This situation allows us to understand a little-known fact, one of those facts that is hardly ever stated, since it defies conventional wisdom: Most of the titles published in rich countries sell no more than a few thousand copies, just as is true in the rest of the world. How can this be? Isn't there always talk about massive printings? There is talk, and these printings do exist, but they exist side by side with small printings, which are the majority and are never discussed. The true editorial superiority of rich countries lies in their ability to more easily reach a few thousand buyers willing to pay thirty dollars (or much more) for a book of very limited appeal. It lies in the fact that they publish ten times more titles per capita than poorer countries, because they are able to afford the luxury of publishing an infinite variety of titles in small printings.
In many areas, progress destroys diversity. Not so with books. After Gutenberg, mass market journalism, film, television, computing, satellite communications, and the Internet have all appeared. With each new development, the end of the book was prophesied, and each time more books were published, with greater ease and on more diverse subjects. Now, print-on-demand systems make printings of fifty or one hundred copies cost-effective. And what does this mean? It has become possible to publish books that interest no more than fifty or one hundred people. Of course, there will always be some author who, instead of appreciating the benefits of this system, will say, "How is it possible that no more than fifty (or one hundred) copies of my Deconstructive Hermeneutics have been sold! There must be a conspiracy against me. Publishers and booksellers are in it for the moneythey only promote books that are easy to sell. How will humanity, numbed by television and consumerism, hermeneutically deconstruct itself? Nothing will change until Everything changes . . ."
But let us suppose that, at last, Everything does change; that the Golden Age is upon us; that a universal library system is established (a great Library of Babel) that holds every book ever published, more than fifty million titles; that every human being is allowed to collect a salary for dedicating himself solely to the reading of books; that, under these conditions, each reader is able to read four books a week, two hundred a year, ten thousand in a half-century. It would be as nothing. If not a single book were published from this moment on, it would still take 250,000 years for us to acquaint ourselves with those books already written. Simply reading a list of them (author and title) would take some fifteen years. When we say that books should be read by everyone, we aren't thinking. Our simple physical limitations make it impossible for us to read 99.9 percent of the books that are written.
Humankind writes more than it can read. If for every book published one or two languish unpublished, then two or three million books are written each year. Xlibris, "a strategic partner of Random House Ventures" specializing in vanity publishing, estimates that for every book published in the United States there are nine unpublished manuscripts (Harper's Magazine, December 2000). And yet a full-time reader can't read more than two hundred, one out of every ten or fifteen thousand.
Would it be desirable for just a few books to be published each year, books that everyone in the world could read? Each of us dreams of having the world's full attention, of everyone else falling silent to hear what we have to say, of everyone else giving up writing in order to read what we have written. There exists a belief that at least a few things should be read by the whole world. But what could be said to everyone? If there were a permanent universal assembly, at which a microphone was passed around so that each person could speak to the crowd, we would scarcely have time to say hello and sit down. The universal dialogue would be reduced to a recognition of the self, a kind of Babelian poem of creation consisting of everyone saying "Good morning" to one another. Maybe that is what life is: We stand up and say hello and then disappear. But it is difficult to accept that idea. In our hello is a yearning for eternity, a yearning that makes us cling fiercely to the microphone and leads to totalitarian communion. Everyone must listen to what I have to say. The never-ending salutation is the expression of a never-ending I, echoing from the center of the universe. It resounds in the speeches of the Führer; in Mao's Little Red Book; in Psalm 49:
Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:
From So Many Books: Reading & Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, chapter 3, pages 25-33. Copyright Gabriel Zaid 2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Paul Dry Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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