The book is still in business

2014-01-16 00:00

FORTY years ago, when I was training to be a librarian, various forecasters predicted that the book as we know it was headed for extinction.

While the computer was in relative infancy and the potential power of electronic media barely understood, the perceived wisdom was that the days of books and bound periodicals on library shelves were numbered. In some ways, that prophecy has turned out to be true, although not quite in the fashion once imagined.

Doomsayers notwithstanding, opera, drama and music theatres and concert halls flourish. In a sense, they have been popularised by the very electronic media that were supposed to represent nemesis. Similarly, books and bookshops are alive and largely well. More titles are published than ever, but the publishing industry has been homogenised. The number of publishers has decreased radically and many have been absorbed by big media houses (look at Jonathan Ball, for example, now part of Media24). Verdicts about what to publish are increasingly the domain of accountants, who make decisions about what they hope will move from the booksellers’ shelves. The reason why so many poor books are published is that a well-known name, and often the reputation of an author for one good book, is decisive. The publication chances of a first-time or lesser-known writer with an interesting topic, regardless of the quality of the writing, diminish by the year.

Those with an eye on the bottom line also govern the chain of publishing, demanding shortcuts and economies at the expense of editorial, proofreading and indexing processes. This is why so many books are far too long and often tedious or boringly repetitive. The editorial task of producing a really good book requires skill, time and thought, all commodities in short supply in the modern commercial environment. Length aside, most modern non-fiction titles are riddled with errors that careful proofreading would eliminate. The number of typos in South African personal and place names in books published locally is embarrassing. Professionalism has been discarded in the interests of profit-making.

A great deal of knowledge that should be in the public domain because it derives from the funding of higher education is locked up in academic journals. Once accessible to the determined reader in university and copyright libraries, it is increasingly aggregated and hidden behind online pay walls to the profit of vast transnational publishing companies such as Taylor & Francis.

Even the authors need to make special access arrangements and much local, South African research is now published in this way. One could argue, however, that this is of no great importance as the quality of much academic writing, especially in the humanities and social sciences, has hit rock-bottom. Convoluted, poorly written and lacking in interest, it is hard to imagine what its purpose might be, except to fuel the burgeoning and lucrative management structure that has grown up around academic publishing.

A general sterility has invaded non-fiction output that has changed the face of publishing in far more fundamental ways than much-vaunted technology.

A few years ago, the Kindle arrived amid much fanfare and, according to its supporters, especially salespeople, it would put the book out of business. It has many virtues especially for travellers, the housebound and sight-impaired people.

But unlike the book, it does not make reading exciting and turns it into something that looks more like work than education or pleasure.

But ultimately, the medium is irrelevant: what is important is that people derive all the lifelong benefits bestowed by sustained reading. Above all, this involves the ability to follow, comprehend and remember the key points of a logical and reasonably complex argument. It could be argued that this is a pre-requisite for a successful and responsible citizen of a modern democracy.

Books provide the medium, as does good-quality journalism, because they are written with serious intent and pass through a series of filters that should ensure accuracy, comprehension and readability.

Twitter and other forms of social media do not. In spite of extravagant claims about their historic importance and epoch-making potential, they are not in the same league. They reflect egos, not rational or well-argued content. Twitter messages are all too often loud, bigoted and uncouth. They are the broadcast equivalent of the chatter that accompanies a few drinks at the bar or tea-time gossip. Many books may be far too long, but when communication is reduced to a few dozen characters, the nature of discourse changes irredeemably.

The book survives, but it could be doing far better. The answer lies in shorter, more engagingly written titles on a more challenging range of topics, as Penguin tried in the eighties and Jacana is attempting now. It simply needs reassertion of the traditional skills of the publisher.

This is not just a matter of the book’s survival. A lack of reading impairs our ability to reason and communicate. And if you need any proof of this, take a look at Twitter messages and the contributions to newspaper websites.


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