To Influence or Be Influenced by the Culture - June 24, 2013

Recently, I received a note from an old friend in publishing. It was yet another of the myriad articles on e-books and the publishing industry. This one indicated that e-books will have a far greater impact on paperback publishing than it will on cloth, that paperbacks will continue nonetheless, that e-books will become dominant in certain genres, and that the likelihood is that e-books will maintain their growth pattern, especially among young people. In other words, it was not especially different from what we hear every day . . . except with less devastating results to traditional publishing than one is used to. (The fact of the matter, of course, is that the Henny Pennys have been predicting the end of publishing for generations at least; see this blog’s “The War against Paper” of March 25, 2013, for a personal example.)

My edited response to my friend, in part, follows.

I don’t worry enough, I guess. Perhaps because I don’t publish fiction (Lord of the World is becoming more nonfictional by the day). Ms Arnold-Ratliff [author of the article] has hit on something when she reports that the reason for various outlets change over time. Mozart wrote The Magic Flute as pop culture (of course, that’s only half true: Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for money), whistled by the hoi polloi on their way to work; it has since become highbrow for the 3% who love classical music. Books were thought up, I suppose, as means of education, edification, and communication (and, maybe, later, much later, for entertainment). Over time, self-expression and the ability to say something non-stupid at a cocktail party were added to the mix. Now there are no cocktail parties, but more than sufficient self-expression. Education now, of course, is quite separated from wisdom; it is information, a “product” that has supplanted wisdom as surely as altruism supplanted charity, as value supplanted virtue. So it makes sense that people who read, but not necessarily mainly for learning, would assume, like Engels, that quantity can change into quality, and come to equate 500 books on one’s Kindle as a road to being what Flannery O’Connor called innerlechuls.

No one of sound mind enters publishing seeking to arrive beyond the dreams of avarice. It is for something else, and I suppose the best way to describe it is that he or she is interested in the culture of our country and, in a small way, wants to have some affect on that culture. I do not suppose that it ever mattered one whit for most whether the product of their labors was in paper or digital outputs. I must admit that I find paper almost sensuous, but I am sure that others find that statement unworthy of even a cocktail-party comment, if there were cocktail parties.

Over time, of course, the purposes of one format over the other will change, perhaps from technology, perhaps from the habit of people. At the moment, however, e-books seem to me to be yet another notch on the growing understanding of books as pure commodities. Fewer and fewer people look upon them as things of beauty, as possessions of great importance, as symbols or, better yet, signs of some accomplishment or of a seeking of accomplishment. They convey information, and the more they become simply a conveyance of information, the less they will convey wisdom.

Just as it is true that intelligence is not the opposite of stupidity, since intelligence is finite, so too is it true that knowledge is not the same as wisdom, since information is not the same as truth.