I am the entertainer. . . I played all around the world . . . but it I go cold, I won’t get sold. I’ll get put into the back, in the discount rack, like another can of beans. Billy Joel understood the entertainment industry well. As I have come to understand, it fits for any kind of media. (Janet Jackson even reminds us that it holds true for relationships in our superficial world: What have you done for me lately.) As a writer, thinker, teacher, mentor, I realize that what I did yesterday only matters for yesterday. Popularity is like bread. What is warm, fresh and well-received today is bird food next week.
I love to go to Half Price Books. Since I discovered the first one two years ago, I’ve had to shore up the floor to hold the bookshelves, and I’m now filling up the neighbor’s house with the overflow. Although there are some books that hold value for a long time, it’s amazing to me how many quality books I have picked off the discount rack. My greatest find was Will Durant‘s classic “Our Oriental Heritage” for one dollar. I suppose that, since no one under 50 has any clue that the History Of Civilization was at one time the greatest series of history books ever written, the book languished on the shelf (the top of the shelves, almost out of view, actually) returning to dust like it’s author, and bringing credence to Solomon’s remark, “no one remembers you after you die.” And it is true that history has continued to march on, so that this monumental work is no longer “up to date.” Still, this speaks to the disposability of anything of value, real or imagined, in our present twitter society.
Speaking of Solomon, he also wrote, “Of the making of many books there is never enough, and much study wearies the body.” So why do so many people write so many books? The simple answer is profit. Let’s start with textbooks, the biggest profit game in the book business. Here’s a little secret: Universities hire professors to write books that make money for the university. The professors also teach, because they have a captive audience of people who are required to buy their books. And, because students are required to buy the correct book, there is no competition. So, a book that should cost $25, and in fact may not really be worth the paper it’s printed on, costs ten times that (even the e-book version). This is a great racket, but soon used books fill the stores for half the price and the profit train is dead. Fortunately, we can start the train all over again by printing a new edition! You can’t use the first edition; you must have the second, and so on. That’s why arcane textbooks go into the double digits of editions. There isn’t really much incentive to make money for the bookstores of other schools, though. So you can be sure that you won’t see anything but your professor’s TA this year. The professor has to finish his new textbook or be fired. Whether or not it’s good is beside the point. It just has to sell.
The whole field of technology has been a boon to the book industry as well. Since most computer programmers don’t have a clue about how humans actually interface with the programs they write, it remains for the bi-lingual people who can speak both computer and English to translate. Since the entire computer world changes completely every other year, everything written this year is as worthless next year as this year’s phone book. (Do people really use phone books anymore? Yesterday my friend was upset because no one had the number for a local business. I asked if it was in the phone book. “I never thought of looking there!”) So, I’m not sure there even is a discount rack for outdated technical books. Besides, all you have to do is find some internet geek forum, and there will be dozens of gurus, excited to get the chance to talk to a real person, who will nail your answer for you in no time. And yet the high-priced how-to books (and now videos!) come rolling out along with each new high-priced whiz-bang program (This has to be my new record for most hyphens in a sentence.). I suppose that it’s easier to have the manual open and available than to be flipping back and forth between the help window and the main program screen. Or, maybe the IT department has to justify all the newly acquired shelf space. Or, maybe it’s faster to hand someone a manual than it is to hold him by the hand and walk him through everything, especially since many of us have just figured out how to right and left click a mouse.
In the age of the Internet, computer tablets, fantastic LED monitors, e-books and Kindle, I was expecting that I would have reached the point where I no longer needed bookshelves, After all, in the age of Mp3 and Netflix, even my DVD and CD collections have practically ceased to grow. And I was well on my way to a book-less existence. But then I discovered Half Price Books. And I rediscovered something about books in general. They are acoustic, which is a musician’s way of saying that they are not electric. Maybe it’s better to say that they are organic. I can’t really curl up with a good computer file, or even a good Kindle. Yes, sometimes I do fall asleep in front of the computer screen, but it’s not the same. There is the constant hum of the computer fan. I can feel the radiation pouring off the screen. There is the constant sense that there is a machine on. It makes me jittery. I feel like a really bad environmentalist, just letting the computer idle as I do something so mundane as reading. Sitting down with a book, on the other hand, can be done any time, any place, and no batteries required. Body positions and viewing angles are instantly and infinitely adjustable. Page too dim? Turn toward sun. Too bright? Sit in shade. Too cold? Sit in hot bath. Too hot? Sit in swimming pool or in the cool breeze on the patio.
In the Internet Age, all the information one could possibly want is out there, free (if you don’t count your monthly access fee), in several forms from print to movies. In the twitter age, it’s hard to believe that there is still a market for books. But, the same information overload that makes all things available also raises new problems. First is the ability to find the time in which to search and find exactly what one wants to know. The second is how to know exactly what it is that one wants to know. How do we know we’re not missing something important? And this is why books will continue to be relevant.
If you take a look at a lot of blog sites, they are really very slick advertising for books. Sure, there are little articles relevant to current events. And you can read them and get an overview of the issues. But the real nuts and bolts of the issues are saved for the books. And this is as it should be. After all, time is money. Even though you could cruise the internet all day on your high speed connection, you can’t really cruise the internet all day. You have a job, a family, a life, you have to sleep. An average book costs an average worker and hour or two of wages (after tax). That’s probably worth it compared to flailing away in search engines for hours on end. And, the information comes readily-packaged in chapters and a logical sequence. Plus, you gain two things from reading the book. You can then understand all the blog posts, and you have participated in the process that make all the blog posts possible. Without money, blogs writers eventually find another line of work.
Half Price Books isn’t really bad for book writers. Sure, it doesn’t put much money directly in their pockets. But it gives them another spin in the consciousness of readers. It’s free publicity for their next book. It’s sort of like the Goodwill store. It gives items new value and helps employ college grads with history and literary degrees who can’t find a job in the real world, sort of like libraries do. And I don’t think it hurts the business of the mall bookstores much either. People who shop in those aren’t concerned about bargains, or they wouldn’t be in the mall. Most readers want the fresh and new, not yesterday’s news. But there are others like me, by which I mean either poor or inclined to care more about substance than copyright date, who aren’t in the Oprah book club. For the poor, there are the libraries. I only hate libraries because I hate time constraints. When I own a book, I can go to it any time I like. I’m sure others are like me, especially when a book is to be a reference source. The discount rack allows the poor an education that equates with or exceeds the finest overpriced textbook educations that overpriced universities can offer. And, you can display your education on a shelf for all your guests to see! Not to mention that the larger reference books make good TV tables and portable desktops, and several of them used together make a suitable step stool.
I have no problem with becoming a can of beans. It’s very hard to accomplish it without first being a success. Even the can of beans will have value for someone. And, after all, this is why I’m here–to feed people. In the end, I will have spent all the money, anyway. All that will remain is what little impact I had along the way. I just hope I’m not lima beans.
- More free textbooks (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com)
- Rice U. Hopes Mix of Grants and ‘Add Ons’ Will Support Free Textbooks (chronicle.com)
- Amazon To Annoy Even More Book Stores With Textbook Rental Plan (consumerist.com)
- Half Price Book! (thedepressedmoose.com)
- Local Bookseller Celebrates 40 Years, Expanding In Tough Economy (dfw.cbslocal.com)