Chewing the bookfat

In its recent story about the demise of the Micawber bookstore in Princeton, the NYTimes quotes owner Logan Fox to the effect that "he can't quite pinpoint the moment when movies and television shows replaced books as the cultural topics people liked to talk about over dinner, at cocktail parties, at work. He does know that at Micawber Books, his 26-year-old independent bookstore here that is to close for good in March, his own employees prefer to come in every morning and gossip about "Survivor" or "that fashion reality show" whose title he can't quite place."

Actually, books have rarely been a topic of conversation in offices or parties -- unless it's among a select group of people who just happen to be avid readers and who happen to have read the book under discussion or at least read reviews of it or perhaps an interview with the author or perhaps even just an earlier work by her. If you think about that, you realize how small or rare such a happenstance would be. If you're already hammering away at your keyboard to tell me how wrong I am, how you enjoy such casual bookchat everyday at work, you must realize how fortunate/educated/isolated you are. It's a chief reason people join bookclubs or attend literary series in the first place: They don't have enough ordinary literary discussion in their lives, so they have to organize some.

No, this isn't another diatribe about rampant illiteracy, the decline of books in our culture vs. the rise of the no-attention-span internet or the graphic zap of computer games. Books and bookchat have always been like this for a simple reason: It's extremely rare that any book achieves the kind of near-instantaneous cultural penetration that a movie or TV show or sports spectacular does -- only a new Harry Potter or Bill Clinton's memoir gets that kind of saturated exposure, and it requires that kind of everyone's-heard-about-it impact to spark casual conversation.

Instant cultural saturation occurs partly because of the economics and mass-media distrubution systems that favor TV, movies and the internet. It's hard to compete for people's attention against a billion-dollar conglomerate like Sony when it has gambled several hundred million on a new film, and all you've got it is a good memoir and a few bookstore readings lined up. Sony must achieve that sense of it's everywhere! it's everywhere! with all the TV ads, fastfood tie-ins and talkshow interviews in order for their investment to pay off. The entire onslaught is designed to make their film or DVD release an undeniable cultural presence, something people feel they have to know about because it's self-evidently important: There's an action figure with the show's name on it at every Wal-Mart and Taco Bell.

But this unfair advantage has existed for decades, long before Sony and the development of the blockbuster opening weekend, because of the nature of books and publishing. Books take time -- time to read, time to disperse, time to find their audience. Let's say 15 thousand people will buy and read a hardcover when it comes out. If it gets great press and word of mouth, maybe 20-50 thousand more will wait until it comes out in paperback -- next year. Or they'll wait until it's available at their library. Or until they can borrow a copy from a friend.

All of this makes for an extremely diffuse "opening." The same is true of live performing arts -- theater or dance -- or museum exhibitions. And this has been the case for at least as long as modern publishing and touring have existed. For books, limited access plus long-term aesthetic experience = slow public impact. My friend John Habich, fine arts editor at Newsday, first explained to me this now-rather obvious phenomenon. It's why he helped create Talking Volumes when he was at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Talking Volumes is a joint venture among the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and the Loft Literary Center. An author is chosen and comes to town for several days or a week. The newspaper plans a major profile, Minnesota Public Radio has an on-air chat, there are bookstore readings, library visits, etc -- all in that same window of time, giving the author and his book the kind of community exposure that only a new big-budget film or hit TV series generally gets.

Book publicists wish this kind of coordinated attention would happen any time an author comes to a major city, but it rarely does and never for this kind of extended period of time, a whole weekend or even a week. Newspapers, TV and radio stations are bombarded by every cookbook and self-help author around, who often have their own PR flaks cluttering up the voicemail, in addition to the book publicist's own efforts, so it's all much more sporadic and piecemeal, rarely this thoughtful, this multi-layered. It's difficult for many TV and radio people even to make the choice, that this author deserves attention amidst all the swarm. There will be another swarm the next day and the next, and who knows enough about books and authors and publishing, who has the judgment to make that decision -- this is worth two minutes' on-air time because it'll prompt people to talk about it for days around the water cooler at work?

January 4, 2007 11:12 AM | | Comments (10)



Yes. Well, I worked for this man in the late 90s. I love and respect Logan Fox because he encouraged me to go beyond what I could see directly in front of me. I finished my B.A. in Literature and did a second in Creative Writing. I finished my M.A. in English and Creative Writing (a hybrid) at Temple University--all the while telling stories of my times at Micawber. I am heartbroken (and I don't care that your readers find it corny) and, in fact, devistated at the announcement of Micawber's demise. I met the chilly and odd Joyce Carol Oates there. I schmoozed with the likes of Dick Ford and Seamus fucking Heaney. I drank awful wine with Russell Banks. All the while, Logan looked on and reminded me that I was destined for greater things--even if he didn't believe it. He'd seen smarter and more accomplished in his time--I can assure you. I can't even find the words to describe my feelings regarding this latest horrific news. Is that where it ends? Survivor? Big Brother? Fast fixes? Bandaids? Good Sweet Jesus. Funny, Logan used to laugh at my intensity and weird-ass mindless loyalty. As I make my way through my pathetic days of Adjunct Professoring, teaching all of you how to diagram sentences and write cohesive paragraphs and understand Shakespeare a tad more than you do, I feel like one of Hal's "Englishmen now abed" who hold their manhood's cheap while speaks a man of Logan's unimpeachable character and his impeccable taste in literature. I would take a bullet for Logan Fox. No joke. Laugh and jibe as you will.
You have no idea.
All Best,
Rob Schmitt

It's a chief reason people join bookclubs or attend literary series in the first place: They don't have enough ordinary literary discussion in their lives, so they have to organize some. I think you are right about why people join bookclubs. For non-readers, the idea of a planned 'water cooler' discussion is a strange one. Yet I know many people who are involved in book discussion groups, eager to discuss ideas brought about by the solitary activity of reading. Regarding Zinn's comment above: I would encourage him to visit MetaxuCafe and peruse any of the literary blogs linked there. Zinn will find an abundance of people who "talk" enthusiastically about books -- written by readers with lively discussions in the comments sections. Or check out an on-line group discussion, such as A Curious Singularity, focusing on discussion of a different short story each month, or slavesofgolconda which focuses on novels. In the interest of full discloser, I do participate irregularly in these discussion groups, but my point is not promote, but merely to suggest that there are on-line groups dedicated to literary discussion, not the promotion of someone's latest published work.

