Sunday, August 29, 2010

Books and Society

Our modern entertainment industry, including the developments in the publishing industry, has blossomed into its predictable end: a key means to maintain the social status quo.  What better tool could there be to maintain a specific social and economic system than to prevent time for reflection by filling it with superfluous time-killers?  Entertainment, the primary means to fill time between workdays, grows by the day, with ever more spaces being filled.  There has been an explosion of portable media players, social networking programs that limit in-depth discussion (all apologies to the true craftspeople of aphorisms, but what can really be said in a 140 character Twitter feed?), and dominant types of traditional media, such as books and film.

Now this is the natural progression of a capitalist economy.  A day spent in toil leads to an increased use of downtime to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," and the entertainment industry has met this demand, providing a means to relax while keeping the mind busy enough so that it doesn't have time to question.  Now, this isn't a conspiracy.  My use of the word "tool" above was to achieve simplification, but this device differs from a true tool in that nobody consciously wields it.  There is no person behind the curtains pulling the strings.  It is part of the logical development of our socioeconomic system and it affects the CEO of a Fortune 500 company as much as a grocery store cashier.

So, as this is a book blog, where does reading fit in?

Well, in the types of reading materials produced.  If I can make an addendum to McLuhan, if the form of the media remains the same, content is crucial.  It is not enough simply to read, yet I have heard countless times that the act of reading is key.  One of the main points of this post is that I'm arguing that not all books are created equal and that I feel it is actually better not to read at all than read certain books.  Would it not be better to take time to observe and reflect on the world around you than it is to read a book that serves little more than to act as a sleep aid?

Over the years I have witnessed firsthand the types of books I see on the shelves change dramatically.  When I could shop for Tolstoy's works just ten years ago and have ample choice I now see a couple of different editions of War and Peace and nothing more.  Another example, Kafka, bears the same fate where I can easily find the Metamorphosis yet would be forced to order The Castle if I wanted it.  What of the longer term, which I will hint at presently?

What is being released now?  Do we have any Sartre's, Dostoevsky's, Celine's whose new releases are seen as a notable event and who responded to and challenged the world around them?  Simply, no.  Do I doubt that they exist, writing important works only needing an audience?  Not at all.  I'm not so optimistic that their works will be seen as digestible compared to what passes for the book-of-the-moment and actually get published on a large scale.  I need not highlight the books that are being flocked to now, other than point out one larger trend of the last few years where books written for teens have found an immense adult audience.  Think about it: simply written, fantastical settings, not at all challenging in its themes and ideas, with a complete divorce from any link to the world around it.  The one possible defense, that reading J. K. Rowling may be a stepping stone to Hemingway, seems as much a fantasy as the books themselves.

There is a contradiction in the logic of production which on the one hand invests heavily in manufacturing demand through marketing and on the other claims that it has to manufacture what sells.  It creates a cycle of novelty, where what is unproven has greater importance than what already exists.  I would explain this due to the fact that people can't be influenced as much in the latter case where they may already have an opinion or be aware of prevailing notions, but can be easily fooled into assigning undue importance to what is new.

If the above has meaning for any reader of this post, you will now witness where I falter.  I have no solutions.  Sure, there is online ordering but this benefits those who already are aware.  Does anyone expect to see an advertisement for any of the above mentioned writers on the main page of  In this respect a brick and mortar store has an advantage over online due to ease of browsing, and in my mind a greater likelihood of discovering something important, as long as it is actually there to begin with.

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