Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Last Book



I wonder what the last book ever published will be. Will it be a self help book, The Seven Strategies That Will Make You, In Seven Minutes a Day, Seven Times Happier in Seven Weeks than You've Been in Seven Years? Maybe it will be a dark first novel by a young writer, a thinly veiled telling of his coming of age. Maybe it'll be something like The End of Publishing for Dummies. Hard to say, but it is coming. It is.

Do you remember when books were precious? People took care of them, purchased them carefully with the intention of keeping them forever. People used libraries, had their own libraries. Books were honored, even worshipped.

That day is now done. A recent cover of The New Yorker featured the life span of a book, from the writer creating it, to the agent, publisher, printing, book signings, then to a guy reading it, later putting it in a box in front of his house. In the last frame, a homeless person is burning the book in a trash can to stay warm.

Up until about 150 years ago, books were written by hand, then printed after being typeset, letter by letter. Then there was the typewriter, followed by stenographers. Then the electric typewriter, finally the computer. The next thing you know? There are a million really bad books out there taking up shelf space, wasting our time and money.

Eventually this phase of over-publishing will wear itself out. By then there will be precious few people who even pretend to read books. All the trees will be gone. The publishing companies will fold themselves up and that will be that. I don't see it happening immediately, but it is coming. At least I think so.

It's sobering, thinking about the end of on-paper publishing. I love books, no doubt about it. I even read them, something that's less common these days than it once was. I'll miss all the new books I'm accustomed to buying (and later putting out in a box on the sidewalk). On the other hand, it's painful to think about how many trees are cut down just so we can have multiple copies of The DaVinci Code floating around in landfills, etc. It's so wasteful.

Before books, for most of the history of our species, stories were passed orally from generation to generation, from clan to clan. There's a way in which the internet replicates the old ways. In other ways it's completely different of course.

What will end up being the last book published? A biography of Oprah or Paris Hilton? A history of American politics from 2000-2025? A memoir written by some privileged person about their extravagant life in Tuscany for a year? A cookbook? Who knows? Any theories?

21 comments:

Steve said...

Spring is indeed a miracle. I never tire of the birth and rebirth of everything...the greening up, the new leaves and flowers, not to mention the warmth. How could you NOT love it?

Reya Mellicker said...

ed. note:

After Steve posted his lovely comment, I completely rewrote the post. I decided another praise of springtime post was completely boring. Decided instead to post something more controversial.

Barbara said...

The last book sounds like the topic for a Margaret Atwood novel. I hope to goodness the last book is not published during my lifetime or the lifetime of my children or grandchildren. I'm more worried about the last letter written. That could be a reality any day now!

(P.S. Thanks for the ed. note. I thought I was losing my mind...)

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

(and Steve probably thought he was losing his, too!)
For a person who lives, breathes, dreams and thinks about books - and even attempts to write them - what you describe is confirmation that I belong to the handful of not-yet-extinct dodos. Had the last dodos known that their days were dwindling fast, would they have changed anything to their behavior? I doubt it very much. So even though "Paris Hilton's 12-step Program to Ending Your Life as a Shop-a-holic" will be on the shelves (and in the discount bins) before any of my own books cause the death of the last tree, how do I occupy myself? By living, breathing, dreaming and thinking about books.
Such is the Way of the Dodo.
And since it is the day after where I live, Happy Easter, Reya.

Gary said...

You bring up some interesting points here and one that we spent quite a bit of time discussing in class a few semesters back...what is literacy? There is "The Great Divide" which separates oral and written literacy, Should one be more valued than the other? I have my opinions there of course but debating both sides is always an enjoyable endeavor.

Reya, your thoughts fill me with such excitement. How can I ever get my fill of you?

Reya Mellicker said...

Gary please don't ever get your fill of me, a serious serious serious readaholic dodo!

Reya Mellicker said...

Also want to say: I don't think in any way that the custom of WRITING is finished. But the book publishing phenonomenon ... that's what's ending. It has too. So sad, but ...

Reya Mellicker said...

Has TO, not too.

See? I'm literate. I think??

IntangibleArts said...

'm in publishing myself, and I've always been suspicious of these end-of-print predictions. It'll diminish, sure, but die? naah.

