge and interact-- two whole modes of life! When my wife was an executive of a small company she gave me a Meyers Briggs test when I was working and I came out a complete introvert. Later after I had finished a book she gave me one and I was utterly extroverted! Not easy to live with..

They also crave recognition-- ther is no real reward as fine as having someone you respect praise your book.

Needy, and with mood swings.

This may be a reason why some writers are drawn to drink and drugs-- to cope with the swings from solitude to sociability. I know the temptations.

So, we are probably crazier than the average person, even artist (most of my friends who paint are calm and sane compared to the writers I know, though I can think of other reasons than those mentioned). But aren't you glad we exist?

Posted by: Stephen Bodio on June 25, 2003 09:25 PM

Many thanks: You're all helping me refine my thought, such as it was, a little further.

Here's another go at it. I'm surprised by the number of people for whom "the book" per se still carries enormous symbolic importance. (And who seem to prefer to deal with the question of books as a symbolic matter.) Permanence, validation, importance, wisdom -- "the book" seems to mean all that and more to an amazing number of readers. It's something that exists On High; it's something to be aspired and deferred to. All existing books are mere shadows of some Platonic ideal of The Book; the greats are the works that get closest to that ideal.

I guess I'm just a lot more prosaic and practical than that about books. Books to me are a wonderful delivery system for words, information, images, arguments, graphics, storytelling, ideas, fiction-craft, etc. Many of their virtues are in fact underappreciated. As the people who are trying to figure out how to make ebook readers viable are discovering, paper books are a phenomenal technology. Indexes, chapters, pages that can easily be flipped among, written on and marked, etc -- all this makes for a package that in terms of accessibility and handiness is hard to beat. But, that said, to my mind books are still just one possible delivery system among many. (I'm with David Sucher here: I think ebooks will eventually be terrific. Imagine being able to click on an illustration and see a video -- pretty neat. But, hey, isn't this kind of thing already with us? It's the Web, which is Borges' library of all possible libraries come to actual, hyperlinked life. The comparison of an ebook to the Web is admittedly complicated by the fact that the Web has no single author...)

I guess I semi-respect people's solemnity about books ... Oh, hell, I'm balking as I type those words, which means I don't really believe what I'm trying to say. What I really feel about the solemn-about-The-Book crowd is: What a bunch of silly, sentimental idiots. Wake up. Smell the coffee. Get real. Quit gumming up the works with your idiot delusions.

OK, a bit rough. But still. Here are a few facts:

* Worries about book burning. (Felix, who's not a sentimental soul, raises a handy, symbolically-charged image which I'm going to pounce on here -- thanks, Felix.) All deference to the Nazi horrors, etc. But the fact is that millions of books are being physically destroyed in this country every year. A simple matter of business and practicality. What do you think happens to the books that can't be sold at retail or at remainder? They get pulped and turned into landfill. So what?

* Permanence. You don't really think the book you just bought is going to last (in the physical sense) for hundreds of years, do you? Very few books produced these days are going to have anything like that kind of staying power as physical objects. The paper, the glue -- it's all going to go, and fairly quickly. We ain't talkin' about objects painstakingly handcrafted by monks from precious materials. We're talkin' (generally speaking) about mass-produced objects that are designed to be, and expected to be, disposable.

* Validation. Let's all pause for a minute on this one. You can't possibly know anything about the publishing world and still take that world's judgment seriously, can you? Hugo makes the good point that -- as a practical matter -- books still command respect, and he's certainly right. And anyone serious about making a go of it as a professional writer needs to understand this. But on a personal, give-my-life-validation level, it's important to remember a few things: that the people in publishing are some of the same people you took English class with (and sometimes not the swiftest ones) -- what does their approval matter? If you're really out to impress your English class, well, that's pretty sad. It's important to remember too that publishing is as buffeted about by flukes, fads and idiocies as any other industry; and that the publishing companies are businesses, and are looking at your work as a potential property and nothing else. It's plain silly to imagine that the people in publishing to whom you submit your baby are sitting around having serious discussions about whether your work deserves a space on the Important Literature shelf. They're as caught up in administration, political infighting, their own ambition, etc as people in any business are, and they find doing good as difficult to execute as you do in your own job. And who says that their idea of doing good is a good one?

I mean, really, how naive can people be? Yes, yes, I can understand that "getting professionally published" and "getting a good review or two" can be terrific experiences. But let's remember who the publishers and reviewers are, and under what conditions they work -- and let's not take them (or, god knows, their judgment) too seriously. And, for god's sake, let's avoid letting our sense of our own worth (which is what I suppose "validation" means) depend in any way on such people (many of whom I know, like and sometimes even respect -- but they aren't priests, let alone gods).

Short detour for a rant here: why do I suspect that many of the book-besotted are people who wish they were still back in college? Who worship the Greats, who live in awe of the brilliance of the Prof, who dare to hope that (if only they study and pray hard enough) one day they too might be allowed to partake and participate in this mysterious, ineffable thing called Literature? ... Well, the world of writing and publishing books isn't remotely like that. Not only that, but you're out of school now, kids!

