“Longstanding allies of the reader,” writes Colin Robinson in The New York Times (January 4th), “professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book, are disappearing fast. The broad, inclusive conversation around interesting titles that such experts helped facilitate is likewise dissipating. Reading, always a solitary affair, is increasingly a lonely one.”
Does this stand up? Not really, or perhaps the first part does and the second part doesn’t. Surely it has never been easier for the lonely reader online to exchange views and reactions – particularly reactions to whatever happen to be the “big” books of the season – with lonely or merely chatty readers anywhere else. But the professionals, yes, the professionals are disappearing and the likelihood is that after they have gone they will be missed.
This disappearance may even be represented as innovation, progress. And Ireland, never too far behind the curve in such matters, is getting in on it too. As Olivia Kelly reported in The Irish Times on December 30th: “Members of the public will be able to access their library outside the normal opening hours, without a member of staff present, and check books out, under the open libraries initiative from the Department of the Environment.” Technology and “savings”, an unbeatable combination.
On the situation in the United States Colin Robinson writes: “The decline in libraries weakens another vital prop for readers. Librarians, described by the novelist Richard Powers as ‘gas attendant[s] of the mind,’ saw a national decrease in their numbers of nearly 100,000 over the two decades to 2009. Two-thirds of public libraries reported flat or decreasing budgets in 2012.”
Then there is today’s increasingly rare bird, the professional book reviewer. Stand-alone book sections in major newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post have disappeared. The New York Times Book Review is now just a third of the length it was in its 1970s heyday.
Meanwhile there is the bookseller, either disappearing or running very fast just to more or less stay still:
Price cutting, led primarily by Amazon, has reduced many brick-and-mortar bookstores to rubble, depriving readers of direct interaction with booksellers. Despite some recent good news, the number of independents has been halved in the last two decades, and the chain stores that survive increasingly employ part-time, unskilled staff.
“There are many,” writes Robinson, “who will not mourn the displacement of literary culture’s traditional elite, dominated as it was by white, middle-aged men of comfortable means and conservative taste.” And he is certainly right there (that there are many who will not mourn it). But what will we have in its place? Jeff Bezos of Amazon claims that Kindle Direct, his self-publishing e-book programme, will produce “a more diverse book culture”, and one with “no expert gatekeepers”. Yes, but will any of it be worth reading?