I walked across the campus at UCLA a half hour before the hullabaloo was scheduled to begin. A middle-aged woman in Birkenstocks walked toward me, accompanied by a dog that looked like a fat greyhound. A squirrel darted through the planter to my left. The dog bounded off after the squirrel. The woman hadn’t had a tight enough hold on the leash. It slipped out of her hand. The squirrel made for a tree—his only hope. The dog took three steps, swooped the squirrel up in her mouth, and bam. Two shakes of her head and the squirrel’s neck was broke. He hung there limply in the dog’s mouth. The woman screamed, “No! Macy! Put it down!” But it was too late for the squirrel. Macy knew this. She took off running down the hallways of what looked to be a Biology building. The woman ran after her dog.
It all seemed futile to me. She could give that dog all the yuppie names she wanted and scream at her all she wanted, but Macy had thousands of years of genetic memory telling her to eat that squirrel. Yuppie names and scolding in a language the dog doesn’t speak are no match for that. I wanted to tell the woman, “Relax. Let the dog have her little squirrel. It’s just the way the world works.” Instead, I minded my own business. I thought to myself, this has to be a metaphor for something.
A half hour later, the hullabaloo ensued. Crowds filtered in, writers performed readings, panels of other writers talked about their books, publishers hawked their wares. The LA Times Festival of Books was underway. I set up a chair adjacent to the table of Gorsky Press books and let the festival wash over me.
I was working half of the Gorsky Press/Manic D Press booth. Jennifer from Manic D had asked me if I would split a booth with her. From about ten seconds after I said I’d do it, I regretted my decision. I hate working at book festivals. I hate the retail aspect of it. I hate having to give a sales pitch for a book that I’m selling for five bucks. I mean, come on, five bucks? What else can you get for five bucks? A burrito. Someone poured his heart and soul and years of his life into this book, I spent several months working with the author, editing, typesetting, designing the cover, and creating the actual artifact. And you can get it for the cost of a burrito. Don’t ask me to give a sales pitch.
Thus, I started the day grumpy.
To make matters worse, the Gorsky/Manic D booth was right next to the LA Times Stage. This is where all the “celebrity” authors (or is it celebrity “authors,” because you know Cloris Leachman didn’t sit down at a laptop and type seventy thousand words of an autobiography) read from their works and answered questions from the audience. Whether I wanted to or not—and believe me, it was a not—I had to hear Winnie Cooper talk about math, Marsha Brady talk about her cocaine addiction (she bragged about blowing a quarter million dollars on coke, then scolded someone in the audience—probably some little girl—by braying, “Don’t you ever do drugs. Drugs are bad!”), and a few different celebrities whom I’d never heard of whine about being recognized everywhere they went. Bob Barker was there. I’m not sure what he talked about, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was trying to sell me a washing machine.
There’s something hauntingly painful about giving a sales pitch to a customer who’s clearly not interested in the book that you poured sweat and blood and thousands of dollars in, and giving that sales pitch not because you want to, but because he asked. And you know he only asked because he’s killing time until the Dancing with the Stars host takes over the stage. And you can hardly hear yourself grumble to yourself because Tori Spelling is squawking through the P.A. behind you.
Our booth number was 666. Before the festival, a friend asked me if that was a coincidence. I didn’t understand how it could be. I’m not satanic. After a seven-hour assault from the LA Times Stage, I knew what he meant. It was a coincidence because I was in hell.
Beyond the celebrities and customers, there were my fellow publishers to contend with. Not so much Jennifer from Manic D, but the publishers who stopped in to chat. The trendy fear this year is digital book readers. Publishers are convinced that everything will be going paperless within ten years. Books will be a thing of the past, surrendered in favor of the Kindle or the Sony Reader. And, as much as I like to indulge on unfounded panic, I just couldn’t commiserate with my fellow publishers.
