Before the Market Becomes Our Prison

Lindsay Waters: “The humanities must now take steps to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, such as the writing of books and articles, before the market becomes our prison and the value of the book becomes undermined. It was not always so. John Milton once wrote that good books are "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit." Today the humanist should look back to such expressions of illuminated belief. The task is to engage in constant re-examination.”

I don't share Waters' concern, at least not the concern he addresses in the opening section of his essay. I'm optimistic that the "problem", in the forseeable future, will be one of too many books, not, as Lindsay suggests, too few. For people like me who are consumers of books rather than writers, this is no problem at all, simply because that means there will be always something to read, and reading is an activity I spend hours a day doing and will continue doing until the day I'm robbed of my eyesight. Reading for me is an essential part of the conversation that life is supposed to be, though it is only one part of the conversation. The other parts include, but are not limited to, critically thinking about what I've read, discussing it with those around me, and, through writing for my weblog(s), those who are far from me. Most of the friends I literally talk to are not really book-inclined (that's changing, but they're still mostly non-book-nerds), and that's okay: I like having them around for reasons other than talking about books. I write far less than I read (far, far less), and that too is okay. I feel no obligation to share every single thought (though regular readers of this weblog, especially in its early days, may disagree). A market for books, and a market in books is both a good thing—like I said, the existence of a market means there will always be something for me to read—and a "bad" which can be bypassed if necessary through publicly funded universities, independent, second-hand book stores and, my homes away from home, libraries.

The bulk of the essay addresses the lack of critical thinking, especially in American culture, and to an extent, he has a point, though critical thinking will never disappear. There's only so much that TV can do (“teacher, mother, secret lover”, Homer called it, but that's about it), and the Internet, still a textual medium despit an onslaught from audio if not so much video (yet) will have a lot more people fighting for it if—when, says Lawrence Lessig—the forces of control and permission and conformity start weilding their power than TV ever will. In the meantime, I expect to continue my obsession with books.

Fellow obsessives will do well to read So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Jay McCarthy has an an excellent summary and comments on the book.