The Kingdom of Publishing

My biweekly trips through the New York Review of Books are often filled with pleasure, amusement, fascination, and appreciation. And then there are those rare occasions when I’m completely befuddled.

I think I understand most of Jason Epstein’s tribute to Roger Straus (of publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But what to make of this thought experiment?

The United States, and indeed the world, without a viable book industry and leaders like Roger Straus to energize it is awful to contemplate.

Epstein distinguishes this from today’s world:

Roger was a brilliant businessman dealing with skill and passion in a product of marginal financial value but of limitless value in itself. In the digital future, who will be his successors?

I think I get it: Epstein is (sort of) coming out in favor of the king theory of books and literature. The Internet, and the digital future, have “the masses” as a successor. But that’s not good enough for Epstein! He favors a few wise and benevolent kings to be in charge of publishing.

Okay, I guess. The rest of the review makes Straus sound like a petty tyrant more concerned with chasing secretaries and drinking himself silly at lunch – in other words, like a parody of the gatekeeper-kings who turned New York publishing into a kind of select club for them and their friends. I guess that’s “energizing” in a certain way.

But then Epstein goes on with his parade of horribles:

Within a bookless generation, or two, or three, human beings would have lost the better part of the knowledge acquired by their species over millennia, from making an omelette to parsing the universe and removing an appendix.

Granted! Books preserve knowledge. Except now… the Internet preserves knowledge too! And furthermore – it does a much better job at that! When’s the last time you relied on a book to get a recipe for making an omelette? How many maps do you keep in your glove compartment these days?

But furthermore – Straus was not doing this job at all! We hear elsewhere in the review that he eschewed the “textbooks” and other moneymakers that Wall Street preferred, instead focusing on award-winning fiction, usually relying on Susan Sontag’s advice (and thereby overlooking Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in favor of Sontag’s choice, an author named Salvatore Satta, whose book she was certain would sell better because The Name of the Rose had passages in Latin). All due respect to the brilliant and idiosyncratic Susan Sontag, but can you imagine a worse choice for picking books based on what’s likely to appeal to the masses?

And then we hear that Roger

would not have welcomed digitization and could not have imagined his function in a world in which all books, old and new in all languages, are stored and delivered as digital files at virtually no unit cost for storage and delivery, and reproduced on demand wherever connectivity exists either on screens or printed one copy at a time in bookstore, libraries, schools, airports, and so on, and where success or failure is for the most part determined instantly by the Web, the ultimate word-of-mouth medium but where second and third chances are possible since nothing in cyberspace need be destroyed.

Why exactly are we lamenting the loss of this figure? Why are we afraid of losing a world in which guys like him dominate the rest of us? Epstein may be nostalgic for his own (what sounds to me like a terrible) past working in King Roger’s shadow. That’s not a surprise: former prisoners often feel this way; it’s called Stockholm Syndrome. But for those of us peasants who never lived in cowering fear and secret admiration of the Skirt-Chasing Poobah ruling literature from his high perch on the Upper East Side, it sounds like a system that deserved to die. And shedding tears for the lost kings aren’t going to bring it back.

King Roger. Image Credit NY Review of Books

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