Andre Bernard, a former publisher at Harcourt and currently a vice president at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, recently wrote a literate and moving elegy for the late Robert Giroux, a legendary editor at Harcourt and later at Farrar Straus & Giroux. In the course of Bernard’s essay, he wondered if the death of Giroux might not be an apt metaphor for the death of the publishing industry itself.
With book sales in a free fall, publishing houses contracting and consolidating, bookstores across the country closing, and school and library budgets being slashed, Giroux noted that book publishing is now feeling the same pain as the rest of the economy, a pain made all the more acute by intense competition from the e-world.
Increasingly, young people are choosing to get their information and entertainment through the electronic media rather than from books and newspapers, which is fine and natural and inevitable. Whining about it is like protesting the reality of the present as if it were a future we still had the option of voting against.
Despite his fears about the changing world of book publishing, Bernard is optimistic, believing that great writers will always find their way to an audience, and that despite violent and disorienting changes in the industry, the publishing business will carry on in some fashion because it produces that most desirable and perfect of objects – a book.
I read this essay after I had just read another in the seemingly endless stream of articles predicting the end of the print newspaper, an industry which is facing similar contraction and consolidation. I sat for a moment and tried to imagine a future in which neither newspapers nor books were a part of the everyday fabric of life, and I couldn’t do it.
Without books or newspapers, just exactly what does one do on the ferry, or on the bus, or while waiting at the airport?
Is there any point to going to a sporting event or a play if you can’t read about what you saw in the next day’s sports or entertainment section? Sitting by a fireplace on a snowy afternoon with a hot beverage is a lovely experience, but without a book or newspaper to read, doesn’t it seem like just a pleasant waste of time?
There are those who have predicted that books and newspapers will not disappear from our society, but will simply be replaced by hand-held electronic devices that provide the same experience using more modern technology.
While that may very well be true, I hope it’s not the case, and I for one will cling to books and printed newspapers until they tear my ink-stained fingers from my dog-eared pages. I’m no Luddite, but no electronic device will ever replace a book or newspaper for me. The reading experience does not consist solely of seeing the printed word on the page.
The reading experience includes browsing through the bookstore and picking out the book itself with all the related positive associations and experiences, and then carrying the book around with you like a comfortable little talisman while you squeeze in time to read on the ferry, during lunch or before falling asleep at night.
It includes the underrated pleasure of imagining who you are going to pass that particular book on to, and imagining how much they will enjoy it.
Sometimes just seeing a particular book on my bookshelf or on a countertop can make me smile, something that no personal electronic device (other than my i-Pod, of course) has ever accomplished.
As for electronic newspapers, until they make one that you can purchase for pocket change, fold up and tuck under your arm, and then use to ignite kindling in your wood stove when you’re done with it, I’m not interested.
Is there a day in our future when buses of fifth graders will take field trips to the Museum of Ancient Technologies where they all file solemnly past a display of dusty old books and stare at them with equal measures of wonder and incomprehension in much the way people today stare at the Grand Canyon, the Sistine Chapel, and Paul Kundtz’s Christmas pants?
I hope not. But if it happens, I hope I can read about it in a newspaper.
Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the Island’s latte scene.