To Michael, with whom I have the privilege
to share love of books
Do Michael, leis a bhfuil sé de phribhléid
agam grá leabhair a chomhroinnt
Michaelowi, co ukochał książki jak i ja
Michaelowi co, jako i jō przaje knigom
I became a reader in the nineteen seventies, now I realize, it was the golden age of the book. Volumes – we didn’t then know the now commonplace expressions – came as ‘hardbacks’ (w twardych okładkach in Polish) or in ‘soft covers’ (w miękkich okładkach), invariably tight, and also neatly sewn in the former case. When speaking of hardbacks we actually meant ‘books in cloth binding.’ It was unthinkable that a hardback would be enclosed between covers merely made of a harder type of cardboard. Such an underhanded move would not befit any respectable publishing house, and readers would consider it as cheating. Our expectations of paperbacks were also higher than what we demand of them today. A softback might be flimsy and disregarded by the serious connoisseur of belles-lettres, but still manufactured to last for a good while. Its pages were kept safely together with steel clamps. With time, especially on damp shelves, the clamps rusted and leaked tell-tale red stains onto the paper, which became symbolic of paperbacks in the era preceding the glued spine that entered the publishing stage in the latter half of the seventies.
It was the first dissatisfaction in the realm of letters which I encountered as an increasingly conscious and discerning reader. Copies of the books, which I eagerly wanted to read would not open easily, and were a strain on my fingers to keep them open. I was taught to respect books and not to harm them. They were spoken of in these anthropomorphic terms, as if books were living, defenseless creatures. (In a way they were, as proved by the then recent war, World War II: millions of volumes burnt to ashes in the pan-European conflagration, and with them distant lands, surreptitious trysts, memories of days long gone, captivating stories and ideas – even those forbidden – disappeared from the postwar reader’s gaze starved of sought-for reading material.) Forcing a volume to stay open at the page I wanted it to, invariably meant a breach to the flimsy spine. In no time a book originally published in a single volume devolved into two or more disheveled parts brushing sides, all loose, within the same cover.
A dilemma appeared should the act of reading be a pleasure or something of a masochistic torture. It was enough to glance at a friend’s bookshelf to see what path he chose to follow: either it was full of pristine volumes that looked as if unread, or of prematurely wizened ruins of books that you would think the reader might be throwing about the sofa carelessly and otherwise willfully destroying in installments.
But even in such moments I hardly gave a thought to the book as a physical object. What preoccupied minds of readers in communist Poland were titles banished from publication, or retroactively from libraries, for the sin of ideological inappropriateness and impurity. The state took a good care so that working people’s thoughts would not be contaminated by the capitalist propaganda of consumerism and subjecting all matters human to the insidious logic of pecuniary profit.
But one cannot be always on the guard. Slippages happened in more relaxed moments, the totality of which became known as the East-West détente. The signing of the Helsinki Final Act in nineteen seventy-five sealed the reconnection of capitalist and socialist economies, allowing for the badly needed transfer of idling petrodollars from the West’s bursting coffers to the Soviet bloc, on the illusory presumption that the investment would spur up the already to-be-envied rates of growth in people’s democracies. Neither Washington nor Paris realized clearly enough that communist statistics belonged to the fiction section in a bookshop.
Both sides chose to trust each other, but behind the scenes endeavored to cheat on the partner in quest for ultimate victory, and dominion over the world. The Kremlin, badly in need of hard currency to bolster the socialist economies, took in its stride the West’s insistence on the inclusion of the ‘human rights basket’ in the deal. Soon it turned out to be the poisonous apple, of which Snow White made the mistake to take a bite. The morally healthy tissue of socialist society became infected with the idea that political opposition is legal and to be permitted, pace the West. In this manner, among other things, samizdat emerged.
Samizdat, or the production of books and periodicals published by oppositionists outside the official system, beyond the reach of censor’s red pencils, flourished in the all too brief period of socialism with a human face in Poland, between the strike in the Gdańsk shipyard in August nineteen eighty and the clamping of martial law in December the following year. I had only begun to read such previously banned authors as Czesław Miłosz, Witold Gombrowicz, Leszek Kołakowski, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Sławomir Mrożek to my heart’s content, when suddenly this festival of global literature was over.
