In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news. Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach. One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts. Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads. They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves. I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen. Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold. And the results can be quite sobering.
The news isn’t all bad, though. I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think. I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books? I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market. Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year. This, I think, is cause for celebration. It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.
Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information. Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless. Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not. And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned. That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic. Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned. The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Holidays, Literature, Posts, Publishing
Tagged academic publishing, Andrew Perrin, Banned Book Week, literacy, Pew Research Center, Slaughterhouse-Five
Like most people I have a cell phone. If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap. It works that way with scanned documents as well. Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it. Except fax. That I cannot do. The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax. Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation. The company had no email; it had to come by fax.
Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home. We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work. The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent. I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax. You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring. They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said. Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax. I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps. They suspiciously wanted my credit card info. Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal. I had to send a three-page document. I checked to see if my laptop could do it. The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear. Who insists on faxes any more?
This is the dilemma of mixed technologies. It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian. My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax). Ours is a telephone relationship. Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap. I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets. This was in the days before the internet. To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly. Yet somehow we survived. I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign. The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives. Unless, of course, you need to send a fax. Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Ektachrome, email, fax, Jerusalem, Luddite, technology, text, travel agency
Timing has never been my strong suit. As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters. Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking. Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation. Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion. Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time. We’ll take whatever validation we can get.
Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters. Even the Bible, after all, has them. They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world. A world of hurricanes and Trump. A world lacking compassion and sense. Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands. Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless. Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close. Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving? When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world. Monsters have their practical uses indeed.
If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing. Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house. Moving is chaos embodied. Like monsters, it’s best left to the young. It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town. I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty. Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful. Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone. Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums. They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever. It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily. If you happen to miss it, don’t worry. It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Just for Fun, Monsters, Posts, Travel
Tagged aliens, Medieval Monsters, Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, Occam's razor, Terrors, Wonders