Welcome to the Paperback Cooperative.
The blog has its genesis in two simple things that I noticed about my current experience with books that seemed contradictory.
The first thing I’ve become attuned to over the past decade is that there is a lot of talk these days about the death of the book, the death of book culture, and the death of literacy. I myself have participated in this hand-wringing: I’ve worried about the impact of television, I’ve ranted about the seeming decline in literacy among my students, and I’ve wondered how the rise of the e-book might upset and even destroy book culture. It’s worth adding that some of this hand wringing is quite justified. There are fewer publishers out there today than there was fifty years ago, and they are publishing less, and even more frighteningly they are taking far fewer risks. It’s that last fact that worries me the most as both a reader and an aspiring writer. Good books will be turned down, otherwise good authors may get discouraged, and the art of writing may further spiral into a decline as a result.
So no one reads anymore, and we’re all headed down a glittery, consumerist path to an illiterate inferno as our glassy eyeballs are fixed to facebook, internet porn, and reality TV cooking shows.
The thing was, I was having these discussions with people who read. People who read, in fact, quite a bit. Admittedly my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances might not be representative in certain ways. My journey through life has meant that I’ve known a lot of academics, a lot of librarians, a few lawyers, a few doctors, and the odd poet and novelist (really, all poets and novelists are a bit odd). This educated bunch may read at a higher clip than the average hedge fund manager or insurance agent (I know absolutely zero hedge fund managers). But there it was: no one reads, and yet I was reasonably certain that if, say, a new Murakami novel was coming out (which it just did, and I’m haunting the St. George’s post office every day waiting for the damn thing to make the final ferry crossing), or a new David Mitchell novel (The Bone Clocks in September of 2014, and I am super-geeked out about it), I could probably find at least three or four different people to talk about it with. I even knew who to go to for certain genres.
Obviously personal experience does not give the lie to the idea that print culture is suffering. But it did get me thinking that one problem with book reading is the way we often read in isolation. When we were all watching the last seasons of The Sopranos in 2006 and 2007, it was relatively easy to find ways to experience that television with others. You could gather friends together to watch that episode, clearly. Apart from discussing who got whacked last week at the water cooler or discussing Christopher’s latest attempt at a screenplay at a dinner party, there were also loads of online forums that followed the series wherein you could feel part of a collective audience. We experienced The Sopranos collectively.
Occasionally some book will capture such a majority of readers that it can be discussed in these same ways. The Harry Potter series, whatever else we may say about it, generated such an intense amount of fervor that part of the fun of reading the latest Harry Potter was entering into discussion about the latest Harry Potter, whether it was a bit long and in need of an edit (we’re looking at you, book 5) or perhaps the ending wasn’t quite as satisfying as we might have hoped (book 7?).
Book review sites exist, of course, and some old guard publications still publish book reviews. Most of the reviews that I come across seem to exist to pass judgment in a very particular way, all the while not really expecting that their readers will actually pick up the books that they are reviewing. Contrast this with film reviews, in any number of formats; film reviewers very much expect that at least some of their readers will in fact see the film at some point. I think you can see this contrast even within the way that the book review section of The New Yorker contrasts with the cinema section of that same venerable publication. Anthony Lane and David Denby may have mixed feelings about reviewing the latest entry in the Transformers franchise, but they are willing to take one for the team in the hopes that they may find gems like WALL-E or Under the Skin among the infantilizing dreck that passes for film in North America these days; they really do want you to see a good film, and perhaps avoid some of the stinkers. The book review section of that magazine is often readable and interesting, but seems to exist in a different universe, a universe where no one can be sure than anyone is reading much of anything. The review of a collection of books on women in the civil rights movement seems to exist for the sake of reading the article itself, not to find out if there is, in fact, a kick-ass book on women in the civil rights movement that you might want to read.
My point here is not to criticize anyone trying to review books out there right now; I think they are doing the work of the gods, and I want to get more people reading those reviews.
I want more people talking about books period. I want more people talking about the books they’ve read. I want more people talking about the recent books that they’ve read. I yearn for the excitement that surrounded a Harry Potter release. I want people looking for new and interesting things to read.
With that in mind, I’m starting this new blog. I’ve contacted a number of acquaintances who are not professional reviewers. The idea is to generate reviews of books that have come out relatively recently, books freshly out in paperback, ideally. The blog will no doubt be a bit of a drop in the internet ocean, but it will try to be at least a minor correction to the kind of resigned hopelessness that seems to infect so much talk about books.
If we are excited about the books that we are reading, then let’s stop talking about the demise of books, and start talking about the books we are reading.
The blog will officially start on August 15th. What it is, and how it works, will be in constant flux. Look for the first review on August 16th.
If you’d like to review for the blog, please contact Nathan Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, riding a bike, and trying to write a little.