Sorry. I can get a little overheated about this. I see people blighting their lives (and blighting the intellectual and artistic lives of others, too) by imposing this student/prof/genius model on lit and on the arts, and it just annoys the hell out of me. It makes me want to force everyone in the known universe to read Gissing's "New Grub Street," Balzac's "Lost Illusions," and Charles Simmons' "The Belles-Lettres Papers."

With a slightly cooler head, let me also suggest a different way of looking at permanence and digitization. Most commentators worry about it -- gosh, maybe your floppy disk won't be readable in a hundred years! A true and legit source of anxiety, I suppose, although it does overlook the fact that your physical book probably won't be readable in a hundred years either.

So far as permanence goes, I take a cheery view of digitization. Why? Because it means that your book can exist in multiple versions. You can laser-print copies. You can attach it and send a mass email to everyone in your address book. You make zillions of backup CDs. You can self-publish it, and have it printed on acid-free paper and bound in some long-lasting way. You can post it to the web. (I could well be wrong, but I'm guessing that the Web will be around for a very long time.) You can have it read and recorded, and the digital file can be released as an audiobook, whether on actual tape on downloadable from someplace like Audible. You can do all these things.

Digitization allows authors (at least authors who maintain some kind of control over their work, and I'd love to see authors wake up to this) to issue their words and thoughts and stories in many different forms. This is neat and appealing in its own right. And so far as permanence goes, it probably offers a book a better shot at a long life than it would have if it were simply issued as a trade hardcover, lousily bound and printed on acidic paper.

That said, I also have to say that I don't think the future is likely to be terribly bookcentric. The electronic world seems to turn everything into interlinked databases, and seems to promote a different kind of general gestalt -- one that's driven much more by the (if you will) consumer's interests, desires and convenience than by the producer's (ahem) expressive needs. Business after business seems to be discovering this, and publishing is no different: the proliferation of "service" books is a symptom of this.

But, as I say, I'd bet that the autonomy and prestige of the "the book" are going to be dissolved by electronics. Books will still be produced and distributed, but they won't be at the top of the media heap, passing judgment on all other art forms; they'll be just one media option among many.

And often not the most appealing. One of the more interesting developments in publishing in recent years is what's happened to encyclopedias. The encyclopedia-on-paper business has almost vanished, all in the course of the last ten years. Britannica, Americana, etc -- big mainstays of the culture for many, many decades -- they're all floundering. Why? Because of electronics. People buy encyclopedias on CD these days; either that or they surf the web. The book versions, wonderful though they are, barely exist anymore.

Anyway, my bet is that we'll see "reading" become less and less about "one reader entering the mind of one writer for a prolonged period of time via the medium of a single book" and more about readers putting together reading experiences for themselves, as they see fit, via electronics. (Heck, on the Web, that's already what reading has become.) And I'll bet that we'll be seeing more and more writing forms evolve that'll find their place in and appeal to these new conditions -- one reason I find blogs fascinating in a literary sense.

I'm not saying any of this is good or bad, I'm just doing my best to make some useful observations. I guess I think these developments are generally good, though I personally feel some regrets. But I can't imagine why anyone should find my feelings about these developments of interest.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2003 04:00 AM


To anyone who puts a modicum of ingenuity into it, the eBook is already here. It's called the palmpilot.

You can get a low-end palm for about $100, probably for $75 if you look. It weighs a lot less than a pound. They don't come bound in leather, but you can buy that on the street for about $20 if you're really into leather. And there's no problem reading them at the beach.

Seriously. A black & white LCD screen works by varying the contrast in reflected light, so strong outdoor lighting improves readability. (It's only the color LCD screens that require backlighting and so can find themselves in a losing competition with the sun.) As for text size, it's the same as printed text. And, anyway, you can always change the text size if you want.

A fair number of new titles are available in eBook formats for palmpilots at places like peanut press ( But the big thing is Project Gutenberg, which makes a large number of out-of-copyright classics available in digital format ( ). You can get Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Thomas de Quincey, Andre Gide and Marcel Proust in French, etc.. There's a variety of programs for reading such texts (like iSilo, at ). There are even programs which automatically download the latest edition of newspapers and magazines (http:/

But reading from an itty-bitty screen -- isn't that craaaaaaaaaaaazzy! Actually, no. The screen's not that itty-bitty, and your eye only reads one eyeful at a time anyway. And pushing a scroll-down button is actually easier than flipping a page, especially if one of your hands is holding a subway strap.

The barriers to the ebook are now more psychological than technical. Mention an eBook, and someone will cry out how terrible it is because they "love books" so much. They will talk about "how they feel," what "it's like to hold one," maybe even "what it's like to smell one and roll around in one."

In one stroke they thus shoo away the obvious future they are too blinkered to see, and prove their culture by affirming a kind of magical totem that represents it to other hidebound literalists. It's ridiculous.

Posted by: alexis on June 26, 2003 06:56 AM

Other than that my tastes run more to Elmore Leonard than to Andre Gide, and I have absolutely no need for an electronic datebook to keep track of vast number of appointments (my huge team of assistants do that), of course) thanks Alexis, I will take a look at the Palm. I once glanced at the Compaq version and it was impressively bright.

