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The Death Of Books

Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times,  thinks too many people are writing books and we need to cut back.  I’ve long thought the same thing; if fewer books were published and the books that were published were better, the world would be a more productive and more learned place.  Flannery O’Connor agreed; when asked whether she thought college writing programs discouraged promising young people from becoming writers, she answered, “Not enough.”

Bill suggests a voluntary moratorium.  I think we’d have better luck with a government program.  There used to be a Soil Bank; farmers would agree not to grow any crops for a year and the government would send them a check.  Maybe we need a Strategic Idea Reserve and authors could get checks for not writing books.

In any case, Ecclesiastes noted more than two thousand years ago that “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (12:12 KJV).  In those days books had to be copied by hand and publishers paid no advances.

The urge to write books is hard to kill.  The urge to read is less hardy.

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  • Jim.

    Social Science and Humanities professors should be relieved of the obligation to publish, to maintain their professorships.

    Teaching skill, and good taste in books (the Great Books, in particular) should be the selection criteria for hiring and advancement.

  • Luke Lea

    While you are at it we might end Ph. D programs in the humanities along with the “publish or perish” (or nowadays “publish and perish” tenure requirement. The notion that every college teacher must do original research — indeed, the very notion of a research university itself outside the sciences — strikes me as an anachronism. Those few with the gift for original research will do it anyway. Meanwhile the transmission of the knowledge we already have — in the field of history to choose an important — seems a far more pressing need in our society than the production of monographs which nobody reads.

  • Anthony

    More book writing remains corollary of advances in communication and publishing via technology last fifteen years or more; such avails aspiring writers immediate book writing opportunities. Nevertheless, quote from article also provides ample background motivation for glut of writers: “it is still a credential, a trophy, a pathway to Charlie Rose and Morning Joe, to conferences and panels that Build Your Brand, to speaking fees and writing assignments.” Quantity/Quality issue yet to be balanced and certainly not to be left to market forces.

  • Luke Lea

    Did I say the idea of a research university strikes me as an anachronism? I should have said antiquated.

  • Andy S

    Does that mean I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the next Walter Russell Mead book?

  • Gern Blanderson

    Walter, I assume you are being sarcastic in suggesting there should be fewer books? It is a free market and I welcome more books, more blogs, more music, more movies, etc… It is the freedom of press at its finest.

  • Toni

    I suggest an immediate ban on turgid, nihilistic literary fiction. Also on irony. Also books that portray middle class families — “the bourgeoisie” — as soulless, materialistic and uniformly dysfunctional.

    (Are “turgid” and “nihilistic” redundant when applied to literary fiction?)

    I suggest large subsidies to authors with a sense of humor, humility and optimism. E.g., Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and Kathryn Stockett (The Help).

    Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro and other prolix historians, who always use several examples where one or two would do, must be issued strict word limits. (Note to Doris: Many of us don’t care what was for sale in Springfield on the day Lincoln was elected.)

    Or…we can keep muddling through and thank God for the rich variety of books with which we’re blessed.

    Though I do wish Amazon would add an optional feature, so that when I attempt to add yet another book to the hundreds I own and haven’t yet read, my computer screen would turn black with a big red NO! in the center. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything but temptation.

  • Luke Lea

    I second Tony on the Amazon button. Or at least one click cancellation.

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