In the Penny Press – as in life, dieting, and killing people you dislike – there’s a price to be paid for good times. In the back of my mind, I knew this when I tucked into Steve Wasserman’s absolutely superb long essay in The Nation (June 18) “The Amazon Effect,” about and the future of book-publishing. Still, I lost myself in the tale Wasserman tells.

It’s bracing stuff: the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the rise of e-publishing, and a surging population of readers who, as Wasserman puts it, “have no attachment at all to the book as object.” Wasserman writes evocatively about such readers – and the commercial world they’ve both inherited and shaped:

For these readers, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of people at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or a digital device matters not at all; what matters is cost and ease of access. Walk into any Apple store (temples of the latest fad) and you’ll be engulfed by the near frenzy of folks from all walks of life who seemingly can’t wait to surrender their hard-earned dollars for the latest iPad, Apple’s tablet reader, no matter the constraints of a faltering economy. Then try to find a bookstore. Good luck. If you do, you’ll notice that fewer books are on offer, the aisles are wider, customers scarce. Bookstores have lost their mojo.

The length of Wasserman’s essay is such that some of his lazier tendencies have slipped by his harried editors (that preposterous ‘all walks of life,’ for instance, and a couple of ‘four corners of the globe’-type toss-offs), who also let him get away with occasional Dickensian breathlessness, as when he gasps, “Ambulances were routinely stationed in the [Amazon order-processing] facility’s giant parking lot to rush stricken workers to nearby hospitals.” But such things are minor in the face of the great job he does portraying a venerable industry caught in the worst crisis of its existence:

What is clear is that “legacy publishing,” like old-fashioned bookselling, is gone. Just as bookselling is increasingly virtual, so is publishing. Technology democratizes both the means of production and distribution. The implications for traditional publishers are acute.

Wasserman also relays the familiar quote by Amazon’s brainless, quasi-human founder Jeff Bezos that printed books make him ‘grumpy’ – that turning the pages is tedious, that “the book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.” This comment and comments like it caused all the predictable hand-fluttering over in the precincts of Downton Abbey, but in this one isolated instance, Bezos was right. Quite apart from their collectibility as objects (literally anything is collectible), physical, printed books have many drastic shortcomings – the only reason readers of a certain age don’t tend to see this is because they’ve lived their whole lives with no alternative. It’s true that electronic reading devices require circuitry and electric power in order to do anything, whereas a physical book requires only available light. But the trade-off for that powerless simplicity is pretty steep. Physical books are finished objects – you can add your comments to them, but you can’t ever get anything from them but what’s printed on the page. If you’re reading along and you encounter a reference to ‘Metternich’ or ‘phaeton’ or ‘pelf,’ you’re completely on your own – and to find clarification, you’ll have to stop reading, put down your book, and go in search of answers (some fans of traditional books – the very worst kind of such fan – will harrumph ‘well, you should already know what those things are.’ Such people are to be strenuously avoided). E-readers offer definitions, pronunciations, and concordances of every word they contain, at the press of a finger. E-readers come with their own reading light. E-readers allow font-sizes and styles to be changed, even customized. And e-readers can be filled with books without increasing their size or weight at all. In other words, a very viable alternative to printed books now exists and is, predictably enough, causing upheavals in the old world of printing. I’ll give Wasserman $10 if he agrees to write an equally-long follow-up next year, and then one five years after that. I predict he’d be writing about an entirely different world.

As noted, I should have expected that the price I’d pay for such a brilliant essay would be fierce, but even so, The Weekly Standard surprised me. Not that it didn’t have genius too – Matt Labash’s “The Meme Generation” is every bit as great as Wasserman’s piece and far more gleefully vicious – but when I read The Weekly Standard, I go straight to the book reviews in the back pages, and this time around, that habit betrayed me big-time.

First up was Harvey Klehr’s review of Alice Kessler-Harris’ new biography of Lillian Hellman, in which Klehr spends the whole of his piece making sure his readers know that Kessler-Harris is wrong, wrong, wrong to defend Hellman in any way, making sure to stress to them that Hellman was a bad, bad person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. At no point in his review does Klehr tell us what Hellman’s profession was, or whether she was any good at it, but that’s probably just a small oversight. Maybe she painted houses.

Small oversights creep into David Aikman’s otherwise-good review of Jules Stewart’s new biography of Prince Albert, although there’s one detail that seems rather bigger: Aikman passes along without censure or contradiction Stewart’s impertinent claim that Albert was the brains behind the throne, that he largely taught Victoria to pay attention to her duty.

But if that was a mere whiff of sexism, I had only to turn the page to get skunk-blasted with sexism right between the eyes, when Jonathan Leaf gives us a “reintroduction” to Mary McCarthy that’s stand-offish about her novels (true to form in this kind of damning-with-faint-praise hatchet-job, Leaf says she peaked with her debut) and borderline-indifferent about everything else she wrote. Instead, in this centenary ‘reintroduction,’ what we get is prurient condescension that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Victoria’s England, including this flat-out astonishing line about McCarthy’s lovers:

… she lost her virginity when she discovered college boys. Her rampant promiscuity – which eventually included dozens, if not hundreds, of lovers – raises the question, previously unasked by biographers, of whether she suffered from some bipolar or borderline personality disorder.

It need hardly be said that such a passage would never have been written or even contemplated about any of McCarthy’s male colleagues, who can have as many lovers as they like and only be considered lucky, not mentally retarded. It’s true that no biographer has raised this question before, and there’s an excellent reason for that: it’s a silly, sexist, and damn stupid thing to do, as Leaf would be learning right about now and much to his own cost, if McCarthy were still alive. Since she can’t defend herself, it’s left to your humble book-blogger to state the obvious that eluded Leaf: Mary McCarthy wrote a dozen absolutely first-rate books (fiction and nonfiction), all of which (not just the first four chapters of her first novel, for Jesus Christ’s sake) are well worth your time, and none of which were written by somebody suffering from a slavering sex-mania, not that her lovers are any of your business. Yeesh.

And to top it all off, there’s no mention in the Hellman piece that the issue also contains a piece about her celebrated enemy, McCarthy, and no mention in the McCarthy piece about the Hellman hatchet-job. On an e-reader, there would have been links.

  • Richard Lees

    Hi Steve
    Enjoyed your demolition of J.Leaf’s nasty representation of Mary McCarthy – I reached a similar but less articulate conclusion on my blog. McCarthy deserves better, especially in her centenary year.

    Best wishes

    Richard Lees

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