One powerful piece of oratory has emerged from this discussion in the UK: Philip Pullman's impassioned speech about the value of libraries. It's gone viral in a big way, as Benedicte Page writing in the Guardian recounts, and there's a reason. It's an incredible testament to the importance of libraries, but above the usual (and still valuable) personal stories about this great writer's various interactions with public libraries, it also cuts to the heart of the matter: libraries are disrespected for not generating revenue, for not actively participating in the capitalist game.
He first introduces this point after discussing the British government's ludicrous and conservative plan to turn the libraries over to volunteers instead of paid, qualified librarians, and how volunteers will then have to compete to get some cash from some pot of money the government sets aside that is vastly less than what they now provide for librarians. It's all deeply insulting on many layers, which Pullman explains, but then he steps back and criticizes
this whole competition, and where it comes from:
Of course he's absolutely right. The government doesn't trust goodwill. It assumes the worst about humans, that it needs to give us a competition for pure hard cash as motivation. This mentality is blind to books and their value - Pullman's point.
And then folks, he takes the publishers to task. Oh be still my heart. This man has got my number:
Right?! And the fact is, this is all true not just at the most commercial presses, but also at many non-profit presses, whether attached to non-profit organizations or universities. It's the mentality that has given way to a huge business in self-publishing, which in turn has left readers skeptical of books.
I have long said that we are asking too much of books. We put them next to other commodities that sell and say why can't they do more? There are so many readers, why can't we reach them all and make a bundle of money? We exploit them by testing markets with them - Ted Striphas explains this strategy, most recently used by Amazon who found their customers using books before moving on to tvs, toilet paper, toys, and more. We get too far from the importance of what is in books themselves.
So we look to presses and stores and libraries and we demand returns, quantifiable returns. But they're not always quantifiable. Pullman may be getting nostalgic and sentimental but I refuse to fault him for that. We can sit around and mock readers who talk about loving the smell of a book and the feel of the page, in response to diehard Kindlers, but there is meaning there. The fact that places like Amazon can keep a close count of what people are reading and even how they are reading each book they purchase - when they stop, what they highlight - is not a plus, to me, but a minus. (It's also deeply creepy and invasive.) You're pounding the fun out of reading and books by demanding to know every bit of data about this market.
With talk of Editors being replaced by Robots and Cyborgs, Pullman is right, and his call is increasingly important.