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June 18, 2008 / Jake Seliger

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance

Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance contributes to the problem it describes: how we’re to comprehend millions upon millions of books, many of which strive for attention in a world limited by time more than anything else. Despite this, and books’ relatively low profile in the mass media, they retain individual power and power over individuals—as Zaid says, “[...] the conversation continues, unheeded by television, which will never report: ‘Yesterday, a student read Socrates’ Apology and felt free’ ” (11). On the same page, he calls a personal library one’s “intellectual genome,” a brilliant phrase that I’m sure I’ll be using. Delightful turns of phrase and ideas continue throughout what could easily devolve into a polemic but doesn’t.

So Many Books is surprising for being so witty, meditative, and fast; I half-expected a ponderous beast and instead found a lithe and economical essay. It tells us we can own books we haven’t read; that the library as trophy room is a somewhat silly metaphor (16), and that “Socrates criticized the fetishization of the book” (18) before I did. Zaid presents figures that demonstrate what the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, says: “If proliferation is a sign of incipient death then the demise of the novel must be imminent.” As reading by the great studied mass declines or holds steady, writing proliferates, perhaps contributing to what I have long suspected: “To say ‘I only know that I’ve read nothing,’ after reading thousands of books, is not false modesty” (23). Indeed: after at least a 1,000, I’ve only begun to perceive the vastness of what’s out there, like the early astronomers who began to realize how cosmic the cosmos really are. We’re not left bereft of hope in this situation; statistics are inadequate representations of a journey, “and maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us” (24). So many wonderful quotes in six short pages implies a great deal of thought per page.

Later chapters, like the cost of reading and the supply and demand of poetry, are closer to obvious. Still, Zaid’s observations about the time and storage cost of books are accurate, and he says: “Today it is easier to acquire treasures than it is to give them the time they deserve” (36) or “Just finding and keeping interesting books is very expensive, for readers and librarians” (87). The latter is particularly relevant as I ponder the five boxes of books sitting a few from me, representing just under half my owned intellectual genome, the entirety of which will shortly be transported with much labor and expense to Arizona. Zaid goes on spinning thread after thread of interrelated book thought, tying together ideas that seem disparate. He precedes John Lanchester, whose comments regarding the Library of America are encapsulated by Zaid’s description of complete works and critical editions as “monuments are designed for ceremonies, not conversations” (45). They can be a sign of an author’s worthiness and of the publishing diversity Zaid celebrates despite or because of his ruminations on how books affect us and our world.

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