Unglued

Five years ago, I denounced deckle edges as an abomination. Before books melt away into ether once and for all, I feel compelled to express another strong opinion about the production of physical books: I hate glue bindings.

I have been gently counseled by book designers that my hatred may not be entirely justified. In fact, they say, there are glue bindings and there are glue bindings. “Hot melt” glues are indeed shoddy, I am told, but some “cold melt” glues are thought to be quite durable if they are applied via “double fan binding,” a process so named because it involves fanning the pages in first one direction, then the other. I hasten to say that all this may be true; I’m no expert. But it doesn’t matter. The trouble with glue bindings is that you never know until it’s too late. At the moment you buy a book bound with glue, it may indeed be more rugged than an identical book sewn together with thread. The question is the integrity of the glue ten years later. Thread lasts, if it’s kept dry and dark. In the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see folded sheets of linen from pharaonic days. Glue, however, often doesn’t last. It’s no help to hear that some glue does. Nowhere in or on a book is there a list of the ingredients of its binding’s glue, and even if there were such a list, only astute chemists would be able to predict longevity from that information.

Let me break your heart with some examples. Here is a Northwestern-Newberry paperback of Herman Melville’s Pierre, purchased by your blogger in the mid 1990s, much re-read, and much annotated.

Melville, Pierre (broken spine)

A university press edition! People, they did this to scholars. Not all university presses are so heartless, though. To vindicate them, I include a photo of a University of California Press paperback of Moby-Dick, purchased by your blogger in the late 1980s, also much re-read—though not annotated, because the Barry Moser illustrations made it seem sacrosanct.

Melville, Moby-Dick (sewn binding)

I’ve opened the Moby-Dick to the center of a “gathering,” that is, to the center of a set of pages that were folded together, so if you look closely (after clicking on the picture to expand it), you can see a Morse code of thread running vertically along the fold. (Not all sewing is equal, by the way; the best kind is “sewing through the fold,” also known as “Smyth sewing,” after the brand name of one of the sewing machines capable of doing it.) Though the California paperback is at least five years older, it’s in good shape, and the Northwestern-Newberry is a shambles. For comparison, here’s the latter stacked on the former.

Glued 15-year-old Pierre vs. sewn 20-year-old Moby-Dick

You’re probably thinking, Well, I’m not going to trouble my little head with any of this. I buy hardcovers, after all. Surely they’re sewn not glued. Oh ho, and there you would be wrong. The poet Elizabeth Bishop has been so thoroughly and repeatedly canonized that if I am asked to read one more review solemnly scolding her editors for posthumously printing the fragments found in her desk, I will run screaming into the night. But is the latest of the scolded monumental editions, by her longtime publisher FSG, bound with thread? It is not. (As it happens, though, the mid-1980s FSG hardcovers of Bishop’s collected poetry and prose were glue-bound, too, and seem to be holding up, so maybe FSG uses nice glue, at least with Bishop.)

Glue-bound Philip Roth vs. Smyth-sewn Henry Roth

How, those of you whom I have succeeded in making anxious may want to know, can a glued binding be distinguished from a sewn one? On the left, in the photo above, is a glued Philip Roth (Zuckerman Bound, FSG, 1985), and on the right a sewn Henry Roth (Call It Sleep, Pageant, 1960). The little black-and-white skunk-tail-esque ribbon on the Philip Roth is spurious; it’s meant to hearken back to the days when an actual piece of fabric went all the way down the spine interior, and the gatherings were sewn into it, and its presence needn’t imply the existence or absence of any such thing now. What’s indicative is the way the pages meet the spine. In the glued Philip Roth on the left, the pages all run straight into the binding and stop dead. In the sewn Henry Roth on the right, the pages are folded together in gatherings, and they meet the spine in distinct bunches, which look a little like the illustrations of stomach villi from my high school biology textbook.

Spines of glued Pierre and sewn Moby-Dick

For further reference, here are the tragic Melville paperbacks again, glue on top, sewing beneath.

Wieland, repaired with needle and thread So nothing ever goes wrong with a sewn binding? Well, no, sometimes things do go wrong, but when they do, you can fix them yourself. To my dismay, I once discovered that the thread hadn’t passed through a signature or two of pages in my Kent State University Press hardcover of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. I therefore sewed the pages to their neighbors.

