Nothing will replace physical books. Ever. There is a certain satisfaction to be had and valued in seeing the physical, existential, three-dimensional form of a book – one’s own or someone else’s – in having it on hand without needing to click a mouse or scroll through screen pages. Perhaps the entire contents of the Library of Congress and the British Museum can be combined and fitted into a special thumbnail drive and be made accessible to one and all, everywhere, anywhere, and at any time.
But otherwise, a book’s contents exist in the ethereal realm of chips and circuitry. One can’t reach out and touch it, flip through its pages, and say, “There it is. A lifetime of work,” and heft its two or three pounds in one’s hand. All Kindle and other forms of e-books are based on the chief format of a book, with covers and pages. But an e-book is much like an ideal woman; an abstraction hovering in one’s mind, not entirely real and dependent on electric power that hasn’t been knocked out by a storm or a power company’s incompetence. The real ideal woman is three-dimensional and, well, real. There’s a morale-boosting difference between a having a pin-up of Rita Hayworth and Rita Hayworth sitting across the club table from you with a come-hither look and her unseen foot teasing one’s leg beneath the table. Substitute Lauren Bacall or Carole Lombard, if you wish.
The publishing world tends to be culturally and esthetically autistic. Its communication skills are miniscule or non-existent, it is rigidly myopic in its practices and planning, and is about as detached from the world as any random political party or bureaucracy. It has been so for decades, nay, centuries. As a rule, it passes over what it ought to publish and promotes the marginal, the forgettable, and the transient. “It’s what the public wants,” is its oft-repeated excuse and rationalization for its behavior, wishing to forget and hoping the book-buying public doesn’t remember that much of what it publishes winds up on bookstores’ remainder tables with drastically marked-down prices to help reduce its taxable inventory. Its claim to omniscience is the stuff of satire.
Speaking of inventory, book publishing was mortally wounded by the Thor Power Tool Company decision of the Supreme Court in 1979, which, among other things, ruled that a company’s inventory can be taxed according to the IRS’s whim and discretion and byzantine guidelines. We won’t go into the mental gymnastics of tax code accounting here. Be it said that an inventory is an asset – power tools, auto parts, books, components for McDonald’s movie promotion toys, off-the-rack fashions in Wal-Mart or Sachs Fifth Avenue, or gold and ivory bracelets in Tiffany’s, it matters not the entity – and whether or not it can be “written down” or reported as depreciated or subjected to other feats of mental legerdemain, it is still taxable. Companies work to keep their taxable inventories as low as possible. Not all are successful, especially not publishing companies. Thus, year-end sales and remainder tables. Enough said on that subject.
A physical book is immediate, tangible proof that a thought existed and was put into communicative form. It is evidence and the end product of mental effort. It can be complimentary, or damning. It can be a Victor Hugo novel or a biography of Patrick Henry or a Saul Alinsky how-to book about making communistic revolution and tyranny. One can weigh a thumbnail drive in one’s hand, or wear it on a key-chain, or stash it in a music box, but not see its contents. But one can weigh a book in one’s hand, and its contents are readily available. Do not, however, mistake this ode to physical books as a screed against technology. Technology enabled me to publish many books overlooked or rejected by autistic publishers. It enabled me to make them real and accessible to me and anyone else.
I have recently self-published three collections of my political and cultural columns. These are apart from the Sparrowhawk historical novels, the two detective novel series, and one suspense novel series. When the first title of the Sparrowhawk series debuted in 2001, it was a moment of triumph after decades of being rebuffed by the best minds in the publishing world, including editors and agents. I am being generous when I say “best.” One day that year, as I sat contemplating the burgeoning envelopes that contained about thirty years of rejection notices and other correspondence to editors and agents, I wondered why I kept them. I wondered with muted bitterness about the thousands of dollars spent on copies of manuscripts that were never read and postage sent and self-addressed return stamped envelopes that were never used by the addressees. Many of those companies no longer existed as independent companies (such as Scribner) and many of those editors and agents had died and were forgotten. I outlasted them. They no longer mattered. I discarded the envelopes. Their contents have long since been mulched and have, as Robert Heinlein might have put it, pushed up several generations of daisies.
Perfect Crime Books exhibited its discretion and discrimination by publishing my Chess Hanrahan detective series (With Distinction, First Prize, Presence of Mind, and Honors Due). My own Patrick Henry Press imprint has published a Roaring Twenties detective series set in San Francisco (China Basin, The Head of Athena, The Daedâlus Conspiracy, and The Chameleon), and the Merritt Fury suspense series (Whisper the Guns, We Three Kings, and Run From Judgment). All are available as print books or on Kindle.
The columns have all appeared here on Rule of Reason and on other weblogs, and many were “reprinted” in dozens of other weblogs or “webzines” as far away as Russia, India, and Israel. The titles of the collections have naval warfare themes. They are Running Out My Guns in the War of Ideas, Broadsides in the War of Ideas, and Corsairs and Freebooters (subtitled, respectively, A Collection of Advices, A Collection of Observations, and A Collection of Pungent Remarks). For a long time, they were available under different covers on Kindle (and also on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, but some legal matter of exclusivity claimed by Amazon obliged me to take them down from Nook). Now they are also available as hold-in-your-hand, page-turning books, thin, light-weight, easy to hold, non-daunting, and able to be perused by light bulb or candlelight. They represent a selection from nearly five hundred columns or essays and a fraction of the nearly one million words I have expended since finishing Sparrowhawk in 2005.
They also contain articles and reviews which appeared in other publications long before I began writing regular columns, such as the Journal of Information Ethics, The Social Critic, the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, two editions of McGraw-Hill’s Civilization textbook, and the Journal of Colonial Williamsburg.
All in all, ninety-three appeals to reason and rationality are available under three covers, addressing such subjects as Islam, our political conundrum (with two special sections devoted exclusively to the rise, investiture, and nihilism of President Barack Obama), the progress of “Progressivism,” the state of the culture, the Clintons, the Bushes, and the phenomena of movie remakes. The collections also feature book and movie reviews.
I may put together a fourth collection, depending on the state of the economy this coming year and on the response to the existing collections. Whether or not these collections represent my best, is for the reader to judge.
Happy New Year, and, if possible, calm seas and a prosperous voyage to all in this world of turmoil.