" But, hey, isn't this kind of thing already with us? It's the Web, which is Borges' library of all possible libraries come to actual, hyperlinked life. The comparison of an ebook to the Web is admittedly complicated by the fact that the Web has no single author..."

I am not sure I get the conflict; the ebook and the web work together seamlessly.

My expectation (just one model that appeals to me as an evolutionary step from where we are) is that an ebook, by one discrete person, will be "published" on an ongoing basis as web pages. That is, the book will be available as a PDF --- which is currently readable in HTLM as a web page. As the author desires and readers demand/suggest, the book will be supplemented. A reader might write to the author to disagree or support a particular point; the author can then "publish" a "new edition" of the "book" which links to the new points as a sidebar or on some seprate page etc etc. these amplifications.

I think that we are virtually _there,_ except for the hardware (though I will take Alexis comment in mind and look at a Palm-type device today.)

There might be a new concept introduced to "publishing" and that is "the book" which is "supported."

You buy the book, "register it" the way you do software, and can then take part as an "associate" in the author's ongoing further research. (Maybe for an extra charge, maybe not -- that's just a market question.) It might be in such a venue that the author would answer specific questions of technical or particularized nature.

Imagine for example, taking part in an ongoing "seminar" with Robert Caro. You buy the book, register it and then for an extra $20/year can join his "weblog" where LBJ, Robert Moses etc etc are discussed.

(Yes that raises another question of course.)

The discrete and finished book, as a complete object, unalterable except by painful new edition is a creature of paper & ink. Ebook/web publishing (and btw, that doesn't mean that there might not be PAPER editions as well --- I can't see the reason but there is probably a market for paper, too) can become more of a continuing refinement rather than a "OK. It's done" process.

Which is terrific for authors who want to keep adding to/refining their book and therefore endlessly delay the publication date to try to make it "better." Of course it might also lead to "premature publication."

Posted by: David Sucher on June 26, 2003 10:35 AM

I'll happily admit to loving books, and if I don't really care about "the Book", I do appreciate the value of writing for a book format. Surfing the web is a great way to pass downtime at work, finding some basic information when you need it quickly, and sampling bits and pieces of what a bunch of different people have to say about a topic. However, it's not so great for the kind of lengthy, in-depth exploration of a topic (or telling of a story) that's possible with a book. As for e-books read on small, palm-type devices: these things are trying to reduce books to just text, but a book is more than that. For example, yesterday I went to my library and checked out David Kunzle's book on early comic strips. Along with Kunzle's thorough discussion of the history of comic strips, the books reprints a number of examples of early strips (broadsheets, illustrated pamphlets, etc.). The book is oversized to allow the strips to be reprinted as close to their original size as possible (a few of the pages fold out, so you get the sense of how broad some of the broadsheets really were). Of course, there are websites where I can go and see scanned versions of a lot of these strips but 1.) The computer screen isn't big enough to show the entire page at once (which is necessary to get a feel for the design of the strip) 2.) Scans look like scans, not like ink-on-paper.

So I guess I'd fall on the side of books over just text, which seems rather dry and reductionist.

And Michael, you should be more consistent. In your recent discussion of how digital technology is destroying traditional film values, you, following Bazin, took a religious, fetishizing attitude towards film. Of course some people are going to feel the same way about books.

Posted by: JW on June 26, 2003 12:16 PM

Reasons why I love books:

-- I'm insecure (I): I need to have books all around my house so visitors can see how smart I am.

-- I'm insecure (II): I want people on the bus or at the coffee shop to be able to see what I'm reading and thus know how smart I am.

-- I'm lazy (I): I don't want to have to learn another new technology, ever.

-- I'm lazy (II): I don't want the option of linking off to a video or a graphic or another site. I have no will power. I'll never finish anything. I'll wander on and on forever.

-- I'm a narrow-minded: I've read books all my life and you should have to read them, too, by God.

-- I have small children who drop things: Plus, make better booster seats and chew toys.

Love your blog.

Posted by: Jeff on June 26, 2003 02:21 PM

I used to say that I'd believe books are doomed when there was a practical electronic version of the Boy Scout Handbook. At the time I started saying that, the mental image was of Boy Scouts lugging a large personal computer into the woods along with a generator to run it.

Now, I'm not so gleefully smug. There are book-sized electronic display devices. CD-ROMs hold enough information that you could not only carry the Boy Scout Handbook with you but the effective equivalent of the Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook.

(Explanation of Obscure Reference: In the Disney comic books, Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey & Louie were members of a Boy Scout parody called the Junior Woodchucks. The Woodchucks all carried a small guidebook that contained absolutely every scrap of information about every conceivable subject. If they found themselves in a buried temple and there was an inscription in Ancient Persian on the wall, they could look it up in the Guidebook and decipher it. Though there has been an attempt in recent years to rationalize the small size of the book by explaining it somehow, I prefer the older, more surreal approach that the book is simply an inexplicable mystery, and magically contains the information you need to know at the time you need to know it.)