In the dead of martial law I entered secondary school in nineteen eighty-two. All knew what had happened less than two years earlier, and many had read the same authors, once again shoved away from the view. But now it was forbidden to speak about it. We were reduced to whispering, unsure whom to trust. Samizdat publishing withered under the security force’s relentless assault, shrank rapidly and went deeper underground, its clandestine distribution networks effectively limited to big cities and university campuses.
I got reacquainted with this world of the cramped, smudgy and ant-size print of tiny samizdat volumes with no spot of color to enliven them, when I was accepted to study English philology at the University of Silesia. The trek to my department in the city of Sosnowiec involved changing trains at the railway station in Katowice. In its cavernous brutal concrete insides with a myriad of corridors and nooks, incredibly crowded during the rush hours, bearded twenty-year-olds offered the latest samizdat releases straight from their rucksacks. When a militiaman (milicjant) or a railway security guard (sokista) approached, the itinerary bookseller calmly put the heavy rucksack on his back and walked away, merging with the unceasing human stream of travelers.
Another opportunity to purchase publications ‘not allowed by censorship,’ as the contemporary phrase had it, was in the Institute of Polish Philology in Sosnowiec. Students would not grass on one another, and militiamen were reluctant to enter the campus, which would be in breach of the university’s spatial and intellectual autonomy. On the hurly-burly black market in Katowice-Załęże you needed to pay through the nose to buy banned reading material, usually nicely published volumes in foreign languages smuggled from the West, alongside prewar adventure (including anti-Bolshevik) novels and well-fingered issues of Playboy.
Paper was a ‘strategic good’ in each communist state, and especially so in Poland in the throes of the decade long economic crisis during the nineteen eighties, caused by the inherent inefficiency of the centrally-planned economy and deepened by the embargo imposed by the West on the country in the wake of martial law. Nothing of use could be found on the empty shelves in the shops traditionally bereft of goods. Such goods appeared rarely, once or twice a month, immediately eliciting a long line of hopeful customers wishing to exchange their unwanted banknotes and rationing cards for twenty decagrams of pork, a kilo of sugar, or a rarely sighted pair of winter boots. No more than the needs of the first thirty or forty queuing individuals were met. (In Polish a special term kolejkowicz, ‘queuer’ was coined to denote a person given to this then everyday activity; some went professional.) Access to reams of typing paper was more restricted and ideologically suspicious. After martial law it was illegal to have an unregistered typewriter at home, and only factories (all state-owned) could buy them in larger quantities for their administration.
The suspicion was that the culprit might type ideologically inappropriate texts, anti-communist flyers or, god forbid, even produce several copies of a samizdat journal or booklet with the use of carbon paper. I learned to type on an old heavy manual typewriter that my father brought from an office in the power plant, where he worked. I typed poems which I wrote then as starry-eyed youngsters tend to, Polish translations and originals of rock lyrics in English, and that was all. The only time I approached the threshold of samizdat was in 1984, when the Radio Free Europe broadcast the Polish translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My friend, Piotrek, and I recorded it with a rickety Grundig cassette player’s built-in receiver. Then we took turns to listen to the recording and type it in seven carbon copies. The sixth and seventh copies were hardly legible, so we discarded them. We circulated the five remaining copies of increasingly faded print among our friends in our secondary school in Koźle, but the response of the readers was muted. We lost interest in the project and just continued listening to the rest of the novel, when incessant jamming permitted.
In the economy of scarcity of which Poland was the best epitome between nineteen eight and nineteen ninety, official publishers (all state-owned) needed to canvass the authorities for paper quotas. All doled out paper had to be scrupulously accounted for to make sure that no unauthorized use had been made of it. This epic ‘struggle for paper’ combined with the long-drawn strictures of censorship meant that a couple or more years elapsed between the acceptance of a manuscript for publication and the actual printing of the book. But communist publishing houses, when they had obtained all the required stamped permits and paper, usually went into overdrive when it came to the number of copies churned out. During the nineteen eighties runs of propaganda publications and popular novels were often in excess of one hundred thousand. Around three thousand book titles came off the press every year, but in the astounding number of over thirty million copies, one for each citizen, from a one-day-old baby to a centenarian.
