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The End of Books—This Time for Sure!

Bill Quick is the latest pundit to join the book-is-dead parade. Most of this ground has already been covered in a friendly debate between John Podhoretz and me. John claimed here that “the end of the physical book” is near. I expressed some skepticism here, John chuffed me for thinking like a book collector here, and I mounted a defense of the “physical book” here.

The only reason to hand out these links is that Quick fires off assertions as if, unlike him, no one had ever, you know, actually made an argument to back them up. Or — here’s a radical notion — pondered his assertions and actually disagreed with them.

Thus “Books have no real future,” Quick declares. After all, a book is an object. “The core of the matter is story, not object!” he writes, underlining every word. (By “story,” he means a piece of writing’s intellectual content. He would have been better off speaking of “text,” because a piece of writing also consists of its language and structure.) But books are objects, stories are not, and old objects are replaced by newer objects. “We have had other such objects,” he observes — “scrolls, chapbooks [another kind of physical book], writing on walls, whatever.”

That the physical book (or the codex, as it is more properly called) has outlasted his “other such objects,” sometimes by a factor of ten, goes entirely overlooked. Quick gives no thought to whether the codex might have some qualities that make it superior to scrolls and writing on walls, and might even make it superior to Kindles and iPads. (Hint: reading is not, whatever he thinks, sheerly a mental activity.)

The real reason Quick has not thought about these issues is that he has confused two separate questions. But to declare that books have no real future is not the same as pronouncing the death of the “commercial structure undergirding our previous method of story delivery,” as he calls it — the corporate publishing model, with a single large company in control of all post-production aspects of literature (manuscript acceptance, editing, printing, distribution, advertising). As I’ve said before, it is a vulgar error to confuse the decline of publishing with anything else, including premature announcements of the book’s demise.

Electronic media, including self-publishing for the Kindle and iPad, have begun to liberate writers from the closed shops of the big publishing houses. Writers have begun to connect directly with readers, without the intermediacy of editors or even booksellers. That’s what has everybody excited. Whether electronic media are the best objects for the storing and retrieval of literary texts — well, that’s a different question altogether. Perhaps writers may even find a way to take control of the best possible object for literature, whatever it might turn out to be.

Update: In an update to his original post, Quick dismisses my reply as the “turgid” reflections of a mere “academic.” “Those that can’t write, teach,” he sneers. (Do you show pictures with these clichés, Bill?) He’s probably right about the “vapidity” of my intellect. God knows I bore my wife and children to tears!

But on one thing he is wrong, no matter how often he congratulates himself for publishing more books than I have. I admit it! I’m a one-book author! (My poor Elephants Teach, in print for fifteen years now.) When he says, though, that “those who can do neither [write or teach] become critics,” he is a buffoon. Like it or not, some of the best English writing — better writing even than Quick’s, if you can believe it — has been in the form of literary criticism. The only question about writing is whether it is any good: not whether it is written by an “academic” or a cheerleader for the singularity.


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