The hand-held electronic display device with a few CD-ROMs could hold more information than a single Boy Scout Handbook ever could. Whole textbooks on botany and geology, for instance. Maybe books as we know them are doomed...

Then again, accidentally dropping a Boy Scout Handbook 200 feet into a ravine won't hurt it much. You can climb down and get it, and you're back in business. I'm not so sure about the electronic doo-hickey.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 26, 2003 04:34 PM

Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook

Ah, the magic of Carl Barks. Posssibly one of the most underated (not to mention unknown) writers of the 20th century... Of course, I always think of my ideal ebook as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but maybe it's more for the "Don't Panic!" sign...

One application I've always dreamed about for e-books is military history. There are all sorts of battles and campaigns I'd like to understand better, but I find that even the best military histories are virtually impossible to follow - there are never enough maps to really situate you, and I always end up lost. My ideal e-history book would have a set of 3-d maps which you could zoom, rotate, move back and forth in time, etc., linked with the wonderfully anecdotal text of a Shelby Foote or John Keegan. The map would show you what happened, while the text tells you why it happened...

Posted by: jimbo on June 26, 2003 06:25 PM

Jimbo, get to work on that idea. You'll make zillions. Think of all the Good Sam and AARP members on RV trips to battlefields!

My handheld can't take, I'm guessing, fire and water. Bouncing around in a bag, extreme temperatures, altitude changes, X-ray machines and so on mean nothing to it. In all this it is much like a paperback. Except for the full-text searches and the nifty bookmarking feature. And the dictionary. And the part where I can carry the Spanish-language version and the translation in the same slim device. And, again, there's the whole handhold advantage of weighing practically nothing.

Most of the things I read on it are "books" - even if people can't see the cover and know how smart I am! That probably pleases those who are fetishistic about oh holy literature. However, on a device, the difference between the e version of a real "book" and compositions created by just any old scheme are blurred. There container has no clues about the difference an ebook copy of the latest Don Delillo and a raggedy punk zine. Why is this a reason for hysteria? I guess, if I wasn't confident in my own ability to judge the quality of a text, maybe I'd be worried, too.

Posted by: j.c. on June 26, 2003 08:35 PM

Currently reading the Aubrey/Maturin novels by O'Brian. All twenty of them. I haven't read anything really big in a long time. Only through book five, I've found myself repeatedly longing for a search engine so I could go back and review choice passages, or resolve little perplexities about plot and character.

Printed books are primitive, compared with hypertext. Only a true sentimentalist could still advocate this antiquated technology.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on June 27, 2003 12:11 AM


In the 20th century this kind of thing was a called a circle jerk. I don't know what you call it in the early 21st century, when a group of gadget besotted weenies hyperventilate on the ontological status of books or book…

What is the issue? If you revere books— I think that's cool. If you don't, well okay, that's cool too. It's not like there is any legislation called for here. Or did I miss something?

I'm thinking , "Maybe, these good folks don't have any good books to read" So here are three titles that may fill in those lonely hours that you spend look for signs of intelligent life in that vast uncharted frontier of the brave new world of communicating with/through computers:

The Clearing – Tim Gautreaux.

We Have to Talk about Kevin –Lionel Shriver

Hell at The Breach – Tom Franklin

Thank me later

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on June 27, 2003 12:12 AM

Alexis, J.C. -- Do you find you can do a decent amount of reading on a palm-type device? I've tried, but my eyes and brain balk. I've read a book on a dedicated ebook reader, though, and didn't mind it at all -- a 5x7 inch-sized screen seems to be a minimum for me, though I wonder if tired middle-aged eyes have something to do with my preference. And I'm certainly amazed at how many screensful of stuff I can stare at on the desktop machine.

David -- I think we agree on just about everything where e-publishing's concerned. What a fab lot of new opportunities this kind of publishing opens up. Denis Dutton of Arts and Letters Daily is tuned in to one of your ideas as well -- the updatable, flexible book that can respond and evolve. He's published some books (with Cybereditions as the publishing name), and sees doing so as a form of publishing software -- release 1.0, 1.12, 2.0, etc etc. Why not? If you're interested, you can find links to Cybereditions on Arts and Letters Daily. For what it's worth, I was distinguishing ebooks from the Web only to make a simple point -- that an ebook is likely to have a single point of view (however many hyperlinks it contains), where a reader surfing the web is likely to be encountering the work of many authors rather than entering into the point of view of only one. But good point: why shouldn't the ebook and the web plug directly into each other?

J.W. -- I don't think anyone's dissing books, just the people who are silly about them. They'll always be an option, and good for that. Good point about how many books aren't just text. But don't you find that the Web's an amazing way to present multimedia productions? I'm amazed by how good a time I can have following my art-history interests on the Web, for example, happy though I am to concede that looking at paintings on a screen is a slightly odd experience. That said, so's looking at painting's reproduced on paper. As far as consistency goes, I'm going to push back just a bit. A book isn't an artistic form -- it's just a container. A picaresque novel is an artistic form, a sonnet is an artistic form. You could even say narrative prose fiction is an artistic form. But a book's just a vehicle, and, to my mind anyway, who cares if the container is replaced? When we talk about movies, though, we aren't talking about mere containers for sounds and images. The assumption is generally that we're talking about 80-minute-to-three-hour-long narratives; we're implicitly talking about an artistic form, a whole tradition of performance, of visuals and sound, and of narrative technique. Happy to admit that I feel an emotional attachment to that tradition, as I'm happy to admit to an emotional attachment to short erotic fiction and Dorling Kindersly-style reference books. (Both of which are working very nicely on the web, come to think of it.) The movie equivalent of a container might be, oh, film cans, or videocassettes, or celluloid strips, or magnetic tape, or even TVs or movie theaters, all of which are mere means of conveyance. I've got no sentimental attachment to any of them at all.

