A Wealthy Literary Tradition or a Horrendous Glut of Books?

just a small portion of the books I own

Jean Baudrillard, in his famous philosophical book Simulacra and Simulation, argued agains the notion that in our age of information, people can rise to act more assuredly and thoughtfully on account of the info at their fingertips; Baudrillard’s counter-argument was that the huge amount of info we have is actually a deterrent more than anything else, because we are given so very much that we are incapable of refining it all into one single idea worth leaving the house for. I would say something very similar is happening in the world of literature: every American has access to thousands of books, yet we read next to nothing (I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have heard the nation-wide average is 1 book a year). Could it be that by looking at the sheer amount of books out there, we can’t simply pick one?

As I spend too much time in libraries, one of the complaints I overhear a lot is “I like mysteries, but I don’t know where to begin reading them” or something to that effect. There’s definitely a lot of anxiety that comes with picking out a book to read; it’s not like a movie where, even if it’s awful, you’ve only used up 2 hours of your life. A book can be a commitment.

In my case, I can say that I’ve read enough to know what I like, and I can also add that I very likely have a broader range of interests than most people, in that I’ve made a point not to confine myself to a single genre.  Still, I’m as victimized by the bulk of books out there as anyone else. My problem isn’t that I can’t commit to books, it’s that I can’t commit to just one. I guess you could say I have an adulterous relationship with most books.

Recently, my bad habits have coincided into becoming a major impasse. About three weeks ago, I decided I would write a Christmas story and have it available online by mid-November. For inspiration, one of the things I read was Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (review forthcoming). This was the first time in a year that I’d sat down and read Dickens, and I found his exuberance infectious. No one offers up a feast like Charles Dickens. Riding high on that accomplishment, I decided I would read David Copperfield. In a lot of ways, Charles Dickens’ style is the opposite of my own. Dickens’ novels are expansive, they possess a largesse that most writers couldn’t match, and his stories so frequently feature extremes and violent contrasts–i.e. Scrooge’s misanthropy versus the charged bathetic presence of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. My own style tends to be inward, featuring small casts, and is subtle–sometimes overly subtle. I felt I could learn something from Dickens, and maybe the differences would have a dialectical relationship producing something interesting.

If I had stuck to just reading David Copperfield, I bet I could’ve finished it by now. Unfortunately, my reach inevitably exceeds my grasp. 100 pages into David Copperfield, I took up a different book, a giant one at that. One day, while drawing (to see some of my drawings, go to my Flickr account), I turned on the Game of Thrones mini-series. Before I knew it, I was enthralled again with the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and decided I now had to pick up where I left off by starting A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series (if you’d like to read my review of the second book, A Clash of Kings, click here). A Storm of Swords is 1000+ pages.

So then I’m reading two behemoths, thinking to myself I can trade-off, and still finish both. Instead, after about two weeks of trying, I find out I can barely follow either. Plus, A Storm of Swords has no relation to my own project of writing a Christmas book. To make matters worse, I’m also currently interested in philosophy, and lately I’ve been reading two very different philosophers, Isaiah Berlin and Slavoj Zizek. Again, neither have a direct relation to my work on my Christmas book.

While I don’t mean to boast, I can say I’m a well-read individual, or at least, I’m more well read than most based upon the earlier statistic. Still, if I can fall into such lousy reading habits, what is the rest of the world up against?

Lately it’s become more and more apparent to me that literature, as an art on the decline, can’t solely blame television and the internet for its current state of intense entropy. In some ways, it might just be the world of literature itself that’s causing the problem. Ebooks are taking away from paperback sales, which would be fine if ebooks were having amazing sales figures, but by and large they’re not.

Then, there’s a burden in the form of a boon: self-publishing. I myself have self-published a book in both paperback and ebook form. This is something I spent truly countless hours on. Simply formating my book for print and digital forms took me about 30 hours. The stories took longer; some, I drafted more than five times. Here’s the problem: it’s easy for anyone to self-publish. It’s also easy for people to self-publish something they have put very little time and energy into. If you take a minute to look at the self-published books on Amazon, you’ll see some that are clearly labors of love, or books that were well-researched and thought out, but, overshadowing those are the massive amounts of pure garbage now in print and on the web. You could publish your grocery list and it’d be more interesting than what some people have published. For the customer, there’s no way to tell if the writer spent hours or minutes on their product. I’m a self-published writer, and even I wouldn’t spend money on a self-published book unless I knew the writer or read a thoughtful review somewhere.

What is to be done? There are so many books it’s become difficult to read at all. Of course, I don’t advocate book burning, and if people want to self-publish, I’d say go ahead and do it if your book really means something to you. What I would like to see happen in the near future is having books advertised in different mediums. For instance, it’d be great to see fiction writers on late-night talk shows. I think also the literary community needs to find a way to get people talking about books, and not just in insular book clubs. When it comes to picking out books to read, nothing’s better than a friend’s recommendation.

To get the general public reading more, I think publishers should branch out more with their advertising. I’ll see in newspapers and magazines sometimes ads for the new James Patterson or John Grisham novels, but what about the people who don’t like such books? I think some people have to be guided practically by the hand to find the type of books that suit their personality or interests. Advertisers have to let the general public know there’s more out there than plotless mainstream novels and convoluted crime thrillers. The goal the literary community should set is to get people reading.

In my case, I guess my problem isn’t really a problem. Sure I’m reading a large variety of stuff right now, and it’s very possible I won’t finish anything, but there’s still the chance that by reading so many disparate books, the end product will be all the more interesting.

It definitely feels odd right now to promote my own book The Madness of Art: Short Stories after complaining about just how inundated we are with books. I think this though is the sort of paradox writers have to live with. There’s a lot of books out there, but as writers, if we feel ours have something special about them, we need to find some way advertise them precisely by what we think defines them.  As readers, once we find the books we have a special connection with, everything falls into place.

click on the pic to see my book on Amazon

You can also follow me on twitter.

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