Friday, February 03, 2012

My, how big your brain is!

I’ve been trying to come to terms with e-books for some time now, and I simply can’t do it.  I won’t!

It’s not that I fear technology – I embrace it, I really do.  I have an iPad.  I speak text.  I stream Netflix movies…wirelessly!  What?  Yesss.  I have technology street cred, my friend! 
I have two problems with e-books.  First, and I don’t think I’m overstating this here, e-readers and e-books are harbingers of the apocalypse.  Like the Real Slim Shady, they have been sent here to destroy us.
E-books are pulling the rug out from under the traditional publishing world by giving everyone the ability to publish their book.  But just because one can do something, does not mean one should.
This new technology has put great power in the hands of ordinary people, but as Cliff Robertson told Tobey Maguire, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” 
Sadly, ordinary people are reckless, egocentric maniacs.  No offense.
There was a time – a good, sensible time – when a person told you he had self-published his novel and you smiled politely, mumbled something encouraging, and then hoped like hell you could get away before he took you out to his car to sell you one of the thirty copies he had in the trunk.
Are there well-written self-published novels out there somewhere?  Probably.  Am I willing to sift through stacks of garbage to find them?  No.  (If you are, and you find a gem and tell me about it, will I believe you?  Um, no.  Sorry.)
Originally, self-published books went through a vanity press, which told you that at the very least the author had $500.  Now, with e-books, it doesn’t even take that.  You can write your screed for free on a computer at your local library, and for a fraction of what a vanity press run costs, convert your work to an electronic format and get it up on Amazon or and start harassing people to download it.
You’ve completely bypassed The Establishment! 
Well, how nice for you. 
But what about us?  We now have to read the thing.  And, yes, we understand your mom said you’re a great writer; and we get that your boyfriend loved your manuscript.  We also understand that all your coworkers told you how funny you are; we even understand how impressed you are with yourself.  But that doesn’t mean what you wrote is worth our time.
I’m a big believer in the gate keeping responsibilities of The Establishment.  And I say this as an outsider looking in, hoping someday to be on the inside, pouring boiling oil on people who are then as I am now. 
Those gate keepers provide an invaluable quality control mechanism.
Do the gate keepers keep out good work unintentionally or because of a scarcity of resources?  Most definitely.  Are traditional publishing houses limited in the number of titles they can release in any given year, regardless of merit?  Absolutely.  Do the traditional publishing houses release garbage some times?  Of course they do.
It’s not that I believe all books published traditionally are of superior quality to self-published books.  What I do believe is that there is a far greater percentage of self-indulgent, unedited, rambling trash amongst self-published books – and e-books make it easier than ever. 
Hence the coming fall of western civilization.
But even worse, e-readers don’t let people realize how very smart you are. 
Look, if I’m going to read a 500+ page Jonathan Franzen book it’s only partly because I think he’s a great writer.  I’m also reading it because I want you to see me reading it!  I want you to think, “wow, look at that guy reading David McCullough.  He must have an enormous brain!”
With the Kindle, the Nook, or any of the other e-readers out there, I could be sitting in the coffee shop reading Dostoyevsky.  But I could just as easily be reading a book by Snooki.
This point was driven home to me twice recently.
In December I was reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” a very esoteric travelogue by essayist and novelist Paul Theroux.  I was so close to finishing (and at this point I was anxious to be done with the damn thing) I started carrying the book with me, sneaking in pages here and there as I limped to the end. 
After a particularly grueling day at the TV studio where I freelance, two coworkers and I decided to unwind with some beer in the snooty bar in the snootier power restaurant above the studio.  The regular clientele are lobbyists, Congressmen, and the occasional high-priced call girl; we were, to say the least, underdressed and out of place.
But we were thirsty and undeterred.  I plopped down into the booth, set Theroux down next to me, and got ready to pay $14 for a Stella Artois. 
The hostess looked at us and scrunched up her nose; customers stole sideways glances at us, and I began to think we might be on the road sooner than I thought.  Eventually, one of the bartenders decided our $14 was just as good as anyone else’s, so she begrudgingly came over to take our order. 
She spoke to my colleagues first, reciting the draught beers (starting with domestics – we had that look about us) and made a wine recommendation with as few words as possible.  Then she looked at me, and her eyes wandered to the book by my side.
She practically gasped, leaned in closer to see that her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, and asked me incredulously, “Are you reading that?” 
“I am,” I said.
We chatted very briefly about the book and Theroux, and just like that, we were elevated from riff raff who had wandered in, to some elite class of intellectuals.  We got our drinks quickly, and we even received a free round.  All because I had a pretentious book by my side, on display!  If I had been reading it on my Kindle, she never would have known.  We might still be waiting for those drinks.
A few weeks later I was walking around with the late Christopher Hitchens’ most recent book, “Arguably Essays.”  The bright yellow book, from which Hitchens’ mug dolefully and disapprovingly looks out at us is 816 pages and weighs in at almost three pounds.  How smart I must be to be able to carry this book around!
I was stopped by none other than my Temple’s Senior Rabbi – not just any Rabbi, mind you.  The senior Rabbi!  She touched my arm, stopping me as I walked by and said, “Wow, some light reading, eh, Michael?”
You’re darn tootin’, Rabbi!  You’re darn tootin’!
Let me sum up my arguments against e-books: 1) self-indulgent self-published authors lead to end of days, and 2) on a Kindle nobody knows how smart you are.  I think that about says it all. 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I just bought a book “The New York Times” called “one of the most extraordinary books of the year,” and I need to go read it somewhere in public.

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