More alarmingly, I was three-quarters of the way through marking up a Library of America edition of Howells when I found that a number of pages had been omitted altogether. I found them in a database, printed them out, and sewed them in, too—not as elegantly as I did with Brown, I’m afraid.
Howells, repaired with needle and thread

If pressed, I suppose I can bring myself to admit that these book repairs could have been done with glue, and that all I’m saying is that I’m more comfortable with needle and thread. In the interest of objectivity, in fact, I will will conclude with one more photo, of a 1922 translation of J. K. Huysmans’s Against the Grain whose previous owner “completed” it by pasting in slips of onionskin typing paper containing the passages omitted from the English translation. The glue he used has for the most part held up. (The book itself of course has a sewn binding.)

Huysmans, completed with glue

Glut and deflation

"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."

I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.

Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"

As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.

The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.

A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online,  constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.

Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.

To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)

Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Flotsam

As I was coasting down the Manhattan Bridge’s final slope into Chinatown this afternoon, I realized that the orange-line train to the left of my bike, descending the same slope, was tracking my speed exactly, and when I turned I saw the conductor grinning at me. He must have been waiting to see if I would notice. He waved, and I waved back with a wave that nearly knocked off my own bike cap, so when I recovered I waved again for good measure.

I’m trying to shift my attention, this week, from one project to another, and all I seem to be able to think of are disconnected anecdotes, some of which I have carried around for more than a year now. For instance, there’s the story of the local church book fair. Attending it a few years ago, I found a first edition in its dust jacket of a not terribly well-known novel from the 1930s, which, I knew from having looked the title up on Bookfinder not long before, some booksellers priced in the thousands of dollars. I bought it for two dollars! I was tiresome about it at dinner parties for months afterward, though of course the profit to be made remained theoretical, because I couldn’t bear to sell it, and it sits on a shelf a few yards from this keyboard as I type. (Moreover, as long perusal of the blog Bookride has taught me, books that are priced on the internet at ridiculous prices do not necessarily sell at such prices.) At next year’s church book fair, I was prepared to score triumph after triumph, but when I arrived, a few hours into its progress on a Saturday morning, I found it filled with college-age people carrying handheld scanners. They picked up book after book—bleeping their bar codes, checking prices on the internet, and plopping all titles worth more than a predetermined threshold into large boxes between their feet. Automated capitalism had destroyed another niche of humanism, I moaned to friends, making myself tiresome in a new way at that year’s dinner parties. A friend pointed out that it could be argued that the injustice was actually in the previous state of affairs, when card counters like me knew that particular 1930s novels harbored literary value, and that the internet-connected scanners merely evened the playing field. (They didn’t even it completely, of course, because 1930s first editions don’t have bar codes. They don’t even have ISBNs.) But it was strange to watch a technology that gave to people who didn’t even necessarily have the habit of reading books the ability to judge their value. At the time I had also been bewailing the disappearance at the local YMCA of the Plexiglas book holders for the elliptical trainers. One by one the book holders had cracked and been discarded, in a process as gradual and inexorable as the upgrading of the elliptical training machines themselves, which were alwyas replaced, when they broke down, by machines with pre-installed television monitors. In the end, every elliptical trainer in the gym had a television monitor, and there were no more Plexiglas book holders. Instead there was a thin ridge beneath each television screen, where it was possible to prop up a glossy magazine, if the magazine wasn’t perfect-bound. Without the restraining lip of something like a Plexiglas book holder, however, perfect-bound magazines and books tend to get jiggled shut by the vibrations of an elliptical trainer in use. I tried for a while artfully folding a towel over the corners of my books’ pages, to keep them open by weighing them down. But the towel had to be refolded every time I turned the page, and there was in addition the social pressure of being the only person in the gym to insist on reading a book when so many nice television screens had been made conveniently available. Somehow the two phenomena—the deployment of the handheld ISBN scanners and the vanishing of the Plexiglas book holders— seemed of a piece, at least in my mind, as if technology and the pursuit of economic efficiency were rationalizing the reading of books out of existence. Not long afterward, I quit the gym, because I was riding my bike all the time anyway.

At this year’s church book fair, which took place not too many weeks ago, there were fewer dealers with handheld scanners, and none of them seemed to have hired college students to help them for the day, as they had the year before. The books themselves seemed to be of lower quality; maybe the church had invited a bookseller to buy the better titles for a higher price beforehand. This time around, the economic metaphor, if there was one, seemed to be that in a recession people were pleased to have an opportunity to buy cheap things in large quantities—to fill a cloth shopping bag with books and pay no more than twenty dollars. I got half a dozen Classiques Garnier paperbacks from the 1950s, in yellow covers with sewn bindings and “vellum” paper—Stendhal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, perhaps someone’s college curriculum.

