Explosive Words

Updikes Autographs His Book
"Defend your lonely forts," John Updike, here signing copies of his new book, "Terrorist," told booksellers on Saturday. ". . . Books are intrinsic to our human identity." (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

Think of it as the publishing industry's version of "Survivor."

It was late Saturday afternoon at the Washington Convention Center. Half a dozen editors confronted an audience of several hundred booksellers as the moderator laid out the rules of engagement:

"The six editors here will talk about a few -- a few -- of their favorite fall books," she said. They would have 12 minutes each. If anyone ran over, "we'll just vote them off the island."

The "Buzz Forum," as this exercise in competitive salesmanship is called, represents business as usual for BookExpo America -- the annual publishing convention that brought roughly 25,000 book people to Washington over the weekend.

If you listened, though, you could hear another kind of buzz at BEA this year. It was an angrier one, generated by a clash of cultures in an industry frazzled by technological change.

The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.

No wonder they applauded long and loud when a champion stepped forth.

* * *

When John Updike approached the lectern in the Convention Center ballroom Saturday morning, most of his bleary-eyed, coffee-swilling audience expected him to talk about his latest novel, "Terrorist." But Updike, the much-honored 74-year-old author of dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, essays and criticism, said that would be "immodest." Instead, he praised the assembled booksellers as "the salt of the book world" and reminisced for a while about bookstores he had loved in his youth.

Then, without warning, he opened fire on the technorati.

"I read last Sunday, and maybe some of you did too, a quite long article by a man called Kevin Kelly," he began. He proposed to read a few paragraphs so that listeners who hadn't seen the article might "have a sense of your future."

The reference was to a piece called "Scan This Book!" in the previous week's New York Times Magazine. (The title echoes activist Abbie Hoffman's 1970 provocation, "Steal This Book.") In it, Kelly described -- in the messianic/hyperbolic style favored by Wired, the magazine with which he has long been associated -- the inexorable march toward an "Eden" in which the totality of human knowledge will be downloadable onto a single iPod-size device.

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