For some years now, my column in the
If I may take you backstage for a moment into the shabby world of the newspaper column, the beauty of this statistic is that it can be made to argue any number of often quite contradictory points of view. First, without violence to the truth, it can illustrate an awesome contrast with a lost golden age, circa 1900, in which fewer than 10,000 books a year were published. These were the years which saw the best works of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton, etc. Cue a touching eulogy to the glories of Edwardian prose.
From here, in columnar terms, it is but a short step to a thunderous ecologo-literary jeremiad about the fate of
Today, however, I have to admit that the jig is up. In the course of my recent travels in the
If the image had not already been used to the point of exhaustion, I would say that, upon opening the 18 July 2004 edition of the New York Times, I found myself, like stout Cortez on his peak in Darien, lost in silent contemplation of a new world.
Forget 100,000 books a year, forget the pines of Norway or the cappuccinos of Covent Garden; according to the New York Times, there’s a new book published in the United States every half an hour, and — wait for it — that’s just fiction. R R Bowker, the company that compiles the Books in Print database in the
Predictably enough, the New York Times then used this figure to rehash lines that, to those of us who row in the galleys of literary commentary, are not exactly new. Books will get lost in the shuffle. New fiction has the shelf-life of yoghurt. It’s a winner-takes-all marketplace. (When was that not true?) Reviews cannot keep pace with output. And so on.
It occurred to me, as I read this depressing but familiar recital, that in all the hoo-ha about overproduction, there’s one person who is rarely referred to: the Common Reader.
How many books do you read a year? A hundred? Forty? Twenty-five? If you manage to read a book a week, which is good going, and perhaps a few extra on holiday, you would not, realistically, complete more than about 55 a year. In my experience, such serious readers prefer seriously good books. They will choose Toni Morrison before Plum Sykes.
In other words, it is, once again, the preferences and limitations of the human race that keep the dizzying pace of technological change in check. Call me Dr Pangloss, but works of quality are the ones that endure. Sure, the book world is going to hell in a handcart, but the good news is that we can rely on the readers to keep it honest and, with a bit of luck, an appetite for good books will balance the temptations of trash.
(Excerpted from Urban Voice II: Views and Visuals from a New World)
Robert McCrum is the author of six novels and My Year Off: Rediscovering Life After a Stroke. Now literary editor of The Observer,