The fallen status of books makes it hard times for hardcovers.

Media criticism.
Sept. 9 2010 5:58 PM

The Fallen Status of Books

Hard times for hardcovers.

Old books. Click image to expand.
Have books lost their appeal?

No greater pride befalls a scholar, a thinker, a journalist, a business executive, or other writer than to have a party thrown in honor of the publication of his book. A book party is like a wedding, a birthday party, a baptism, a prom, a class reunion, and a bar mitzvah all rolled up into one. For authorial self-esteem, the only things that can possibly top a book party are a book reading that's videotaped and broadcast by C-SPAN or a Charlie Rose interview.

Although publishing a book still brings bliss to authors, the glow derived from books has dimmed for former bibliophiles like me. Once I loved books. I worshipped books. I built defensive perimeters around my desk and bed and stereo and hallways with huge stacks of them. When my friends published their books, I steeped in jealousy while congratulating them on their accomplishment. When acquaintances asked when I was going to write a book, I told them I had once pitched a book proposal about the rise of clandestinely manufactured illicit drugs based on this 1985 magazine piece but that publishers had wisely rejected it.

To sublimate the envy I had for my book-writing friends, I took to throwing book parties for them. I still throw the occasional book party, but my envy has subsided because my adoration of books has faded. It's not that books are any better or any worse than they once were. It's just that they've lost their primacy in my world.

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And not just my world. Not that long ago, a free-standing Sunday book-review section was essential to the status of a daily newspaper. But in the past decade, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle have all said to hell with books and shed their standalone sections. The surviving newspaper book section, the New York Times Book Review, has seen better days. Itcould hit 80 pages in the 1970s. Last Sunday it clocked in at only 28 pages. Today brings a report from the New York Observerthat Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal plans to start a free-standing book review in coming weeks. But that doesn't subtract from my thesis. Murdoch's decision to add a book section to the Journal isn't really about pleasing readers, it's about rumbling with the New York Times, which he's vowed to destroy by mirroring its coverage of politics, culture, sports, spot news, books, and New York City. The section isn't good news for books. It's bad news for Murdoch.

Journalists especially have lusted to write books because publishing one validated their careers by announcing to one and all—especially to their easy-to-impress bosses—that they were no dime-a-word hack. This contribution to arts and letters didn't start rotting the minute it rolled off the press.  This contribution was timeless!

And it sort of was. If a curious individual wanted to learn more about Subject A or Subject B, an encyclopedia, a library, or a book store were the best places to acquire that knowledge. But today, if I decide I want to know more about, say, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, do I really need to track down a copy of Neal Gabler's excellent Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity? Or can I sate my hunger with the Wikipedia entry, a quick Google search of his name, by using Amazon's "click to look inside!" feature, or searching Google Books to glean enough information? My guess is that in most cases, readers can. They don't need to buy the entire menu when they can shop a la carte.

If I'm right about the status of books being in decline, book publishers have yet to feel the real pain. In 2009, sales dropped only 1.8 percent. But there are other measures, most of them anecdotal. Just a decade ago, I hoarded all of my books, refusing to sell them or give them away, because I didn't want to gamble that I wouldn't need them on short notice again. Finding a used, out-of-print, or rare book before AbeBooks, Alibris, and Amazon arrived was an expensive pain. You either had to prowl used bookstores, find a library with the title, or pay a stiff book-finders' fee. Now, thanks to resellers, I gladly purge my library now and again to make space. If I ever need a copy of Drudge Manifestoagain, I'll be able to get it on the Web for a penny, plus shipping. A back of the envelope calculation reveals to me that the replacement price of the average volume in my personal library has dropped 20 percent to 40 percent in the Web era. So even if the status of books isn't falling, the value of them is.

By making books commodities, the modern market has stripped them of much of their romantic charm. I like the smell of a moldy book as much as the next bibliophile, but not as much as I once did. And while I've yet to purchase a Kindle or iPad, which make buying books in a store or online seem like hard work, I keep some titles on my netbook and iPod and can see myself making a fuller transition to e-books. And as I do, I'll become even less romantic about books—just as I became progressively less romantic about music as my collection has shifted from vinyl to CDs to mp3s. Holding an LP cover or even a CD jacket used to anchor the listener to  something corporeal. But not anymore. The same is happening to books. The ancient ceremony of reading by turning its pages being disrupted by the e-book's clicks and swipes. In the process it distances us from the old magic conjured by books. Books are being replaced by reading.

Newspapers experienced a similar reckoning in the past decade when they stopped assigning the old status upon their readers. Personal data point: When I edited the alternative weekly Washington City Paper from 1985 to 1995, one of the paper's owners loved to point out how everybody who picked it up usually carried it so that the nameplate was visible. They wanted others to see that they were a City Paper person! But those days have passed. Beyond serving as a marker to your boss that you're a serious person, your subscription to the Wall Street Journal doesn't say much about you these days. Well, it does say that you're old. Barnes & Noble and Borders have gotten the message that books are becoming passé, moving them out to make room for toys, stationery, and other merchandise. At Barnes & Noble, a kiosk pushing Nook e-book readers greets you as you enter the store.

There are still reasons to write books, of course. It's still an achievement to write one—even a bad one. Also, a book can still give an author control over what's said and how it's received in a way that rivals other mediums. If written expertly, a book can signal to the reader a seriousness and erudition that doesn't apply to every Web page or every newspaper. And sometimes an author's labors can generate returns beyond the minimum wage.

But those reasons apply equally to e-books and hardcovers. Which brings me to my ultimate observation about the fallen status of books: Can you imagine throwing a book party for a friend who wrote an e-book? As attendees bought the e-book, what would the author do to personalize and commemorate the event? Sign their Kindles?

******

The kindest rejection notice for my drug-book proposal was from the late Marjorie Williams, a stranger to me who was an editor at Simon & Schuster. Marjorie became my friend later when she took a job at the Washington Post. Her two books, The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate and Reputation: Portraits in Power, are still in print and are available for Kindle. Buy them so that her widower, my Slate colleague Timothy Noah, can send their two kids to expensive colleges. If you've got an idea for a book that I should write, send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Maybe I could squeeze a book or a sitcom out of my Twitter feed? (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word book in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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