Books on top

May 27, 1994|By E. Annie Proulx

EVERY other week someone says that books are dead or dying, that just around the corner is the black hour when they will be curiosities like stereopticon slides or milk stools -- probably the same thing they said when radio was invented, when television flickered its way into our living rooms.

To some the phrase means sluggish book sales in the recent and lingering recession, to others it means that the old gray novel ain't what it used to be.

Not a few associate the obliteration of distinguished literary houses and imprints in the age of the corporate takeover as synonymous with the inevitable disappearance of books.

The hearse followers mournfully announce that no one reads these days, can't read, won't read. It doesn't strike them as peculiar that there is a fierce scramble among corporate interests to buy the publishing houses that put out these dying books.

It's possible that the premature obituaries merely cover our confusion about the clouded direction of change in the culture.

As the big publishers try for bestsellers at the expense of serious books, it is increasingly the small publishers and university presses that are finding and publishing the books of interesting new writers.

Books once rather scornfully considered grist for the small publisher's mill are catching the reading public's interest.

Among the new books published last year were important works of fiction from Arab-Americans, African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, Native Americans and others.

The so-called gay and lesbian novel is beginning to escape the genre closet and stand on bookstore shelves alongside traditional works.

Book groups, an old idea, are everywhere. Books are moving into motel and hotel rooms, where a year ago one could find only a single title in a black binding.

Now thousands of copies of Joel Conarroe's "Six American Poets" engage travelers in lonely rooms across the continent. There are guidebooks to used bookshops, and a few imaginative independent booksellers thrive in the shadow of ever-increasing numbers of superstores.

Those who say the book is moribund often cite the computer as the asp on the mat. But the electronic highway is for bulletin boards on esoteric subjects, reference works, lists and news -- timely, utilitarian information, efficiently pulled through the wires.

Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever.

In a curious way the computer emphasizes the unique virtues of the book.

The book is small, lightweight and durable and can be stuffed in a coat pocket, read in the waiting room, on the plane. What are planes but flying reading rooms?

Books give esthetic and tactile pleasure, from the dust-jacket art to the binding, paper, typography and text design, from the moment of purchase until the last page is turned.

Books speak even when they stand unopened on the shelf.

If you would know a man or woman, look at their books, not their software.

E. Annie Proulx is author of "The Shipping News," which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.