I've commuted on mass transit in Chicago for many years, with a two-year interruption a couple of years ago. Book reading has always been a steady observation of train-riders, indeed I've heard people discuss what their "current train book" is. People listening to music has always been a steady feature also (previously Walkmen now Ipods). The general losers of commuter market share in my long-term observation are magazines and newspapers.

The idea that Americans today have less leisure time than a generation or two ago is widely-held but completely wrong -- literally all data beyond anecdote points the other way. And actually indirect/anecdotal observation does also if you stop and think about how vastly larger our leisure-time-filling business sectors are today per capita.

Reading the trendy book "The Long Tail" is worthwhile because the pattern is actually not hype or theory but empirical fact, and spreading to every medium in which the technology allows it in quite-specific ways. (The theory predicts reality both backwards and forwards.) Arguably the historical moment in which a few broadcast mediums enforced true "water-cooler" universal cultural experiences was an atypical one that was artificially imposed by technology and ran contrary to what most people have always preferred.

There's no doubt that people don't read as much as they should anymore and that's certainly unfortunate but what struck me about the attitude of Logan Fox in this article--and it's an attitude that I've seen reflected many times by indy bookstore owners who have been forced to close their shops in recent years--is the sense that he's looking down his nose at the public.

Rather than lamenting the fact that people don't read, and that books don't hold the place in society that they should anymore, people in the book community (booksellers, publishers, etc.) should try to find ways to make books more interesting to people.

I'm not saying that it's an easy task but the book world really needs to stop crying in its beer and start trying to take some proactive action to revitalize the reading community.

On the other hand, when I worked at The Dallas Morning News, I used to take the DART train to work regularly. And I saw lots of people reading -- everyday. A pleasant and encouraging prospect. Naturally, the majority were reading Quick, the tabloid, mass-transit freebie the News developed and for which the News should pay a surcharge for massively contributing to the litter on DART buses and trains.

But each day there were always 2-3 people in my car who were reading SOMETHING book-like. I tell reading groups that they may recognize me in public because I'm the guy who's staring at them but has his head tilted sideways in order to read the title on their bookspine. I'm often disappointed in their choices, but several times a week I'd find someone with a classic, even if it was just a Narnia volume or what clearly must have been a school assignment, Frankenstein or Great Expectations.

Still, guess what? More people, on average, were reading something in print than were on cell phones, text messaging, playing GameBoys or thumbing their PDAs.

But not nearly as many as those listening to iPods.

Outside of my book world friends and my immediate family, I don't know hardly anyone who reads. The thing that always surprises me -- despite my cynicism, it still surprises me -- is that people aren't the least bit embarassed, or even reluctant to admit, that they haven't read a book since they graduated from college.

Excellent point about leisure time, but do you really think Logan Fox's nostalgia is false?

I'll accept that in an earlier era people talked about "Burns and Allen" more than Hemingway, but the difference is that Hemingway wasn't dropped by his publishing house in favor of a Gracie Allen as-told-to. Faulkner didn't need a cooking show on the Food Network to get a book contract.

Today, it's not just the bookstore employees who are saturated by television -- it's the books themselves: Nicole Richie's The Truth About Diamonds, the multi-volume memoirs of Janice Dickenson, novelizations of The O.C. episodes, etc., etc.

I really can relate to this post. I wish more places i.e. online sites and groups would discuss literature more. Online, it seems like all the groups are writers shoving their books in your face.

That's a very shrewd point I hadn't considered -- how increasing work/career pressures on the middle class have affected its reading habits. I wonder if anyone has studied this and whether any changes in publishing (either what sells or how it's distributed and marketed) are directly tied to it. Considering how slowly and haphazardly the book industry responds to many social changes, these effects may be very "underground" yet broad-based, so much so that we're not noticing them.

My wife Sara, who teaches in a public elementary school, experiences first-hand how hard working-class parents must struggle to find time to meet with teachers and be involved with their kids' schooling. And the 60-hour work week -- plus longer commute times -- has undoubtedly filtered upwards into the middle class, All of this made me infuriated at a typical Rod Dreher column this past year in the Dallas Morning News which chastised parents for not getting involved more with their children's education. Mr. Dreher's wife home-schools their kids (a fact unmentioned in the column, but he did make sure to emphasize that he personally knows public school teachers as friends and understands their travails). With no universal health care and no system of day care in this country, one wonders how a trucker, who can be gone for weeks at a time, or ordinary folks who must work two shifts, are going to obey Mr. Dreher's moral imperative.

I agree that Logan Fox, for the most part, is engaging in false nostalgia. In an earlier era, he would have been complaining that people were more likely to talk about the "Burns and Allen" radio show than the latest work by Hemingway.

There is one legitimate threat in today's literary conversation, however: the death of the 40-hour work week and the erosion of leisure time.

The working class has always had a daunting task finding the time and energy to read a good book. That loss of down time has now consumed the middle class, who make up the bulk of the reading public, as well.

I wonder: how much has outsourcing, downsizing and the decline of he middle class shaped the economics of the book industry and its growing "blockbuster" mentality?


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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on January 4, 2007 11:12 AM.

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