The Electronic Book Burning


Alan Kaufman

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.

In the past few years I have witnessed in San Francisco a sudden epidemic of bookstore closings that has turned my city into a bookstore graveyard.


Staceys, on Market Street, a once iconic, tasteful and sumptuous 85-year old book emporium rises like a reproach, vacant, unrented, a ghostly shell.


Other bookstores that have closed doors in the Bay Area include both branches of Codys, all branches of Black Oak Books, as well as Ninth Avenue Books, Chelsea Books, Valencia Street Books, ReJoyce Books, Acorn Books... a long and tragic list. According to reports coming in from other parts of the country, the awful scene is reoccuring everywhere: venerable, much beloved bookstores closing and that portion of the populace who cherish books—an ever-shrinking minority—left baffled and bereft; a silent corporate Krystallnacht decimating the world of literacy.


Accompanying this plague is a feel-good propaganda campaign that enjoys the collusion of the major media outlets, including such true hi-tech believers as the NY Times and NPR—print and broadcast venues that are themselves cheerily being rendered obsolete by the hi-tech rampage—and that in subtle ways positions the destruction of book culture like so: “books” in and of themselves are nothing, only another technology, like the Walkman or the laptop. What is sacred are the texts and those are being transferred to the Internet where they will attain a new kind of high-tech-assured immortality. Like dead souls leaving their earthly bodies the books are, in effect, going to a better place: the Kindle, the e-book, the web; hi-tech's version of Paradise.


This massive deportation of literary texts to a new home in electronic heaven has about it an air of inevitability that makes its consummation seem all but certain, a veritable act of God.


Google, the internet server, has taken upon itself to dare the entirety of world literature and those of its authors living, to prevent this inevitability. Thus, the choice is set before authors: consent or oppose. However, you cannot simply abstain. The subtle subtext underscoring these legal maneuvers is that one way or another, you must decide where you stand in all this; the internet appropriation of all the world's books is a given, so either get aboard or be left behind and forgotten.


Some have chosen to oppose in the form of a mysterious lawsuit that one somehow belongs to if one is any sort of author, agent or publisher. Rumors abound as to the outcome of this lawsuit. Some claim that Google and the world's authors, living and dead, have reached a “settlement” but what it is no one seems to know for sure. Google has, apparently, the power to commune with authors in our dreams or even to contact and negotiate with deceased writers in the afterlife.


The reports given over NPR or in the Times as to the lawsuit's outcome appear to conflict. The truth is, few have any idea what the suit is about or how they got involved in the first place. It is a lawsuit reminiscent of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dicken's 'Bleak House'—a boundless ever-extending spiderweb engulfing everything and everyone in its fine legalistic filigree.


In tandem with this giant transfer operation is the astonishing shift in the complexion and fortunes of book culture and publishing itself—a development that indicates not only a rapid demise of the book as a cultural artifact and marketplace commodity but a concerted effort to promote its devaluation, even degradation, even by the chieftains of book publishing.


For instance, in a recent article, Barnaull Nourrey, CEO of Hachette Livre, the French book publishing conglomerate that owns a big piece of American book publishing, including Time Warner Books (Random House and its affiliates is owned by Bertelsmann, the German publishing giant—Europeans now control most of American publishing) warned that unless E-Book reverses their recent decision to set the ceiling price for book downloads at $9.99, then hardcovers, which are the premise for much book publishing and even bookstores, will be dealt a death blow. In effect, it will precipitate the end of the book.


One wonders why Nourrey cannot simply advise E- Book to go fuck itself and produce high-quality reasonably priced books, even if in smaller numbers. But the truth is, Nourrey, like Bertelsmann, like most American book publishers, are linked to twenty first century, late-stage hypercapitalist imperatives predicated entirely upon ceaseless expansion, the inherent belief in Darwinian obsolescence and succession as the lifeblood of successful economics and societal advance.


Thus, publishers, like the technologists who slit their throats, are producers not of books but money, while books have become simply another vehicle, along with the Washing Machine and the iPod, for generating capital.


Like any product, the book must run harder and faster in the marketplace or else fall and die. And the books are falling. Only the fittest now survive. While mid-list authors drop in the snow, blockbuster thrillers and middlebrow memoirs and diet books huff their way forward. Soon, though, they too will drop. The idea is for no one to be left standing. All physical books must go up the chimney stack. Such was the methodology of the SS who forced their prisoners to run naked races round and round the barracks yard in the Polish winter, a race that no one was meant to win.


The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.


Further, we are told that to assign to books a particular value above and beyond their clearly inferior utility as a medium for language is to mark oneself as an irrelevant social throwback. And then, goes the narrative, think of the extraordinary sleekness, efficiency and amplitude of a Kindle, where thousands of texts lie at your fingertips. Which teen or twenty something in their right mind is going to opt for paper over electronic texts? No one of course. That's just the way of evolution, goes the narrative. Publishers and readers, writers and agents, are well-advised to get with this truth or perish. As to the bookstore, it is like the synagogue under Hitler: the house of a doomed religion. And the paper book is its Torah and gravestone: a thing to burn, or use to pave the road to internet heaven.


I know many writers who do not see anything wrong in any of this, who can without too much trouble foresee a career spent entirely in electronic media, who simply regard this development as the future and are not particularly disconcerted by the prospect of a world without books. To them, my sentiments and opinions may seem exaggerated, even silly, perhaps crazy.


Maybe they are right. Perhaps I am crazy. Perhaps this is only a private complaint. For writing does not come easily to me. My books have been hardwon. What made it all seem worthwhile was the book, the physical item, a kind of sacred and appropriate temple for the text contained within. Had I been told from youth that my literary destination would be some 7 inch plastic gizmo containing my texts shuffling alongside thousands of other “texts” I would have spit in the face of such a profession and become instead a hit man or a rabbi.


To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but as shown in Ray Bradbury's ‘Fahrenheit 451’, something that is even worth dying for. And yet, though I have been willing to sacrifice everything for the books I have written, compiled or just read, though I have given the days of my life, my years, my youth and adulthood to the book, as both sacred object and text, I am now witness to the culture turning away en masse from the book. The world is moving to embrace the electronic media as its principle mode of expression. The human has opted for the machine, and its ghosts, over the haptic companionship and didactic embodiment of the physical book. And though this development seems inevitable yet I cannot and will not accept it.


I will fight it. I will resist. For not only is this effort at consolidation of the world's literature into the hands of a single central repository a demoralizing cultural prospect but it is a move towards a new form of hi-tech totalitarianism. In a recent incident reported in the NY Times, when a publisher decided to withdraw two of its books from circulation as an electronic download, Kindle unilaterally eliminated the two volumes from the Kindles of every single user in the United States who had purchased the downloads. The implication couldn't have been more clear: the hi-techers can decide as they wish who gets to read what, and who dosen’t. Appropriately, the two Kindle-deleted texts were George Orwell's ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’.


Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence. Behind the hi-tech revolution is an idea of Progress that in many regards resembles the premises of Christianity itself. The superseding of the new way over the old, of the New Testament over the Old Testament, the discrediting of the traditional as inferior or even evil, a sense of powerful excitement about the revolutionary, and of course, most importantly, the promise of heavenly immortality over the temporal limitations of the wasting physical body—the accursed haptic book versus the blessed Holy Ghostly Internet—all these earmark the hi-tech pogrom against the book.


Heinrich Heine, the early 19th century German Jewish poet, wrote: “"Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people." The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being—a place once occupied by God—and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans—is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human.