Gabriel Zaid’s slim book on the status of reading and publishing is as pertinent, if not even more pertinent, today as when it was published in 2003. Much of what the author predicted, particularly in regard to e-books and the evolution of the publishing business model, is now coming to pass. His thoughts make me realize how oblivious I was nine years ago to most of what was just around the corner for publishers – and how the changes would affect me, a dedicated reader, personally. The aptly titled essays collected in So Many Books cover a variety of book-related topics, everything from the overwhelming number of titles published each year, to the search for each book’s specific/perfect readers, to why a book can sell relatively few copies but still turn a nice profit…and many others. For instance, in “Some Questions about the Circulation of Books,” a piece I found particularly interesting, Zaid argues that it is not necessary or even desirable for all books to sell a million copies. What is important, he says, is that books find their “natural readership – the readership they might have in a perfect world where distribution was flawless and price not an issue, giving every interested reader the opportunity to read them.” Ironically, he points out, that a big problem in finding that readership is that “college graduates are more interested in publishing books than reading them.” I suspect this observation is truer today than ever before. Gabriel Zaid is, if anything, very quotable. While reading So Many Books, I found myself marking sentence after sentence as something I wanted to revisit later. Consider here a few of the ones I believe give an accurate feel for the book’s tone:
“…it isn’t easy to reach thirty thousand readers. Not because the lower price is still too high, but for a reason we prefer to ignore: the majority of titles published are of no interest to thirty thousand people – you couldn’t give away that many copies.” –“Complaining about Babel
“Every private library is a reading plan…Having unread books on display is like writing checks when you have no money in the bank – a way of deceiving your guests.” –“An Embarrassment of Books”
“…the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” –“An Embarrassment of Books”
“Given the rapid changes in hardware and software, digital texts from just a few years ago may be harder to preserve and read than books printed centuries ago, or thousand-year-old manuscripts.” –“In Search of the Reader”
“…there are many practical ways in which the traditional book is superior. On the most basic level, there is no need to have a machine running in front of you, with the text up on the screen. This practical advantage, and many others (portability, the lesser likelihood of theft, the impossibility of lending a book to a friend without the proper reading device, author’s rights) tend to be ignored in futuristic fantasies, but they influence the decisions readers make.” – “In Search of the Reader”
These are representative of the thoughts and arguments Zaid presents in So Many Books – only a few of which have become even a bit dated during the last nine years. Gabriel Zaid is passionate about books and the people who read them – and he will find his “natural readership” in the thousands of avid readers who always manage to find and devour books about books.