We Are What We Read

Posted on: October 3rd, 2012 by Patton Dodd No Comments

Another fascinating insight from Jason Epstein, this time lifted from an essay he wrote for The Daily Beast a couple years ago. He may here be slightly overstating the potential consequences of financiers reading Charles Dickens’ Little Dorritt, but his vision of publishing’s past is a window into the importance of publishing’s future:

The marketplace for books when I entered the business shortly after World War II consisted of a thousand or so well stocked independent booksellers in major towns and cities supplemented by thousands of smaller shops that carried limited stocks of mostly current titles along with greeting cards, toys and so on. But it was the major independents with their sophisticated backlists—50,000 to 100,000 or more titles, displayed spine out—serving the interests of cosmopolitan readers, on which the industry relied. To linger in these stores was an education in itself and all the schooling a publisher needed. It was these backlists—titles that had covered their initial costs, earned out their authors’ advances, entailed no further risk than the cost of making and shipping the book itself—whose individual sales might be small but whose aggregate sale was in the millions, that sustained the industry. Bestsellers in those days were icing on the backlist cake.

What is true for book publishing is true for civilization: the books that survive the test of time are humanity’s backlist, our collective memory. I do not refer simply to the classics but to recent titles, hundreds of which are published every year and join the backlist long enough to move the civilizing dialogue forward. Without these books we would not know who we are, where we came from or where we may be going: they are the ongoing interplay of the present with the past, the confrontation of the human mind with the problem of existence. Would the American economy have collapsed if the casually educated caretakers of our treasure and good name who wasted our wealth on the assumption that greed is self-regulating had read those great conservative skeptics of human nature, Gibbon, Hobbes, Smith, and Burke, or studied the wisdom of our country’s founders? Mr. Madoff’s clients would not be out a penny today had they read Little Dorritt and encountered there Dickens’ ruinous and ruined Mr. Merdle (pun intended), Bernie’s exact prototype. The backlist—of which we as publishers, along with scholars, librarians and teachers are the guardians—is truly a matter of life and death. [Italics mine]

“Without these books we would not know who we are.” I like Epstein’s sense that the backlist is sort of a constantly shifting cultural canon, and that canon consists not only of esteemed great works of the past but also of today’s most prominent and important books, the books that become conversation pieces, even if just for a few months.

As a society, we are what we read. That means we must continue to cultivate, share, and learn from the works of yesteryear, and also that we must publish well in our own time and given our own conditions of publishing and reading. Ebooks are not the full answer here, not even close, but they can be part of the solution–if we publish well and read well.

New technologies won’t be the primary factor in determining the future of reading. We will.

Photo via State Library of Virginia.

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