Let’s Ban Books, or at Least Stop Writing Them
Not that I doubt he can do it. The man The New York Observer calls our “Svelte Twitter Svengali” has a history of setting the bar high and vaulting over it. He files prodigiously for The Times; stars in the new “Page One” documentary; and has promulgated, as of my last check, 21,376 Tweets — not counting the separate Twitter stream where he records every morsel of food he consumes. (Brian lost more than 90 pounds last year on a Twitter-assisted diet; it’s probably hard to feed yourself when your fingers are permanently affixed to a keyboard.) As his colleague in the media-reporting unit, David Carr, memorably said of the talented upstart, “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter was a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”
So yes, he can write a book. But why would he want to? Why, in fact, would anyone want to?
For years now the populist prophets of new media have been proclaiming the death of books, and the marketplace seems to back them up. Sales of print books in the U.S. peaked in 2005 and have been in steady decline since, according to publishers’ net revenue data reported to the Association of American Publishers.
Watching that trend, I find my grief for the state of civilization comes with a guilty surge of relief. Sure, I would miss books — and so, by the way, would my children — but at least the death of books would put an end to the annoying fact that everyone who works for me is either writing one or wants to. I would get my staff back!
Every month, it seems, some reporter drops by my office to request a leave of absence to write a book. I patiently explain that book-writing is agony — slow, lonely, frustrating work that, unless you are a very rare exception, gets a lukewarm review (if any), reaches a few thousand people and lands on a remaindered shelf at Barnes Noble. I recount my own experience as a book failure — two incompletes, and I’m still paying back a sizable advance with a yearly check to Simon Schuster that I think of not as a burden but as bail.
But still the reporters — and editors, too — keep coming to sit in my office among the teetering stacks of Times-written books that I mean to read someday and to listen politely to my description of book-writing Gethsemane, and then they join the cliff-bound lemmings anyway.
Off they go to write books about wars, books about spies, books about diplomacy. Books about basketball, books about China and, coming soon, a book about basketball in China. Half a dozen books exploring aspects of the recent financial meltdown. One (and one more pending) about George W. Bush; one (and another pending) about the Obama family. We do cookbooks, travel books, puzzle books and movie guides. A book explaining the English. A book explaining the French. Books about The New York Times. We do biographies (Whittaker Chambers, Edward Kennedy, Virgil Thomson, Einstein) and memoirs (growing up in Alabama, growing up in Liberia, growing up Catholic). Cancer. Jazz. Physics. Pipe organs. Marriage. The weather.
Over on the Op-Ed page, where I am migrating in September, every columnist except one has written a book or two or three, though only one is closing in on William Safire’s 20-something output.
I’ve learned interesting things from the books of my staffers. I learned that I employed a financial writer who got himself so deep in debt he couldn’t make his mortgage payments, a media columnist who had been a crack addict and a restaurant critic with a history of eating disorders. (To those who found these cases problematic, I replied that there is no better qualification for writing about life in all its complexity than having lived it.)
I confess I have not set a great example. I signed two book contracts, after all, and although I fulfilled neither of them, I did manage a short biography of Nelson Mandela for “young readers,” pardon the oxymoron, and I’ve written a few introductions for compilations of Times material. The Times covers books, reviews books, ranks books and publishes books. We are total enablers.
We indulge our writers because we want the talent happy, and because a little of their prestige accrues to The Times. But we do so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return. There is the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their books and what goes into the paper. There is the awkwardness of reviewing books by colleagues — and the greater awkwardness of not reviewing them. There is the resentment of those left behind to take up the slack, especially where fat advances have been paid.
So, why aren’t books dead yet? It helps that e-books are booming. Kindle and Nook have begun to refashion the economics of the medieval publishing industry: no trucks, no paper, no returns or remainders.
But that does not explain why writers write them. Writers write them for reasons that usually have a little to do with money and not as much to do with masochism as you might think. There is real satisfaction in a story deeply told, a case richly argued, a puzzle meticulously untangled. (Note the tense. When people say they love writing, they usually mean they love having written.) And it is still a credential, a trophy, a pathway to “Charlie Rose” and “Morning Joe,” to conferences and panels that Build Your Brand, to speaking fees and writing assignments. After Brian’s book, he will be an even more stellar Stelter.
His book, by the way, will investigate another durable old medium — morning television. It will come in both print and electronic formats, but he confesses, “I’m sure I’ll prefer it as a hardcover.”
Sigh. It will never end.
Bill Keller is executive editor of The New York Times.