If These Were the Only Copies On Earth

Steve Landsburg wonders if there are too many books: “This year's Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction have now all been awarded for works I will never read, and next month's National Book Award is certain to follow suit. Which causes me to wonder whether the world's got enough books already. I own hundreds of novels that I will never have the time to read. If these were the only copies on earth and a fire destroyed half of them, my life would not be signifcantly impoverished.”

I wonder if Landsburg has read So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Jay McCarthy has extensive notes) or what he thinks about the long tail. The demand for books coupled with the number of readers or sales that the author considers enough for the book to be a success justifies the number of books that exists and its steady increase. If Landsburg is worried that there are too many books now, just wait until publishing books is available to the masses. This is already happening.

Also, his life may not be impoverished by the copies of books being destroyed, but I wonder how people other than him would think. He may not have the time to read them, but surely there is one person out there who does. That is the premise of "the long tail": there are enough people in the world with diverse enough tastes that there will always be a market for something, no matter how small. I doubt a rational economic model can explain it, but it offends the sensibilities of someone who loves books as much as I do, and who has worked in a library, that anyone could consider the burning of books and the ideas contained within them as something unproblematic.