Jimbo, Dwight -- How do you guys feel about the "looking into something in depth" question? Better via a book? Better on the web? I've got no desire to badmouth good books, and I'm happy to admit that I've pissed away far too many hours pointlessly clicking my superficial way around the web. But I've also been amazed by how easy and efficient it is to look into things in some depth on the web. I may rely on a large number of different sources to do this, but so what? I've found that if I develop an interest, using the web I can generally educate myself pretty thoroughly (at least by my admittedly lax standards) within a couple of days. I find that pretty astounding. The depth that may indeed be present in a good book may not be there in any one site, but on most subjects I've looked into it's there on the web more generally. Have you found that to be true where your interests are concerned?

Alan -- What a great idea to make an electronic version of the O'Brian novels. I wonder why no one's done it. Have you checked out any of the CD-Roms Voyager did on some Great Lit novels and poetry? There was a 19th century American poetry collection, and I'm trying to remember what else? Huck Finn, maybe? Nicely laid-out, and enhanced with historical notes, indexes, commentary, etc. I guess the worth of such a thing depends on how well it's done, and I do wonder how many people read the works all the way through. Voyager also did some music-appreciation discs (by the scholar Robert Winter) that were really fabulous: commentary, glossary, history, active (as in helpfully pointing things out) music scores, illustrations -- hard to beat. I'd love to see those be made available on the web, though I guess it'll take a few years before the quality of Web music transmission gets to the point where it's up to the demands of classical music.

Robert -- Thanks for the typically Birnbaumian and understated comment. Thanks also for the recommendations. You're aware that all three books were almost certainly produced electronically, aren't you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 27, 2003 02:00 AM

Michael - I can tell you that the Web is darned handy for looking up specific bits of information. I can type a plain-language question into Ask Jeeves, like: "What is that famous quotation about couriers and appointed rounds?" and get a dozen websites in return that have the full text and the source of the quotation (Herodotus). Or: "What was Damon Knight's definition of science fiction?" (Found that, too. I looked for it because I had just seen an article by somebody who hadn't looked it up and got it very wrong.) Or: "Who was the author of a novel called 'We' that has been called the Russian '1984'?" (Got that. And found out it darned well was the Russian 1984 - Orwell admitted that he was inspired by it.) And I got these answers within minutes. Where is the reference library stocked with real books in which I could do this? Just figuring out which books to look in would take a while.

But where I do use the Web for depth is in my work as a translator. Any working translator accumulates dictionaries. Slang dictionaries, specialized dictionairies for technical jargon, old dictionaries for obsolete words modern dictionaries have dropped - because you never know when you're going to get hit with a word that might be in one dictionary but not others. (I have a 1905 French dictionary just for reading Jules Verne. Modern French dictionaries don't seem to include the vocabulary for barrel hoops or cannon casting for some reason...)

As you get into it, you discover the usual bilingual dictionaries aren't detailed enough. (Especially a bilingual for one of the less common languages, which might be just the latest reprint of something last updated in 1946.) If you're good enough in the source language to have any business translating it, you already know most of what's in the bilingual anyway - you need the more unusual shades of meaning. So you get that language's version of an unabridged dictionary. But it's never enough. Languages change faster than even their own dictionaries can keep up with.

But the Web has changed that. I don't mean on-line dictionaries -- they're usually less complete than print versions. I mean you can do a search on a given word or phrase, and find it used in context. A search on, say, Yahoo! Deutschland will turn up a German word or phrase used in German magazine or newspaper articles, and you can see how it's used and get a sense of the nuances. This is better than a dictionary definition in a way, because this is the word in field conditions, as it's actually used in the living language.

One of my odd little translating specialties is the food trade, and I sometimes find myself confronted with some term I don't know what the heck it is in English, let alone German. Often, with regional dishes, there just aren't English equivalents. But with the Web, I can type in Bremer Küchenragout and turn up websites for restaurants that have the stuff on their menus, with descriptions of what's in it, or pages with recipes for how to make it. Sometimes even with pictures of the finished product. This isn't just some cold and scant dictionary definition that leaves me with little to pass on to the English-reading audience (too often you see translators who obviously don't know what they're translating when they hit some obscure term, who just put down some literal equivalent of the individual words in the hope you know more about the subject than they do and can figure it out), this is a rich and vivid description I can draw on for my own rendering. Because now I really understand it.

I hesitate to admit how long it took me to start realizing the potential of the Web for this kind of research. And I notice from mentions in the translators' guild magazine that others are figuring it out, too.