The arrival of the glued spine paperback, together with this heavy industry-style overproduction and the scarcity of paper, spawned the format of the A4 paper size book printed on the cheapest kind of newsprint that yellowed after a week and crumbled into dust in the span of several years. This kind of the austerity-style ‘book’ was like a magazine but with no illustrations, the thin lines of the running text split into two columns, filling the page almost to the edge. The idea of margin was banished from the page, marginalized. Not surprisingly, the quality of the book deteriorated rapidly. Even when it was still the normal volume, we commonly likened the paper on which it was printed to toilet paper. In a paradoxical way this development seemed to be a logical explanation of the near-total lack of toilet paper rolls in kiosks and shops. When a supply of this deficit good arrived, lucky buyers were readily identifiable in the streets with bandoliers of rolls on a string around their necks or across their chests.
Unfortunately (or not?), what defied the function of toilet paper in books was the content: popular or interesting books were printed on this disposable and despicable paper. The approved classics of Marxism, party materials and Soviet propaganda journals shone bright on glossy, brilliantly white paper. You had no urge to buy the stuff, and if it was handed to you, you just wished a book of this kind would be made of ‘standard substandard’ paper, because intellectually – as we saw it then – it was fit only for toilet use. Some tried hard, out of conviction and necessity, but the good paper scratched the backside too much, instead of wiping it. The party daily, Trybuna Ludu (People’s Tribune), amounted to a compromise sought by all, by merging propaganda with soft ass-friendly newsprint. Stacks of neatly cut square pieces of this newspaper replaced toilet paper across the length and width of late communist Poland.
During this time I noticed that books could stink. Strangely enough, due to a chemical process, some glossy-style volumes of a first secretary’s speeches or scholarly monographs published in the Soviet Union emitted a distinctively unpleasant smell, reminiscent of manure. The running joke was that cow droppings were employed to bleach such high-quality paper in Soviet kolkhozes before it was ready for sending to printers.
However, handsomely published volumes, though rare, did pop up even during this time. They were pleasing to eye and touch, the paper velvety and faintly fragrant. If the content matched the workmanship, this marriage made in heaven afforded the starved reader a rare moment of elation, intense intellectual-cum-physical pleasure which instantly banished the drab reality that surrounded you, allowing for full immersion in the exquisite world imagined and written into being by the author.
Paper for this kind of volumes, in hard clothbound covers, was bought with scarce hard currency from the West, usually through the Soviet good offices. The Kremlin, in exchange for its toleration of capitalism and electoral democracy in Finland, exacted a tribute of Western products at discount prices from this Nordic country. Finland acquiesced to these demands, unhappily sharing a border with the USSR. Helsinki excelled in producing a wide range of papers before switching to high tech manufacturing, such as mobile handsets. Finnish paper could be creased and abused in all kinds of ways but it held its own, swiftly returning to its original shape. In the case of the toilet-style paper it was enough to bend a page by accident and a permanent crease formed. Evening it out didn’t help much, as with time the crease was transformed into a tear; the page was slowly disintegrating before the reader’s watering eyes.
Yes, that’s true, wood pulp paper became the staple of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century, when mass literacy required mass production of cheap school textbooks and reading material for hundreds of millions. This paper that yellows in a decade, becomes brittle in two, and disintegrates to touch in half a century, aptly symbolizes modernity, whatever definitions of it may be. This paper reflects the inherent impermanence and fragility of this fleeting epoch of nowadays. The unprecedented efflorescence of intellectual endeavor in the form of countless volumes and a myriad of periodicals appears an utter folly. All that effort was foolishly entrusted to this flimsy paper, and thus is condemned to turn into dust within younger authors’ lifetimes. The future generations will inherit the dust of thoughts and ideas forgotten and never to be recovered.