Worse-case scenario: The die-hard paper-readers and paper-publishers will go back to the old Druid caves and regress into some feral state, forming tribes of extremely literate curmudgeons (my kinda people!)

I recently saw someone on a bus with one of those new e-book things (branded to Amazon.com, they seem like iPods, storing hundreds of "books", etc) -- and I studied this thing over the guy's shoulder for several minutes. I concluded that I COULD NOT get into it like I could a "real book" --

It's not just the warm tactile sensation of organic wood pulp, but I'm biased here: it's the design of the thing. Typography. Line-lengths, all that.

ehh. Where's that cave?

lettuce said...

i dunno reya...... agree totally about the da vinci landfill thing, that IS depressing. but i find it heartening how many people still love reading, love the physical fact of the books.... i certainly hope it doesn't happenn in my lifetime

lettuce said...

oh i also meant to say - great photo! (as always) I love the levels and depths, and the light onto the church, and the threeness...

Reya Mellicker said...

My blog kin are all literate. I salute you all. But ... next time you're standing in line at the supermarket, for instance, ask the people standing around you if they read books. We're in the minority.

Thanks Lettuce. The top pic is a reflection from the windows of the Atlas Theater on H Street NE. I'll show you when you're here if you like!

Lynne said...

I can't imagine NOT reading a book. Sometimes I have three going at once. I also can't imagine not sticking my nose into the pages of a brand new book and inhaling its "printy" scent! A world without printed books would be a sad world indeed.

The photo is fab! The church looks as if the rays of light are coming out of it and the swoops are its kinetic energy. wowl

hele said...

This gave me something to ponder going to sleep tonight.

I don't think there will ever be a last book unless there is a last person. Maybe a last published book but humans will scribble on anything with anything in order to pass their thoughts on to someone else. I think.

Barbara said...

I'm always amazed when I run into someone who says "I just don't read." To me that would be like saying "I'm already dead." I can't imagine a life without books. They are like an adult pacifier. Many of us would be crying our heads off if we couldn't pick up a book!

Reya Mellicker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reya Mellicker said...

I don't think the art of writing, telling stories, creating stories, will ever stop as long as humans are human. It's the publishing of all these books that has to end somewhere.

300 years ago there was no such thing as Getting to Yes or The Secret. Everyone thought twice before writing, publishing or buying a book.

Here, check out Amazon's list of bestsellers.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely

I mean, really. Do we need more of this? C'mon.

Hammer said...

I am the hidden force that shapes all y'all's decisions.

So there.

rothko said...

There was an interesting piece on NPR about how big publishers are starting on the "give it away" bandwagon. They're finding that, in many cases, it's increasing the sale of a book when they give it away online. Interesting, eh?

I do think publishing as we know it will change, probably much more "print-on-demand" type stuff. Also, I like to think blogs will become a legitimate literary medium. (And by 'legitimate' I mean in the eyes of academia.) But that could be because I'm biased. You think?

I do think there are similarities between how blogs are evolving and how "novels" evolved. Right now, blogs, like many early American books, have this sort of "diary" feel to them. But I think that'll change. I don't think they'll end up like novels per se, but I do think they will become something different than what they are now. Maybe a cross between a song and a short story. Little snippets of hyper-focused writing, these self-contained literary nuggets. Like prose poems or something.

Reya Mellicker said...

Hammer are you predictably irrational? Hmmmm....

The internet (well ... along with the reality that there are only so many trees in the world) is the reason publishing has to change. It has to.

When I look at lists like Amazon's bestsellers, I'm happy about it. But when i find some incredible little book that changes my way of thinking (A People's History of Science) I'm so sad.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

I thought you'd like to know my subscription to the new yorker went through in record time, unfortunately the first copy isn't the one featuring the life cycle of a book - which sounds great and will have to hunt down at the library.

I can not conceive of human life without books, in fact, I believe it is impossible - for humans will always thirst for books and knowledge.

I heard the piece rothko referenced about publishers helping sales by giving away books....more evidence that there's some book equivalent of if you build (publish) it, they will come.

praising spring can never be boring, however it may be a catalyst for some sort of relative deprivation phenomena on my part!!

xxx