So in many ways, the Web can be better than a whole shelfful of reference books. In effect, you have a vast amount of written material available to you in the source language - everything posted on the Web in that language - available for you to send Google out to check for whatever you need.

But when all else fails...there's always e-mail. I've built up a circle of friends and correspondents for different languages, on call for when I get really stuck. Thanks to e-mail, I can get answers within hours, where before it would have been about ten days by airmail (assuming I could have found these people at all). There was a term in Dutch that had me completely baffled. I knew what it meant, but it didn't make sense in context. I sent off a query to my Dutch friend and went to bed. The next morning, I had my answer. It was a joke based on the name of a current Dutch politician. No dictionary could have explained that!

Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 27, 2003 04:28 AM


It would be silly to value a container if the container didn't have any impact on what's contained in it. However, you're going to get two different kinds of writing depending on whether the writing's meant for a book or on a web-page. Isn't it reasonable, then, if you value the kind of writing that the book format encourages (or is more suited to the book format) that you'd also value that container for those inherent properties? I mean, not all containers are equal, we have to make value judgments somewhere, even if they're not always cut-and-dry (my thermos is a better container for my coffee on my drive to work than a martini glass would be, but that doesn't mean I'll be lugging it to every cocktail party I go to). If I recall, this was the heart of your argument about movies: that images contained on good-old silver nitrate emulsion film had different values than images contained on new-fangled digital media.

Posted by: JW on June 27, 2003 10:30 AM

I'm quite happy to read a whole book on my palmpilot. The contrast is fine in good lighting, and you can adjust the text size. For me what really makes the difference is that it's so much lighter than a printed book. I can take it with me anymore. I'm going to be moving house in a month, and every look at my bookshelf fills me with dread.

But I must admit, yeah, if I could buy weightless paperbacks that used no space, then I'd prefer those on grounds of readability. But the difference is not big, and is trumed by the convenience.

A propos of Dwight's comment, I should mention you can also get excellent bilingual dictionaries on the palms, with the same content as the printed dictionaries(e.g., the Collins dictionaries at Here it's an enormous boon, because the lookup time is much faster than flipping through a paper dictionary, and you can integrate it with a flashcard application.

Okay, enough preachifying for me. I'm going to go do some kickboxing and pretend this geek explosion didn't happen.

I checked at, and they've also got Elmore Leonard. So there's no Gide ghetto to fear.

Posted by: alexis on June 27, 2003 03:05 PM

Do I find I can do a decent amount of reading on a palm-type device?

Golly, yes. But I find that, with the phone ringing every five minutes, I can't do a decent post on how much and why.

Posted by: j.c. on June 27, 2003 07:09 PM

"However, you're going to get two different kinds of writing depending on whether the writing's meant for a book or on a web-page."

My sense is that many books are too long, that the author is expanding a good essay of 50 pages into a 200 page book because you can't sell a 50 page essay _in a bookstore._

But you will be able to sell a 50 page essay on the web as an E-Essay, once we have (sorry Alexis)
1. a really elegant eBook Reader
2, a digi-cash system in which 1 penny is not too small a purchase,

Posted by: David Sucher on June 28, 2003 01:49 AM

Dwight, Alexis -- Wow, thanks for the info and tales, all of which of course make a lot of sense. I had no idea the web had had such an impact on translation, although why shouldn't it? A good topic for a story for some lit-and-books publication. Once again, our esteemed Commenters blaze a newsworthy trail.

Alexis, J.C. -- I'm amazed you manage to do serious reading on the Palm, and envy your eyesight. I only managed to get through some poems (Wilfrid Owen, if I remember right) before I gave up. So there really are people really reading e-books out there.

J.W. -- I'm not sure what your point is, although I can certainly sense that you're unhappy with mine. I could point out that a lot of books already do reflect the impact of the Web -- there are a ton of books published these days that are very visual, very graphics-oriented, and that feature short and to-the-point blocks of writing. And I'd say, see, that helps show that books per se really are just containers, and as such are pretty neutral -- they're as suited for the presentation of web-like material as they are for pure-text realistic novels. But I suspect you'd come back with some new quibble, and I'm genuinely curious to know what your point is. How about stating it directly?

David -- Can I anoint you web-publishing Czar?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 28, 2003 02:37 AM


I thought I was pretty direct the last time. I'll try again. You are saying that books are just "containers," and that it is silly to value a mere container. I am saying that different containers encourage different values, and, thus, it is not at all silly to care about a certain type of container. Furthermore, what I am saying parallels what you were saying about the value of images contained on film vs. the value of images contained on digital media.

As for the ambition and obsession of people who write books, you could just have easily said that writing a book requires drive and dedication, which really shouldn't be news to anyone. So I'm not quite sure what your "contribution to the discussion" is supposed to be, aside from your contrarian posturing.

Posted by: J.W. on June 28, 2003 07:48 AM

You weenies are still at it? Sheesh.

Michael, when you say my recent recommendations were electronically produced, does that mean that the authors were wired up to some infernal gadget and their thoughts and feelings were transposed into a text? Or that the authors were electronically stimulated into their outpourings of fiction?

