I just finished reading So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (originally Los Demasiados Libros) by Gabriel Zaid. The book is a collection of essays on various aspects of publishing today, with special emphasis on the bewildering number of books being published today.
He presents a number of interesting statistics, such as, a book only has to sell about 3000 copies to break even. Printing is cheap, and getting cheaper, leading to ever more specialization and diversity in publishing, in contrast to the increasing concentration and homogeneity of other, more expensive media. In ecology we would call what is happening in publishing “niche partitioning,” the process by which species divide up resources and become more and more specialized, the logical conclusion of which is species that are wholly dependent on one other species, as many butterflies are. In publishing, it is economical to publish a book that will interest only a few thousand people (as most do), and so the diversity of titles that are publishable is almost unlimited. While biodiversity is declining more rapidly than ever before, thanks to us, “bibliodiversity” (my word, not his) stands at about a million new titles per year, and growing.
Of course the difficulty is not just that it is impossible to read everything (we passed that point centuries ago), but that it is impossible to find all the books that fit your niche, that you and a few thousand other readers with similar interests would like to read (or at least buy!). Booksellers, and even the greatest libraries, cannot hope to stock every new book in print, nor can publishers promote every single book to its minuscule target audience. It is with some sadness that Zaid reflects on the books that never find their readers and the readers that never find their books.
There are more books to contemplate than stars in a night [sky] on the high seas. In this immensity, how is a reader to find his personal constellation, those books that will put his life in communication with the universe? And how is a single book among the millions to find its readers? [p. 98]
Intermediaries are required to collect books into what Zaid calls constellations, assemblages of books that people with certain interests might like to know about. These intermediaries can take the form of the catalogues of publishers who specialize in particular subjects, booksellers who collect titles in specific fields, and librarians who produce displays and lists of books of interest to various reader groups. Zaid says “culture is conversation,” so my metaphor for these intermediaries is the skilled hostess who knows who to introduce to whom at cocktail hour and who to sit next to whom at the table.
Even if we find the right books to read, the other great difficulty of readers nowadays is finding the time to read. Zaid says, “Today it is a luxury to read what Socrates said, not because the books are expensive [as in the past], but because our time is scarce” [p. 37]. This makes the first issue of finding books all the more urgent. “A reader who reads carefully, reflects, engages in lively conversation with other readers, remembers, and rereads can become acquainted with a thousand books in a lifetime” [p. 98]. If that is so, there is no time to waste on enjoyable but non-essential reading. The Great Books of the Western World, my personal Everest, takes up more than half of that projected lifetime of careful reading. What is the other half (or what remains of it) to be filled with?
Having said that, I would encourage serious readers to check out this enjoyable little volume (preferably at the library) since it is provides a great deal of interesting context for our beloved pastime. It does have some faults—the translation sometimes hiccups, it is somewhat repetitive and at times cynical and misanthropic—but I can’t imagine a reader who wouldn’t glean something interesting from every essay.
For your interest, here are the essay titles:
To the Unrepentant Reader
An Embarrassment of Books
Complaining About Babel
Books and Conversation
Culture and Commerce
Some Questions About the Circulation of Books
The End of the Book
The Cost of Reading
The Supply and Demand of Poetry
A Hair Shirt for Masochistic Authors
Consetllations of Books
In Search of the Reader
Diversity and Concentration