Sunday, March 22, 2009

Books and Pseudo-Books

I'm in a sort of cave made of piles of books around my laptop.... one series of stacks is to discard, one is to keep for possible selling, and one is just to keep. My project this weekend has been to type book titles into Amazon and see which ones are worth $$$ and which aren't. Sort of fun, but sort of disillusioning at the same time. So many books in the world that apparently aren't worth much to anyone.

One thing that makes me mad and sad is the textbooks. I own a few big, shiny, glossy textbooks that (1) I collected from the dime rack at the library or (2) I was given by friends who knew I am a homeschooler who loves books. These are monster 5 pound things that look like they could last a century, or kill someone if you dropped them from your second story window, with no expense spared in colorful, elaborate illustrations and smart DK-style headings and sidebars.

And they are going for $.01 at Amazon because there is a 2009 edition out now and these books are 2007 or 2008. Obsolete now. Whereas brand new, they go for $75 and up. Education funding crisis, indeed. Hmph. Someone is making lots of money. I can only imagine how the schools toss out their last year's models in favor of the new, improved model that of course is changed just enough so that the online resources and so forth will no longer support the old ones.

I wonder what they do with the old ones? They're utterly worthless at second hand. When I look inside them, they aren't much worth reading even when pristinely new. Like glossy stockholder's portfolio packets, almost. Text that pushes back at your eyes and actively resists understanding. Do they end up in landfills? Shouldn't we pass a bill limiting this waste of trees and imposition of chemical coloring processes on perfectly good paper? My guess is that this would come off as educational curmudgeonry, equivalent to saying that we should skimp on our childrens' education.

Another sad thing is when the children's hospital, the library or some such place has a Free Book program in place and they hand out the kind of book that hardly seems like a book to me. Aidan got a Blues Clues book one time, so glitzy that it looked like a McToy but much more boring to most kids, I am afraid, and with rather less creative value. At least, for Aidan, who would have preferred a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar -- when his speech therapist gave him that book he carried it around with him for days. Kids tend to like REAL books in my experience, books that are a joy to read and listen to, but if they do happen to be attracted to a glossy book with a familiar TV character on the front I am not sure if it really helps them develop what I would call literacy. Maybe it does help, a little, in the same way reading the back of a cereal box might.

And one more thing makes me sad and that is when some book that has been a bestseller and published in a glossy hardcover then a mass market paperback, like a Dr Phil book or some other type of self-help or popular inspirational book, and has quickly become totally worthless ... there are 200 copies selling for the fateful $.01 price on Amazon. Meanwhile the author has written a new bestseller. Another kind of obsolescence there.

It makes me want to call for a book-printing freeze. Stop the presses. There can be too much of a good thing. All these glossy illustrations, catchy content, and sheer volume and speed. I am wondering if it has an adverse effect on literacy. Even the Great Books are mass-produced nowadays. How could young people not feel some contempt? Maybe book-burnings aren't necessary -- instead, just endlessly produce books that are almost instant doorstops and landfill fodder. Then you can keep insisting that all you want is universal literacy and no one can really say anything to the contrary.

All this book-sorting has started to help me break free of a long-standing attachment. Books are treasures to me. The look of them alone inspires reverence in me. I imagine heaven as the book stacks at Trinity College. I never would have thought there could be such a thing as a glut of books, which are or ought to be things of the spirit, but now I am afraid there is. If I go back to Aquinas's definitions of types of gluttony I can make an analogy to literary publishing along these lines:
too soon, too expensive, too much, too eager, too dainty, too fervent
Quality matters, and seems sometimes to be in inverse proportion to quantity.

There is a lot of love for books out there still -- the very liveliness of the Amazon Marketplace shows that. But it flows along in a distinctly different, though perhaps occasionally overlapping, stream from the mainstream publication stream.


Theresa said...

I feel the same way.Every time we move I have to look at each book and decide--keep or toss. It is gut-wrenching for me. Even if it is something I can easily get at the library, it's just not the same. Then I wonder if I let it go will it go to someone who will appreciate it, or will it collect dust on the used bookstore shelf until it finally makes its way to the landfill? What a thought.
And the textbooks? What a waste of paper. Tons and tons of paper.I don't buy them any more. Not used and certainly not new.I don't want to support such a wantonly wasteful industry.

Willa said...

Good idea, Theresa, about just saying no to the textbooks. There are just a few textbooks that would be called Living Books and the proof is that they stay in print and continue to be in demand even in the older versions. One Jacob's math textbook I put up sold within a few hours.

That's what makes it hard to give away books we've made a home for over the years.... as you said, that there is no guarantee they will be picked up and cared for by anyone else. Sigh! You're right, library versions are not the same.

Laughing Stars said...

Great post, Willa. Textbooks are a waste and a scam, for the reason you mentioned. What possible need could there be -- in most fields -- to have a revised edition every few years? There is nothing new under the sun in most of the areas textbooks cover.

lissla lissar said...

I assume there's tonnes of money in textbook publishing and magazines, but from what I know about publishing in Canada, there's almost none in things like classics, poetry, short or non-genre fiction- those things are published with the money that Dr. Phil, Stephen King, James Patterson, and Danielle Steele (who is actually a robot, I think) bring in, and are sort of prestige publishing. You have to publish some non-fluff in order to look good.

I think the McToy children's publishing is about as lasting as the constant pushing of sugar cereals and fruit snacks (10% real fruit! 10 whole percent!!!), and as ephemeral. Thank goodness, there are still writers writing real, good books for children, and the good ones keep in print, mostly. The bad are wasteful, but I don't see us, culturally, becoming more attached to the good and useful, and more detached from the flashy and ephemeral.

Chari said...

I like this post, Willa......especially as a mom who shops occasionally (once or twice a semester) at the local college bookstore.......ugh.

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