Into the horizon

Edwin B. Coddington bookplate

I found this bookplate, unglued but still tucked into the front endpapers, in a history that I spent today reading. The book, which I bought used last week, was published in the 1930s; the Internet tells me that Edwin B. Coddington, its sometime owner, was the longtime chair of Lafayette College’s history department and wrote the definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1968, some time after his death. I like the way the bookplate evokes the idea of American history. I’ve been using it as a bookmark, and I must have looked at it half a dozen times before I had a Sesame Street moment and realized that the Indian and the airplane don’t belong in the same picture.

Clash of the titans

Sometime on Friday night, the New York Times reports, Amazon deactivated the Buy Now buttons on its website for all books published by the Macmillan group, including such imprints as Farrar Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, and St. Martin’s Press. As of this writing, you cannot buy a new copy of the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell from Amazon, though it’s still available from Barnes & Noble, Powells, and other indie booksellers. The same is true of thousands of other titles.

This is a bit of a stunner. Macmillan and Amazon have been arguing, it transpires, over the pricing of e-books, but Amazon yanked Macmillan’s ink-and-paper as well as its electronic books—bypassing conventional weapons in favor of first-use nuclear.

As a writer with friends who work at Macmillan imprints, my sympathies are with the publisher. To judge by the comments being left at the New York Times article on the conflict, however, quite a few people are siding with Amazon, in many cases because they believe it’s greedy of publishers to demand higher prices for e-books. Greed, no doubt, exists on both sides, living as we do under capitalism, but greed alone doesn’t explain the dispute. Yes, Amazon wants to sell e-books for $9.99 or less, and Macmillan wants Amazon to sell them for $15 or less. But as Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent explains, in a statement released today as an advertisement to the book-industry newsletter Publisher’s Lunch, Amazon and Macmillan aren’t at the moment fighting to see who can make more money on a book sale. They’re fighting to see who can lose more money. This is a very peculiar battle.

And it may only be the beginning. My sense, as a somewhat interested observer, is that the year 2010 is going to see radical change in the way books are sold. The catalyst, I suspect, is this month’s announcement of half a dozen new handheld electronic reading devices. Apple’s Ipad tablet is the most famous, but the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of January saw the announcement of the Skiff Reader, Plastic Logic’s Que Pro Reader, Entourage’s Edge, and Spring Design’s Alex. Not all of these are likely to make it to market, but those that do will be competing there with Sony’s Reader, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Google seems to be planning to sell e-books soon. In other words, a large number of capitalists have been betting, lately, that increasing numbers of people want to read e-books.

Let’s leave to one side, for the duration of this blog post, the question of whether it is wise for our society to spend colossal sums of money replacing an existing technology that is durable, versatile, and aesthetically pleasing. (I will let slip this much: No, I do not care how many trees die. They should be so lucky as to be reincarnated as, say, the poems of Surrey. Ents, do you worst!) Assume, for the sake of argument, that a preponderance of these capitalists will prove lucky in their bets, and that a lot of people are going to buy these devices. That suggests, as I wrote in passing in a recent review of Adrian Johns’s new history of intellectual piracy, that a lot of people will soon be roving the internet in search of free or cheap electronically available texts.

Until recently, books have not suffered from internet-assisted piracy the way that music or film has. That’s mostly because it’s easy to make a digital copy of a CD; you slip it into a slot on the side of your computer and click Import. Making a digital copy of a physical book, on the other hand, is cumbersome, as a book pirate recently confessed to the blog The Millions. At the very least you have to turn all the pages. To do it elegantly, you even have to volunteer your services as a proofreader, which is not very many people’s idea of fun, and I say that as someone who has done his share.

But if publishers themselves are selling digital versions of their books, and all that’s needed to liberate them is a little hacking, the calculus changes. Hacking is fun in a way that proofreading is not. Let us pause here and observe a moment of silence for the death of the idea that book pirates, more literary and therefore more moral than their peers, will somehow prove honorable, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. To the contrary, the pirate interviewed by the Millions said that he deliberately avoided stealing the works of the most successful authors, because they can afford lawyers. Instead he limits his purloining to the work of less commercial writers, such as John Barth, whom he calls “someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine.” Such nobility! “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” If electronic reading devices catch on, the threat of piracy to book publishers—and to authors, at all income levels—is very real.

