Penguin and Random House are merging, forming something that will be addressed as Penguin Random House. This bodes ill: if they couldn’t see that Random Penguin was by far the best name, or, keeping the originals intact, Random House Penguin, this joint venture may be doomed from the start.
This would be sad.
It’s all because of the rise of e-books that this had to happen in the first place. Amazon has the e-book market alarmingly cornered, and the old-line publishers are trying to shore up their positions. Yes, they’d be nearly 25 percent of the book market, but what’s that compared to Amazon’s almost 90 percent of the e-book market, the logic seems to run. It’s all about the e-books, now.
E-book is future. Book is past. Save something online and you’ll always be able to find it when you need it. Print it on paper, bind it, and you might lose it. We trade possession for potential every time.
Until the switch stops working.
Most things we depend on depend on the switch. Flip it on and you know the news and the weather and you can hear your friends’ voices and see their pictures and send them variably witty texts. Flip the switch and there’s music and games and video, color and sound bursting out of your pocket.
But the bane of these dream devices has always been battery life. Everything you want, at the touch of a button, for four to eight hours. We wander around with the umbilical cords of phone chargers hanging out of our pockets. Everything you want, up to a point.
The justifications for books, real, physical books — we are supposed to call them “physical books” not “real books,” lest we hurt the feelings of e-books — have gotten increasingly apocalyptic. “We need them!”people froth and insist. “What if all the power in the world goes out? What if you’re stuck on a desert island with no power cords? What if you’re on an airplane where you have to turn off your electronics? What if devious publishers and governments slip into the texts of the e-books and change them? Something something Bilderberg conspiracy!”
The case for the book turns into this nightmarish vision of the loss of all learning, or bends back into some form of aesthetic justification: books just feel better in your hands, they have a certain heft to them, there’s that scent the new ones have, there’s something numinous about those decorous lines of black text on a printed page. This is the way our elders did it and their elders did it. Nothing practical, just — intangible, squishy things.
Awful things can happen to “real” books, of course. They mold. They age like people, growing blotched and losing their color and cracking their spines and losing vital pages just when you most needed them to go on. But they still have some of the advantages that a cat has over a robot: they’re companionable, and in a pinch you can use them to feed the fire.
Penguin and Random House are struggling to save themselves, not the printed book or centuries of library tradition. They are shoring up against a different storm altogether. This is for the survival of publishing, not the book as we know it. Who’s in it for the printed book, these days? It’s for antiquarians and collectors. Until the switch stops working.
And then an outage looms, and they seem both desirable and practical again, for a moment.
There is nothing like curling up with a good book on a dark and stormy night. And as Sandy rages, it is good to have one that does not require batteries.