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Every Book Its Reader

October 14, 2013

My friend John with a long history in the rare-science-book business got an email from a friend of his, the chief of technical books at a university library.

This email revealed excitement about a newly opened bookless public library. John replied that it felt like a cup of coffee without the coffee. He’s yet to hear back.

I’m sure John knew he was popping someone’s balloon, but then the guy did wave it in his face. Their worlds used to overlap much more. University libraries were even clients for rare books, but soon enough they were merely the source of them.

John, among other such booksellers, got truckloads of old and rare books and other printed things from shrinking libraries. Often, it seemed to me, science libraries were spilling their lifeblood, but the demand they felt was for newly published work.

Which nowadays is digital. University libraries with shrinking budgets struggle to keep up with what professors and students need right now. From outside, it looks like a whirlpool—suction into a sea of proliferating publications of increasing dubiousness.

The long-known problem of dilution in scientific and academic publication has reached truly epidemic proportions. Just as in the ebook world, the tools exist for everyone to be “published.”

The growth in publication far outstrips the supply of readers. We are quickly reaching a version of Andy Warhol’s fifteen-minutes of fame: Every author will get fifteen minutes of total reader time. That will be the average, by the way, and since most readers will spend hours with bestsellers, most writers will get zero.

The reluctant subject of a biography I’m currently reading felt, in 1974, that “Far too many bad books were written as a general thing. What the world did not need was one more bad book.” Forty years ago.

In a different age (1931), S.R. Ranganathan proposed some laws of library science, the first three of which were: books are for use, every person his or her book, every book its reader.

It’s hard to feel so sanguine today. “Books are for use” has a different flavor today: We’re heading steadily away from ownership of “books” toward pay-per-view.

“Every person his or her book” has a brighter side, perhaps, with the digital tools of distribution and discovery (complicated only by the proliferation of available material, including robotic commercial Spam). A darker side is the growing tendency to tunnel one’s vision using tools that will “discover” only the kinds of stuff one has wanted before.

This is one source of our current political polarization. It is possible to read only what verifies our own myopic vision, no longer stumbling on the unwanted but corrective point of view.

“Every book its reader” would be a lucky circumstance for many books. If you write and publish a book of poetry and manage to move even one reader, you might feel rewarded (having long ago dropped the idea of financial reward).

But what of your memoir of life in sales in a small Eastern suburb? Or your life in real estate in a modest Midwestern city? Or—who knows? Each of our lives is special, but are we each equipped to tell a story about it?

Even writers of genius required editors, proofreaders, and typesetters to produce a good book. How unsurprising to find that millions of us cannot do it alone. And yet it is a growth industry.

You can be a voice crying in the wilderness. Or was that: A voice crying, “In the wilderness …”? Does it matter?

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