If you’re a literature lover, you’ve probably grown weary of false prophets proclaiming The End of the Book. It’s easy to shake your head and smirk at the world’s December 21st doomsday preoccupations, but rumors of the publishing apocalypse have bombarded the literary world for a long time now, and such discussions still make us tense with worry.
The Four Horsemen of the Bibliopocalypse came galloping down years ago. They rode their brimstone-snorting steeds with a blazing fury, each one more frightening then the last. First there was Radio, and then came Film, TV, and finally—that fearful, ever-morphing chimera, Internet.
Suddenly the nightmarish paranoia of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451 became depressingly naive: who would burn books if no one even bothered to read them?
As an undergraduate searching for a job in publishing, believe me—I’m nervous. In the months before Y2K, wild-eyed neurotics (including my fairly rational parents) stockpiled jugs of water, lined their pantry shelves with SPAM, and stacked sardine tins into squat, shiny pyramids. Our family probably had enough dried bean varieties to create a full-scale modge-podge of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Who can blame them? Don’t we book lovers suffer similar hysterics when we hear prophecies of the literary end-times?
If you’re panicky, like me, you just might be another juvenile, aspiring writer, terrified that you’ve missed out on the literary lifestyle you’ve idealized for the past two decades, ever since you mouthed your first intelligible word, “book.” You’re on the edge of tossing out your literary delusions and your late-night, idealism-soaked desires to write The Great American Novel. This very afternoon you’ll get serious! You’ll start submitting your sparse resumes and bland cover letters to the kind of respectable jobs your parents always wanted you to have. The kind of job that promises a stable family life and dental insurance. Imagine it, writer. You might be a lawyer. Or a banker. Or a consultant. You might be about to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life—but don’t do it. Not yet.
Then again, maybe you’re not a writer at all. Maybe you’re a reader. You won’t panic, but you’ll begin to feel nostalgia creeping over your skin, like lichen over an old gravestone. In a moment of introspection, you’ll consider how it must have felt to watch the first automobiles roll down a city street, how soon they would replace the carriages. Out of everyone, you would have been the one to miss the horses. You would have been the one to take giddy pleasure in stroking their velvet noses, in the hot flush of their breath against your palm. One day you’ll wander into a used bookstore, if that still exists where you live, and you’ll drift through the dusty quiet. The place has the hospice-ward hush of a nursing home. You’ll say hello to the books, touch your fingertips to the papery skin of their pages, and whisper kind, soft things into their yellowed spines. The books are frail strangers, but you think you might be able to save one, take one home and treat it gently. After all, it doesn’t have long for this world.
Hey, you. Stop. I meant it. Take a moment. Back up. Breathe.
Feel better? I bet you don’t. But you should. I’ll tell you why.
Last week, Esquire columnist Stephen Marche claimed that we have come to “The Golden Age for Writers.” There are more options for writers now than ever before: tiny presses publish books that win major national awards, and self-publishing has become a viable and slightly-more-respectable option for aspiring authors. Marche even has the audacity to show us statistics that might make us writers (all terrible defeatists when it comes to our own monetary success) optimistic. People are actually reading these days, and they’re reading good books: “The percentage of Americans who told the National Endowment for the Arts that they read literature rose in 2008 (their most recent survey) by 3.5 percentage points to more than half the population — the first gain in twenty-six years.”
That’s a comfort for writers and booksellers, but readers have reason to clink champagne flutes, too. According to Marche, competition has sparked innovation:
“Go back and look at those old magazines and you will discover something shocking: They’re mostly boring; they’re also often just plain sloppy. With a few notable exceptions, almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now. Good old-fashioned competition — from the Internet and the expanding marketplace — has forced them to improve. They’re better written. Vastly better designed. More entertaining. More accurate. Richer.”
See? I told you there was hope. We have better readers for our writers and better writers for our readers.
And the Four Horsemen of the Bibliopocalypse? I don’t think we have much to fear from them. After all, we’re the type that like horses, right? Perhaps we can warm to these snorting furies. Besides, this Internet beast, strange and wily creature that it is, offers the promise of a beginning more than the threat of an end. I say we saddle up and see where we can go. It might be nice to have a change of scenery.