And as long as there is this pseudo debate about containers and packaging (yeah, the '57 Chevy was just a container for transportation) and whatever else is being argued here, I would point out photographer Abelardo Morrell's wonderful "a book of books' (with a typically nifty introduction by Nicholson Baker).

Maybe I was off the mark previously, recommending novels, as there seems to be an anti-length sentiment afoot here.

Here are some story collections:

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction – Karl Iagnemma

Rumble, Young Man, Rumble- Benjamen Cavell

Short People- Josuah Furst

Fabulous Small Jews – Joseph Epstein

No thanks necessary.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on June 28, 2003 08:40 AM

JW -- I'm sure I'm a mental pygmy, but I'm still puzzled about your point, and perhaps we've turned in circles long enough. But since we may be stumbling over something easily staightened-out, here goes once more. A given book can be a beautiful, created, expressive thing, wonderfully suited to its particular art-or-ideas goal -- is that what you're getting at? If not, then enlighten, please. If so: well, sure, but who's disputing it? My posting isn't about this given book or that given book; it's about the silliness of people who are attached to a sentimental idea of "the book," something else entirely. I'm as big a fan of a well-done book as anyone else is.

I may be misunderstanding, but I'm guessing that you're also attached to the idea that there's such a thing as "book values." I know there are academics and theorists who make this argument, but, gollygosh, I think they're wrong. Why? Well, drawing a circle 30 feet in radius around where I'm sitting at the computer, here's what I encounter bookwise:

*A couple of phone books
*A couple of tax-preparation books
*A shelf of computer-instruction books
*An almanac
*A golf-tips book
*A collection of Patricia Highsmith short stories
*A shelf of Fodor's travel guides
*Numerous shelves full of cookbooks
*A dictionary
*A gimmick book entitled "100 Things I'm Not Going to Do Now That I'm Over 50"
*A couple of horror novels
*A museum catalog for a show of Japanese ink paintings
*A copy of "The Whole Earth Catalog"

If you, or anyone, can derive anything even semi-coherent in the way of "book values" from this selection, then hats off to you. These are all books, but other than covers, pages, ink and paper, what can they be said to have in common? I see short text blocks, long chapters, single authors, multiple authors, author-driven projects, editor-driven projects, corporation-driven projects; I see pictures, graphics, many different goals and intentions, indexes, hyperlinks (to the extent books can do hyperlinks), infolists, captions, diagrams, photos, instructions, art repros, Web-like layouts, reference tips; I see standalone works as well as works that are intended to be guides to other works or media … I notice that few of these books are all text, that some are almost entirely visual, that a number of them were created by teams, that some of them are parts of series -- and that very few are intended to be read (or looked at) in a linear or straight-through way. People who want to claim that "the book" promotes a certain set of values never seem to me to be dealing with books as most of them actually are, or as most of us actually interact with them most of the time. They usually seem to have in mind "serious," through-written, by-one-author, thoughtful works. That's a ridiculously small slice of the books cosmos -- although exactly the slice you'd expect an academic to focus on -- and a very close-minded view of what books are.

Given that I can't see any finite or coherent set of anything that these books share, apart from the cover/pages/ink/paper basics, sure, I'm happy arguing that "the book" -- ie., the physical basics -- is usefully thought of as a container. That a given book may be something else entirely, including an artwork in its own right, doesn't in any way invalidate this thought. More a propos is this: that whether a given erotic novella exists on a screen, on a disk drive, as a print-out, on a website, as an email attachment, or as ink on paper between covers, it's still the same erotic novella. You may prefer it in one instantiation, I may prefer it in another. It may take on certain qualities in one form and others in another -- but that would be just as true if you were to compare two different book versions (a handcut letterpress version vs. a Penguin paperback, for instance) of it. Hey, such is life. And, in all major ways, it's still the same erotic novella.

"The book" once upon a time was thought of and seen as a cultural pinnacle; these days, although many people still see books that way, "the book" is -- in a practical, this-is-how-books-are-made-and-sold sense -- a presentation-and-distribution option. This is a simple fact of the media business, and one that (as far as I'm concerned) we might as well get used to. I'm annoyed by people who keep pumping energy into mystifying something ("the book") that has already been thoroughly demystified by technology and business. It's a free world, and they're free to go on doing so. But I'm also free to go on taking potshots at their striving and pomposity. Why would I do so? Because I think the art-and-culture discussion would be a more entertaining and enlightening -- and certainly less boring -- one if people were to get over their stale sentimentality about "the book."

You write: "As for the ambition and obsession of people who write books, you could just have easily said that writing a book requires drive and dedication, which really shouldn't be news to anyone." If you think "drive and dedication" are the same things as "ambition and obsession," I'm not really sure how to respond. Let me, for starters, introduce you to something called Ego.

As for movies, you write:
"In your recent discussion of how digital technology is destroying traditional film values, you, following Bazin, took a religious, fetishizing attitude towards film."
And "If I recall, this was the heart of your argument about movies: that images contained on good-old silver nitrate emulsion film had different values than images contained on new-fangled digital media."