Of course, large swaths of the publishing industry have not waited for pirates in order to be undone. Since the earliest days of the world wide web, newspapers and magazines have pillaged themselves, giving their articles away for free in pursuit of larger audience share. This is now widely understood to have been a mistake. Newspapers like the Times have many more readers online than they ever had in print, but even with these greater numbers, online ads bring in tiny sums compared to print ads. And online readers pay nothing. In the journalistic world that I happen to inhabit, much of the excitement about Apple’s new device has been driven by a hope that it will offer a chance to press the reset button. People stole MP3s, but they buy ring tones. They downloaded software for free, but they buy apps. Perhaps, publishers hope, people will prove willing to buy newspaper subscriptions on their Apple tablets, even though they’ve never been willing to pay to read them in their desktop browsers. (Long Island’s Newsday recently revealed that three months after putting its website behind a pay wall, only thirty-five people have purchased subscriptions.) Thus a week before Apple announced its tablet, the Times announced that by next year, it will be charging its online readers. Will the new business model work? Will newspapers be saved? Who knows, but there isn’t much to lose by trying. In the weeks before Apple’s announcement, I found myself muttering, in an echo of a recent, very bad movie trailer, “Unleash the Kraken.” We might as well find out what the Kraken will do. At the very least, if it finishes the print media off, we will be spared having to listen to further hectoring sermons from internet triumphalists.

Which reminds me that I’ve strayed from my topic: Amazon. Book publishers, unlike newspaper publishers, still have a lot to lose. About nine months ago, I received an email alert from a friend whose excellent book of nonfiction had just been published and who had discovered, to his dismay, that it was accruing one-star reviews on Amazon, not because readers disliked his book but because they objected that its Kindle price was only a few dollars less than its hardcover price. (The anti-Kindle-price reviews appeared on the webpage of both the Kindle and the hardcover version and figured into his book’s combined star rating.) He was caught in the crossfire of an early skirmish of the war that went nuclear this weekend. Eventually the Kindle price of his book was lowered, though I don’t know who blinked. I remember thinking at the time that the one-star ratings were a bad sign, because they suggested that Amazon had in a way already won the dispute over e-book pricing. Consumers already felt that e-books ought to be no more than ten dollars, and felt it with so much indignation and righteousness that they were willing to punish the very author they wanted to read, if they thought he was charging such sums. (My friend, of course, had no control over the pricing of any of the versions of his book.)

Consumers had come to feel that way largely because Amazon had trained them to, by keeping the prices of nearly all its e-books below ten dollars. Though few consumers understood it then, and probably few still understand it today, Amazon did so by sacrificing heaps and heaps of cash. Most publishers have until now sold their e-books to Amazon for the same wholesale price that they sell their hardcovers—roughly half the hardcover’s list price. It is up to a retailer like Amazon whether to sell the book to consumers at its list price, as printed on the inside front flap, or at a discount. With e-books, Amazon has usually offered a discount so low that it actually loses money. That is, Amazon buys for $12 an e-book whose hardcover list price is $24.95, and then Amazon sells the e-book to its customers for $9.95.

Why would Amazon want to do such a thing? When Amazon first introduced its Kindle reading device, the reception was tepid. But Amazon improved the device in later models, and thanks to its aggressive low pricing on e-books, it now reports that the Kindle and e-books are selling briskly. In other words, with the money that it has lost by discounting e-books, Amazon has bought market share for its e-book reader and for itself as an e-book retailer. To put it still another way, Amazon sped up the American public’s adoption of e-books by unilaterally lowering the American public’s idea of what the natural price of an e-book should be. The outrage of the Amazon customers who punished my friend with one-star reviews, and the outrage of commenters siding with Amazon on the New York Times blog post this weekend about the Macmillan-vs.-Amazon dispute, suggest that it may be too late for publishers like Macmillan to alter that idea.

Newspapers have no one to blame but themselves for having taught the public that they have a right to read newspapers online for free. Publishers, on the other hand, have woken up to the unpleasant discovery that the value of their work is being cheapened in the public mind by a third party: Amazon.

Some consumers have objected that e-books must be cheaper to make than ink-on-paper books. A simple cost breakdown by Money magazine last year, however, suggested that only about 10 percent of a book’s list price goes to printing. But ink-on-paper books have to be shipped, stored, and (when they go unsold) returned, and e-books would be spared these costs, too, as this analysis suggests. Also, according to TBI Research, because e-books are likely to end up with a lower list price after the dust clears, author royalties, calculated as a percentage of the list price, are likely to be lower, too—additional savings! Yay! When all these savings are added up, do you succeed in dropping a list price of $28 to one of $9.95? That’s a big drop. Profit margins at book publishers now are rumored to be no more than 10 percent, where they exist at all. It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.