The deacidification of twentieth-century books, available only to the largest and richest libraries in the world, is a stop-gap measure that makes us feel good, without ensuring the preservation of the vast ocean of intellectual toil and effort. The nascent norm of printing books on acid-free paper that made an appearance at the opening of the twenty-first century seemed to be the long-awaited answer to the imminent and irrecoverable loss of intellectual legacy of the previous decades. A book manufactured with the use of wood-free or acid-free paper has the chance to last for up to half a millennium, if not abused by fire or water, hence, the stuff from which its pages are made is sometimes dubbed a bit oxymoronically as ‘permanent paper.’ But since its half-hearted introduction, the norm has been observed in breach, the maximization of profit taking precedence all over the world in the wake of the fall of communism.
The East’s defeat in the Cold War was seen as the final victory of capitalism over the model of centrally-planned economy. The so tantalizingly un-marxist end of history did arrive, at last. Communist China’s unreserved acceptance of free market vindicates this view. On the sly, even human life and dignity get monetized, increasingly a hurdle to growth; while politicians in democratic countries continue to pay largely lip service to the universality of human rights that are, to a differing degree, still upheld in a minority of states defined as the rich North. Profit trumps these rights, like it seems to be trumping principles of democracy itself. The attraction of the new, coalescing post- (post2-) modern world is the promise of instantaneous communication and access to all the information ever produced. Now and forever.
But in reality this hype of forever means hardly a couple of years for the vast majority of texts and pieces of audiovisual information posted on websites. The e-existence of information is even more perilous than that of communist books printed on the proverbial toilet paper. Audio and video cassettes withstand age-induced demagnetization for about a decade, and only the CD and DVD disks may last longer, up to three or four decades, thus approaching the typical life span of a shoddily produced ‘p-volume,’ that is, paper book. But I may be overoptimistic in this simplistic comparison that does not take into account the manner of access. In the case of the book it is the human eye aided by light, but the matter is more complicated with the other ‘carriers of information’ mentioned above. Their use by humans is always mediated by appropriate software and hardware. And the dominant standards of the two tend to change faster than the lifetime of any given information carrier itself. So, we often end up with information encapsulated on a working cassette or disk, unable to watch, read or listen to it.
The quickening pace of a post-postmodern (postmortem?) modernization seems to be aptly symbolized by the growing impermanence of a rapidly ballooning amount of information available to a gradually larger worldwide circle of ‘users’ (or ‘netizens,’ that is cyber-citizens, e-citizens; a stake in each of them e-providers – read ‘big business’ – have). A stasis evolved that however short-lived information may be, its various strands are either constantly reproduced or replaced so that the overall amount creates the illusion of permanence and ‘progress.’ By the latter, often abused term, I mean preservation of the already created information and adding to its store new pieces of data. Informational progress, defined in this way, does not happen, though we live with the illusion of it.
If the illusion is not consciously noticed and dispelled, or even better, acted against, sooner or later a day will come that all what we have taken for granted will suddenly and inexplicably disappear into an e-cloud of lost hopes and information. Then we may be left at our hands with pitiful scraps of tattered books that have accidentally survived the information revolution of digitizing and pulping libraries’ primitive, outmoded p-holdings. These survivor books will amount to the sole pieces of the intellectual legacy of the (post-)modern epoch, then adequately renamed as Atlantis, or rather e-Tlantis. The new era will be announced of the Post-e-Tlantis times, though its inhabitants may choose to call their present (and our future) ‘modernity,’ again. Alas?
Unfounded, dark prophecies of a luddite, you may say. I hope for my own sake that you are right, and I am utterly mistaken. But I have already seen how the book that introduced me to the pleasures of storytelling and intellectual adventures was snapped away from my hands when I was not looking. The thief consoled me with a poorer copy of the original, and this was placation enough that dissuaded me from crying out loud, ‘No, I do not agree, return my property.’ The situation has repeated itself time and again during the last twenty years, when everybody has become starry-eyed at the dizzying prospects opened by globalization to spare time in order to take a note of the gradual larceny, piecemeal robbery. The thief lamely justifies himself, ‘I took just a bit, and you retain the use of the rest, almost all of it.’ We let him go, because it is not even a crime, the act’s harm to society is so minimal that it is imperceptible. But the slow process of accruing changes has resulted in the already gaping chasm between the p-book and the sham of e-book.