Well, I wouldn't say digital technology is destroying traditional film values. I would say that the way Hollywood has generally been using the new digital tools has meant that, at the cineplex, traditional movie values are often being overwhelmed by electronic-media values. And I'm not quite sure I consider this an "argument" so much as an observation, by which I mean that the logic behind it is far less important than the evidence before us on the screen. "L'Auberge Espagnole" is an example of a film that folds the new tools and techniques back into a framework of traditional movie values, where "Xmen 2" is an example of a film that's by and large selling electronic-media values. It's fine with me if you prefer "Xmen 2," though why you'd disagree with my general observation I can't imagine. It's not exactly a controversial, let alone contrarian, thing to say (although I like to think I put it pretty crisply, or at least directly). And, hey, I love my Mac, my Sony mini-DV videocam and my DVDs, and filmmakers will use digital tools as they see fit. But why not have the fun of taking note of what they're doing? Do you simply object to making a distinction between "traditional movie values" and "electronic media values"? I find the distinction useful; you may not. But if not, why not? You'll forgive me if I suspect that what's really going on in our discussions about digital tech and movies is that you enjoy many of the new action blockbusters and are annoyed that I don't.

Robert -- You don't find questions about the way writing is produced, created and enjoyed these days interesting? And, even if you don't -- no reason why you should -- why would it bug you if other people did find swapping ideas about these questions fun and/or useful?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 29, 2003 04:46 AM


Far be it from me to put a damper on other people's fun. I guess it was a failure of my imagination. I just did not recognize all the fun people were having fulminating and swapping ideas on books versus appliances as literary delivery systems. It's not like I am unaware of 2 Blowhards standing as a bastion of 18th century thought. So it stands to reason that zeolots of the New Enlightenment would gather here to champion the radiant future.

As to the usefulness of all this cogitating, well, what I think is useful (and fun) is reading. My visceral reaction was, "Why wasn't every body reading something?" In fact, I was wondering why I wasn't finishing Joseph Epstein's bittersweet stories in his new collection, Fabulous Small Jews, as opposed to reading this, uh, thread.

The answer is, of course, it is fun to see what other people think. And infuriating. And frightening. And inspirational. And, I suppose, useful.

Also, I missed that this was about how writing was produced and created. I thought this was all about how the vessels of creativity were being manufactured. And had I noted the words 'joy' or 'enjoy' once in the above polyvocal commentary I might have gotten something different from my reading of it. Your suggestion certainly puts it all in a different light.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on June 29, 2003 07:51 PM

Don't forget the handicapped! Computer readers for ebooks are a godsend for the visually and motor impared.

Which was one of the reasons the Baen scifi house opened their Free Library at:

Putting things on an author's backlist has REALLY shot up sales of older titles, too.

Whole novels in open (non-encrypted) formats, and current titles for sale cheaply.

(For a creator, being unknown is the worst danger, far more insidious than mere piracy!)

They're making money at it, so writers need not fear for their future in the book format!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 30, 2003 12:30 AM


Well, I really don't have a problem using "book-value" to mean the value of through-written, thoughtful work, despite the many other ways books are used. I mean, when you use the phrase "traditional movie values," I assume you mean "the values of a classical narrative cinema" and not "the values of home movies" or "the values of industrial film." I'd probably be willing to go along with your whole "book besotted" rap, except I've never come across a website that's given me anything close to the satisfaction of reading an actual book.

However, websites are a good substitute for phone-books, indices, how-to books, lists, etc. etc. I think as we use computers and digital technology more and more for these kinds of reference works, the traditional, book-value of books will be emphasized. Now, as you know, I share many of your opinions about academics, but I really don't see how valuing books serves to stifle the discussion at all.

As for book writing: Of the people I know who are writing books or have written them, none of them seem particularly ambitious or obsessive. I do think they show a certain amount of drive and dedication, which might look like "ambition and obsession" to a sneering cynic. (But do you really imagine someone saying: "I'm going to further my ambitions by writing a book," or even thinking this subconsciously?)

As for the movies: I think we're really talking about three different things: traditional film value (image & editing), electronic media value (image & editing), and traditional movie value (narrative & performance, spatial integrity, among other things). I think the 1960s marked the end of "traditional movie values" in Hollywood. I don't think the rise of digital technology warrants any of the gloom and doom that comes across in your "observations." (If anything digital media has been more influenced by traditional movie values than vice-versa).

Posted by: JW on June 30, 2003 11:11 AM

Well, what with all the thoughtful and learned commentary regarding "the book" I still believe the loveliest thing I've seen lately was the ecstatic little 5 year old girl dragging her Mommy to the local Barnes and Noble at 11 at night last week to cop a copy of the latest Harry Potter. Do you remember the look of ecstasy on a child's face? Imagine that a book brought that about.

Posted by: Michael Slater on June 30, 2003 11:40 PM

I'm with you, Michael. I've read this whole discussion wondering how reading a palm pilot to my kids would have matched up to snuggling under the afghan while it snows with a lap full of books and two kids next to me, enthralled.

Posted by: Deb on July 1, 2003 06:52 AM

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