On the one hand, I could see the benefits of these digital readers. Because everything published before 1923 in the US is part of the public domain in the US. No one holds the copyright on it. So, if I wanted to publish Moby Dick tomorrow, I could. And since the Herman Melville’s estate isn’t going to get a dime, it doesn’t make sense for Barnes & Noble or Penguin to charge as much as they do for their copies of that novel. You can get a free copy of it online at Project Gutenberg. So, if these digital readers became popular, anyone who wanted to read a pre-1923 book could download it for free. I think that would be a good thing. But you can already read most of those books for free online. And I still buy the books. Because Moby Dick is hard enough to read without having to read it off a glowing, flickering screen.
And that’s the problem with these book readers. The manufacturers swear that the screens don’t glow or flicker. But I’ve seem these readers. They glow and flicker.
Besides, if more people went to the digital book readers, I could sell a whole lot more Gorsky books without having to print, store, or mail them. And, sure, more people would be illegally downloading these books, but I could live with that. At least more people would be reading our authors.
On the other hand, I have trouble believing that these readers will take over. For one thing, I’ve never seen anyone using one of these digital readers in the world at large. I see a lot of people reading books down by the beach or on airplanes or in diners or on campuses, but I have not seen one single person reading a digital reader outside of the store that sells that reader. And I’ve been looking. For years, I’ve been looking.
When we started Gorsky Press more than a decade ago, people told me then that, within five years, everything would be paperless. Ten years later, people are telling me that, within five years, everything will be paperless. Will I hear the same thing in ten more years? I don’t know. I do remember buying an LP back in 1984 and the clerk telling me that cassettes would make LPs a thing of the past. Twenty-five years later, the LP is more popular than it’s been in a decade.
This goes to show that the future, like the present, isn’t binary. Sure, people probably will start buying more of those readers. Maybe they will get more popular. But for the rest of my lifetime, at least, people will still buy books for the same reason people still buy records. We want the artifact. We want the ceremony of lifting the record onto the turntable, hearing the crack and pop of anticipation, and listening to that warm fuzz of analog. Likewise, when we read a book, we want to be able to pause with our thoughts, gaze at the cover, flip back through the pages. We want to dog-ear pages and underline beautiful sentences. We want to smell the musty pages of a book that we’ve read twenty years ago, and reread that book and let the smell and the browning pages connect us to our earlier selves. I can’t see myself giving that up for a glowing screen. I can’t see readers like me giving that up for the next fifty or sixty years, at least.
Of course, I didn’t tell my fellow publishers this. Nothing bugs people like mixing your reason in with their panic.
So that was the LA Times Festival of Books. Vacuous celebrities, whiny publishers in a retail purgatory, and me grumbling. But there was this beautiful moment, too.
With only a couple of hours left in the book fest, with another celebrity chattering away on the stage behind me, I left the Gorsky/Manic D booth, made my way across campus, and watched a reading sponsored by an organization called “Dime Stories.” Aspiring-but-little-known writers read three-minute, slice-of-life stories about commuting on public transportation and thinking about their aunt and that kind of thing. I watched five or six of them. They were at times funny, clever, and thoughtful. All of these writers, though, clearly spent a lot of time crafting these little three-minute stories. They thought about every word. It was big deal for them to read at the Festival of Books.
The crowd was bigger there than it had been at the celebrity stage when I left. I was happy to see that.
Twenty minutes into Dime Stories, who should take the stage but Razorcake’s own Jim Ruland. He read a twisted story about a guy obsessed with Nietzsche and pro sports. It got a little edgy at the end. Some spectators who’d brought their young children squirmed in their seats. I felt a little swelling in my chest, proud for ol’ Jim.
Was his reading so powerful, so beautiful that it vindicated my whole experience at the Festival of Books? No. Clearly, I’m still grumpy about it all. I was just glad to see that among this vacuous display of a culture in ruins that passes itself off as a Festival of Books, at this homage to pop cultural pap where honest attempts at communication are lost in the clutter, at least organizations like Razorcake, Gorsky, and Manic D still have a foothold.
When the hullabaloo subsided, I packed the unsold books back into my truck and thought about the dog and her squirrel. I tried to make sense of the metaphor. Who was the dog in this scenario? Who was the squirrel? What were we genetically programmed to do? How was nature running its course?
I still don’t know. I’m sorry.
I wish I had a better answer for you.
Author’s note: This is the seventeenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #51. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.