Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Homer Price: Publisher

I've been following Robert Darnton's ongoing investigation of Google & the Future of Books in The New York Review of Books with great interest. In his analysis of how Google has come to dominate, if not monopolize the digitization of our libraries, and of the legal, cultural and political implications of Google Book Search, The Amended Settlement Agreement, and all the rest, Darnton has made me aware of much I would otherwise probably never have heard, and explained it all in a way even I could understand. (Let me again recommend all of Darnton's contributions on this subject to date, and the resulting correspondence.)

The issues raised, while fascinating to me and not a little scary, are not really of a kind I feel qualified to discuss. Better you just read Robert Darnton. But with the advent this past week of the bookstore's new Espresso Book Machine, and our first tentative foray into printing "Google books," I must say the benefits, and difficulties, of digitized books are becoming very real to me. Today I provided our devoted and delightful designated EBM operator with a list of out of print books I'd like to see. Other than a few titles for which I intend to write recommendations, the list I gave her consisted not so much of books I have any serious expectation of selling, but rather of books I can imagine no one but myself having asked anyone for in a very long time. (I feel confident in this because, often as not, the original library pocket and card is reproduced in each, and few of these dear old books have seen a reader since before I was born. I find I rather like seeing the library's history with each book. An unexpected and not uninteresting bit of history, that. And just today, in a specially pointless and funny variation on the mindless thoroughness of the digitizers, a book from 1814 with it's once no doubt quit beautiful mottled endpapers, reproduced in all but incomprehensible shades of black and gray! Loved that, once I'd figured out what I was looking at. I will say, for all the fun to be had from this sort of idiotic, mechanistic copying from cover to cover, because of the remarkably shoddy condition of many of the sloppily digitized library copies I've seen to date, with all their generations of horrifying annotations, underlining, faded, or poorly printed if not sometimes unreadable print, all, all faithfully, one might almost say lovingly preserved-- to say nothing of the regularly reproduced thumbs of the digitizers -- I am beginning to wonder just how salable some of my old favorites might be. The truth is, as a used books buyer, not one copy of any of the library books I've seen reprinted to date has been in a condition I would consider appropriate for resale. Had these copies come across the buying desk looking like this, I would have rejected every one as unsalable. Take heart though, book lovers, just today I did get to see a beautiful, clean copy of an old Norton paperback classics edition, complete with both original covers, and nifty cover graphics, and that has all but entirely renewed my faith.)

In all the fortissimo discussion of recent days about MacMillan vs Amazon and the possible outcome and consequences of this titanic flea market bickering about the price of ebooks, all of which, as a wee clerk in an independent bookstore, thrilled me in a strangely detached way -- rather like a little kid watching adults fight in public about money -- there has been a grudging, if consistent, and consistently amusing, concession made in every piece I've read, that this is all relevant to what is still and is likely to always be only the privileged fraction of American readers -- admittedly an increasingly eccentric minority of the American population to begin with -- who will ever read books on an expensive gizmo, books they might as easily buy at a yard sale, many of 'em, or from a used bookstore, or read from the library, or online. (With the yard sale and the library, I have no confidence in the condition of such books, but as a dealer in good, clean used copies, if that sort of thing matters to you at all, I can tell you used books, when available, will probably always be the way to go.)

Remembering the days when the personal computer was predicted to replace not only the book, but radio, television, the grocery store and sex, I can't help, just as a side note, marveling yet again at the way in which American corporate capitalism delights in creating and then indulging the panic of the bourgeoisie to not be left behind in the revolution. Though I concede, I have seen beggars on The Ave texting, so there we are.

But to get back today's good news, I have before me a delightful, ugly little thing, printed and purchased just today, that I would otherwise be unlikely to have at all, a copy of Letters for Literary Ladies, To Which is Added, An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification, by Maria Edgeworth! Took less than a hour to get and cost me nine bucks. Imagine that!

If you don't know Maria Edgeworth -- and why should you? -- she is, among other things, the Anglo-Irish author of Castle Rackrent, a very good novel from 1800, and that novel happens to be the book I will now again be able to recommend and sell in the handsome reprint of the Norton classics paperback mentioned above.

Tonight reading just Edgeworth's very funny little endpiece in this book, "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification," I discovered that in just 43 brief, bright pages, the author provided, roughly two hundred years ago, a manual for every woman to win every argument in a happy and successful marriage, at least of what we now think of most often as the situation or romantic comedy type.

Just see if this argument isn't familiar, if more felicitously expressed than usual by the very funny Ms. Edgeworth, in just two quick examples from the text:

"Right and wrong, if we go to the foundation of things, are, as casuists tell us, really words of very dubious signification, perpetually varying with custom and fashion, and to be adjusted ultimately by no other standards but opinion and force. Obtain power then by all means; power is the law of man; make it yours."

Now really, that is worthy of Foucault, though he never wrote that well or was ever as funny. And then, just a page or two later, comes this:

"I take it for granted that you have already acquired sufficient command of voice; you need not study its compass; going beyond its pitch has a peculiarly happy effect upon some occasions."

I could go on all night pulling out such wonderful things!

What an awesome thing it is to be able, without fuss, and without shipping, to get this book, a surprisingly clean copy of my own, to read the same day I thought to ask for one!

Whatever the wider implications of digitization and Google books and all, the reality of reading my own copy of this little book has made me inexpressibly gleeful. (And the table-talk of Rev. Sydney Smith promised me for tomorrow!) So consequences to the constitution, potential censorship, monopoly, capitalism, etc., be damned -- at least for now.

You really must come in and see this machine, really you must. It is a marvel of the age! And if you come in tomorrow, I can sell you Castle Rackrent, and maybe share my Sydney Smith with you, or something from Augustine Birrell...


  1. Well, first thanks for putting up Homer Price and the Doughnut Machine, a book I read over and over as a kid. In fact, as an adult it was one of the kids' books I put in my library, along with Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Borrowers (the whole series), and The Enormous Egg, which I just pulled out to read with Sam.

    Second, I want the book you bought! Just the title of An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justifcation has me eager to see it.

    As for the PC replacing so many things, I do have to admit, it has replaced sex for me, make of that what you will.

  2. First, love your list of favorite kid's books'cause it looks an awful lot like mine.
    Next, the EBM, from the front, looks just like Himer Price's donut machine! Honest! The books even come out a little shoot on the side, just like donuts!
    I'll print you a copy of the Edgeworth.
    Finally, I was really looking forward to getting Internet groceries, myself. Never happened, dammit.