Friday, April 09, 2004

Meditation on Books

I have completed the first of my birthday books, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid and translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Published in 2003, the book is a meditation on the state of publishing and reading in the world. The cover of the book is amazing, a circular tower of books with a staircase of books winding up its side. It is hard to tell how tall or how wide this tower is, but it looks huge. I used most of my page points while reading this book. I can't and won't excerpt all of them here, just a few choice ones. The basis of Zaid's meditation is centered on the idea

Culture is conversation. Writing, reading, editing, printing, distributing, cataloguing, reviewing, can be fuel for that conversation, ways of keeping it lively. It could even be said that to publish a book is to insert it into the middle of a conversation, that to establish a publishing house, bookstore, or library is to start a conversation--a conversation that springs, as it should, from local debate, but opens up, as it should, to all places and times.
The problem these days is that there are more books published than there are readers. Everyone wants to write and publish a book it seems. And
if all those who wanted to read would actually read, there would be an unprecedented boom, because never have so many millions of people dreamed of being published. But the hardly pleasant narcissism of "read me and I'll read you" has degenerated into a narcissism that isn't even reciprocal: Don't ask me to pay attention to you; pay attention to me.
One solution to this problem, Zaid suggests, might be to establish a regulatory board where those who wanted to publish a new book or poem or article would have to prove she has read a certain number of books, poems or articles. A fair solution I think since I read recently that most manuscripts received by literary magazines are from writers who don't even subscribe to or read the magazine. Publishing has also become a standard part of establishing a career or reputation. "Publish or perish" as the saying goes. But most of these books are read by few people and published only so the writer can list them on his resume. The fact that there are books published that are so specialized that few will read them is only one barrier in evening out the ratio of books to readers. There are two other much more major barriers, knowing how to read, and having the time to read. Zaid laments
...average book reading is low, even in developed countries. Reading is not the act of spelling out words, or the effort of dragging oneself across the surface of a mural that will never be viewed in its entirety. Beyond the alphabet, the paragraph, and the short article which may still be taken in all at once, there are functional illiteracies of the book. The great barrier to the free circulation of books is the mass of privileged citizens who have college degrees but never learned to read properly...
I don't know that the college educated are the greatest barrier, but they certainly don't help. These are the people you would expect to be readers. The fact that they aren't is likely a reflection of why people go to college in the first place these days. Most go so they can get a good job. College has become a means to an end and the end frequently does not include knowing how to read with depth. If that isn't enough, there is the growing problem of having time to read. Especially here in the U.S., time is money. So even though an actual book is fairly cheap, the time it takes to read it is expensive.
In a wealthy economy, time is worth more than things, and it is easier to buy things than to find the time to enjoy them. To purchase books that one will never read is understandable: we think we might read them one day, and in the meantime, they can be shown off to visitors or mentioned in conversation [or blog]. As students become young executives with overcrowded schedules, and as their salaries rise, reading (if it is not required) becomes a luxury for them too.
There are days I don't have time to read, but overall I make time because reading is important to me. When people tell me they don't have time to read I am baffled. Somehow I think if you want to read you'll make the time. One of the best things about a book is its portability and ease of use. You can pick it up and put it down, read a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence at a time at your own pace. How can a person not have time even one day a week? In the end however,
What does it matter how cultivated and up-to-date we are, or how many thousands of books we've read? What matters is how we feel, how we see, what we do after reading; whether the street and the clouds and the existence of others mean anything to us; whether reading makes us, physically, more alive.
The number and diversity of books is amazing. It means there is something for everyone and every interest. It means we have a lot to learn. It means there is an abundance of fuel for conversation.