To return to the dispute of the moment: Macmillan has probably been selling its e-books to Amazon at the wholesale price of about $12, and Amazon has been selling them retail for about $10. Macmillan says that it would like to sell its e-books at the wholesale price of about $10.45, and have Amazon sell them for the retail price of $14.95. In other words, Macmillan was offering to earn $2 less per e-book. Amazon, however, insisted that it would prefer to take a $2 loss on each e-book, instead, and became so indignant over the matter that it has now ceased selling any Macmillan titles, print or electronic. Macmillan’s proposal is known as the “agency model” for e-book pricing, and the company probably only dared attempt it because Apple has promised that it will sell e-books for its new tablet on exactly those terms. (Amazon has said that they’re willing to accept the agency model, starting in June, but only if an e-book’s list price does not exceed $9.99.)

As I said at the beginning, my sympathies in this dispute are with Macmillan. Why shouldn’t a book publisher be able to exercise some control over their product’s price? Apple, to choose a wild example, rigidly controls the prices at which retailers may sell its products, and as Paul Collins noted in 2007, the legal barriers to publishers’ exercise of such control no longer exist. Here, alas, is where the pirates come in again. Pirates don’t bother when legal copies are available cheaply and easily. What’s perhaps most breathtaking about the Amazon-Macmillan dispute is how little, finally, is at stake: should the highest price of an e-book be $9.95 or $14.95? No one dreams any more that it’s going to be $28. What’s being fought over is control, and the reason control is being fought over so viciously is that the only way such massive cost savings are going to be achieved is by consolidation—by collapsing a few of the intermediary steps somewhere between the creation of a book and the reading of it. Will you some day download your e-books directly from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux’s website? Will Amazon some day be the publisher of Jonathan Franzen’s novels? Some future between these two outcomes is more likely to happen, but precisely where the division will fall remains to be seen. Authors, in the meantime, had better ask their agents to negotiate their e-book royalties very carefully, seeing as how, while the titans rage, the financial analysts have already factored into their bottom lines the expectation that someone else will be eating our slice of the pie.

n+1 reviews my “Wreck”

Marco Roth has (very generously) reviewed my blog-book The Wreck of the Henry Clay in n+1‘s book review, n1br.

To buy the Wreck itself, click here. To read a biased summary of what the internets have said about it, click here.

The People who go to California to die

In Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), the character at the focus of the novel, if not quite its hero, is Tod Hackett, an artist who has come to Los Angeles to design sets and costumes for the movies. Hackett is fascinated by a character type he finds there—"the kind of person who comes to California to die"—who seems to be the clay out of which an American fascist could be modeled. Here's his first description of the species:

Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.

When, in preparation for writing my New Yorker article "It Happened One Decade," I began reading around in the literature of the nineteen thirties, I had the impression that the idea of going to California to die was metaphoric. I was surprised to discover in Edmund Wilson's American Jitters (1932) that it wasn't. Wilson wrote that at the time, San Diego led the United States in suicides, perhaps because "a great many sick people come to live in San Diego." If one allows for the poetic license of substituting Los Angeles for San Diego, it seems probable that West was inspired by Wilson's description:

The climate of Southern California, so widely advertised by Chambers of Commerce and Southern California Clubs, but probably rather unhealthy with its tepid enervating days and its nights that get suddenly chill, brings invalids to San Diego by the thousand. If they have money to move about and have failed to improve in the other health centers, the doctors, as a last resort, send them to San Diego, and it is not uncommon for patients to die just after being unloaded from the train. In the case of "ideational" diseases like asthma—diseases which are partly psychological—the sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind. And when they have moved to San Diego, they find they are finally cornered, there is nowhere farther to go. According to the psychoanalysts, the idea of the setting sun suggests the idea of death. At any rate, of the five-hundred-odd suicides during the period of fifteen years mentioned above [i.e., between 1911 and 1927], 70 per cent were put down to "despondency and depression over chronic ill health."

I'm quoting here from the revised 1957 version of Wilson's essay "The Jumping-Off Place," because that's the version I happen to have access to at the moment, but the quotes of Wilson in my article come from the original American Jitters, which Wilson published in 1932, when his youthful vitriol was not yet tempered and his faith in Marxism still intact.

