Arit John has just run a highly negative piece on The Atlantic Wire about now-ex-CEO of Barnes & Noble William Lynch, based on Susan Berfield’s reporting in Bloomberg Businessweek. And as you might judge from the title, “Barnes & Noble’s Ex-CEO Might Still Have a Job If He Cared About Books,” a main thrust of John’s critique of Lynch is that he just didn’t care about—or understand—books.
Indeed, John implies that Lynch showed his lack of understanding and appreciation of books by preferring e-books to the genuine printed article. John cites Lynch’s interview appearance on Bloomberg TV: “Lynch was asked what book book—as in, printed book—he was reading at the time. ‘I don’t really read physical books that much anymore, I like to read digitally,’ he said. ‘My wife is reading a lot of physical books,’ he added.”
Pretty damning stuff, I think we’ll all agree.
This touches on something I noticed myself recently: My bookshelves are gathering dust, literally. The layer of dust on my books is very deep and obvious. And yet I’m reading almost constantly, when I’m not writing and when I have a spare moment or a hand free. Either on phone or tablet. There’s rarely a book out of my hand or off my person. Given that, do I really not care about books just because I’m not reading them on paper?
For me, and probably for many others now, including Lynch, the choice of medium is a question of convenience of all kinds—access to free books via Project Gutenberg and its ilk; access to non-DRMed publications; access to titles and topics that would be ludicrously difficult and expensive to get hold of if I was reading in print. I live in Budapest, where the best local English-language bookstores are hardly comparable to any B&N under Lynch’s dominion or not. So I’m hardly neutral.
Nonetheless, I read constantly and deeply. And I write, creatively, in styles and genres that demand long and deep reading in preparation as the literary equivalent of five-finger exercises, and can’t be attempted without it. With all that going on, do I really not appreciate writing and literature simply because I don’t read them on woodpulp that much these days?
Let alone the fact that the book trade that John cleaves to as an icon of value churns out more non-books and unbooks than have probably ever disgraced the virtual shelves of e-bookstores. How many trees have been pulped, how many carbon credits burned, to pump out the latest scraped-together gardening or paleo diet title to swell a chain’s dump bins and Big Five’s remainder list? Can any industry that spews out such drivel in such volumes really claim to care about books?
You can probably guess what my answer is going to be: There are no book books any more. There may be reader readers and then just plain readers, but books and e-books are all just books now. Maybe Lynch was a reader and not a reader reader, but so are most publishing executives, judging from what they produce.
If you want to get sniffy about the medium of a work of literature, you had better be damn sure you are capable of handling the message. Otherwise your snobbery is as shallow and false as that of any Fitzrovia or Manhattan bookperson getting a quasi-intellectual buzz off PEN meetings and author soirées, while continuing to pollute our shelves with trash.