My Review of Morris Dickstein’s “Dancing in the Dark”

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Holiday (1938) "It Happened One Decade," my review-essay focusing on Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, is published in the 21 September 2009 issue of The New Yorker. The book under review is a genial and comprehensive guide to the literature, film, and music of the nineteen thirties. Though I often post an online bibliography of my New Yorker articles, there's not much call for one in this case, since almost all the books that I refer to in my review are cited by author, title, or both. Instead, in the next couple of posts, I'll try to write about oddments that I couldn't find a place for.

Venice in April

Turgenev, Diary of a Superfluous Man A few weeks ago, after a visit to friends in Garrison, New York, I spotted a sign for a bookstore and made Peter get off the highway. We ended up in a shop called Antipodean Books, where I stayed so long that our plans for that evening were ruined, but where the proprietor, in an act of generosity, offered me thirteen out of the seventeen volumes (what dealers poetically call a "broken set") of the Heinemann edition of Turgenev's complete works (Constance Garnett's translation) for just twenty-five dollars. They are still in their original dust jackets, a fetching, hazardous-materials shade of orange! Since I'd already read a few of Turgenev's better-known titles in other translations, the broken set suited me perfectly. Also, aesthetically speaking, I am weak-willed about duodecimo hardcovers, and each of these is just 4.5 by 6 inches—genuinely pocket-sized. And did I mention the highway-worker's-raincoat orange?

This is by way of bloggy-autobiographical prelude to my point, which is just to present a couple of quotes that I like. The two novels I've read in the set so far are about revolutionaries, but for some reason the passages that have most pleased me in them were about spring.

In Virgin Soil, when the hero Nezhdanov wanders in the garden of his employer one May afternoon, Turgenev writes:

Nezhdanov sat with his back to a thick hedge of young birches, in the dense, soft shade. He thought of nothing; he gave himself up utterly to that peculiar sensation of the spring in which, for young and old alike, there is always an element of pain . . . the restless pain of expectation in the young . . . the settled pain of regret in the old. . . .

I don't have anything to say about the quote, other than that I like the precision and the poignancy of it. (The ellipses are Turgenev's, by the way, not mine.)

The other passage that particularly struck me comes toward the end of On the Eve, a novella about a Bulgarian revolutionary and the Russian woman who falls in love with him, when the hero and heroine find themselves staying in Venice much longer than they intended to and somewhat against their wishes. The Venice chapters come as something as a surprise, a surge of sentiment in a book that has seemed up to that point to be concerned mostly with conflict, and if the book offered no more, they would make it worth the price of admission. The passage seems uncannily to prefigure Thomas Mann, but the bittersweetness is Turgenev's own. Reading it, I discover that my few visits to Italian cities have all taken place in the wrong months, but that's the least of the regrets evoked.

No one who has not seen Venice in April knows all the unutterable fascinations of that magic town. The softness and mildness of spring harmonise with Venice, just as the glaring sun of summer suits the magnificence of Genoa, and as the gold and purple of autumn suits the grand antiquity of Rome. The beauty of Venice, like the spring, touches the soul and moves it to desire; it frets and tortures the inexperienced heart like the promise of a coming bliss, mysterious but not elusive. Everything in it is bright, and everything is wrapt in a drowsy, tangible mist, as it were, of the hush of love; everything in it is so silent and everything in it is kindly; everything in it is feminine, from its name upwards. It has well been given the name of 'the fair city.' Its masses of palaces and churches stand out light and wonderful like the graceful dream of a young god; there is something magical, something strange and bewitching in the greenish-grey light and silken shimmer of the silent water of the canals, in the noiseless gliding of the gondolas, in the absence of the coarse din of a town, the coarse rattling, and crashing, and uproar. 'Venice is dead, Venice is deserted,' her citizens will tell you, but perhaps this last charm—the charm of decay—was not vouchsafed her in the very heyday of the flower and majesty of her beauty. He who has not seen her, knows her not; neither Canaletto nor Guardi (to say nothing of later painters) has been able to convey the silvery tenderness of the atmosphere, the horizon so close, yet so elusive, the divine harmony of exquisite lines and melting colours. One who has outlived his life, who has been crushed by it, should not visit Venice; she will be cruel to him as the memory of unfulfilled dreams of early days; but sweet to one whose strength is at its full, who is conscious of happiness; let him bring his bliss under her enchanted skies; and however bright it may be, Venice will make it more golden with her unfading splendour.