How did we arrive at this point?
One of the first ‘grown-up books’ I read was Henryk Sienkiewicz’s late nineteenth-century blockbuster Quo Vadis on Nero’s persecutions of the first Christians and the emperor’s varied and well-remembered debauchery. Sex and blood always sell well, especially when served in the self-righteous sauce of religion. The book came in two volumes of more than three hundred pages each, printed on exquisitely white, thin, strong and smooth high opacity paper, the pages sewn and securely placed between sturdy clothbound covers, the print large and thick, not skimping on printing ink, each chapter adorned by an eye-pleasing figural graphic flourish in light brown, complete with handsome ribbon markers. When older, I wanted my own copy of the novel, but reprints, though not infrequent, were not sufficient to be available over the counter. Copies of this perennial bestseller in catholic-cum-communist Poland made it straight to a bookshop manager’s family members and acquaintances, and to the black market, where they could be sold for a lump sum that was ten- or twenty times bigger than the nominal, state-controlled price.
At long last I bought my own copy of Quo Vadis in 1986. It was exactly the same edition I had read in the seventies, but… . This small ‘but’ meant a gulf of difference. The book came in a single soft cover volume with the poorly glued spine. Print leaked and smudged easily on the toilet-style paper pages, which bloated the book to the size of a small unwieldy brick that was eerily light. I tried to reread Quo Vadis, but feared destroying the volume’s spine, so I placed it on the shelf, contented in the knowledge that now I owned my own copy of the novel. Not that I was ever able to read it, I am not a masochist. Recently, moving countries, from Poland to Scotland, I gifted this unread – perhaps, single-use only – volume to a public library. Although it was fit for scrap paper, I did not have the heart to throw it away. An old instinct to love and protect books, inculcated in me by my communist school, still on the watch.
After Sienkiewicz, I tried my hand (or rather eye) at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It may come as a surprise to an English-speaker, but in Poland this long novel was and continues to be published in four volumes. The reprint, which I got for myself in the nineteen eighties, though not combined into a single book, was also printed on toilet paper, the covers of the four volumes made of flimsy cardboard, like those of the aforementioned copy of Sienkiewicz’s austerity Quo Vadis. There was no pleasure to be derived from re-reading Hugo’s sprawling novel, either, the paper was rough and grainy, or the glued spine cracked, when you forgot to keep the volume half-opened to prevent this from happening.
After communism ended, as if by magic, books regained their old sturdy and beautiful selves during the first half of the nineteen nineties. Pages became white, smooth and thin, again; sewing returned and also happened to be applied to softbacks. The number of titles coming off the press ballooned to fifteen thousand per annum, and their runs became increasingly smaller, passing the magic mark of three thousand copies only in the case of bestsellers. Actually, the English term ‘bestseller’ made then its home in the Polish language. Competition among the publishers grew, as did the quality of books they turned out. During the communist times and immediately afterward, albums and other pictorial works were outsourced to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as Polish printing houses were not able to achieve the required quality of images. But even this phenomenon had already been a thing of the past in the latter half of the roaring nineteen nineties. It became possible to print any kind of publication in Poland, to the prescribed quality.
Privatization in the full swing, scouts of the Polish publishing industry could not help noticing that in the West – under which term they understood Britain and the United States – a popular title first arrived to the market as a hard back, to be followed by a paperback and a pocket book edition. Attempts to introduce this model of maximizing profit in book industry have not worked in Poland yet. As earlier, books come either in hardback or paperback or pocketbook editions. Some publishers, especially Znak in Cracow and Muza in Warsaw strive to bring out some titles in hardback, then followed by paperback editions, but readers reject this ploy. Now paperback and hardback editions of potentially more popular books are published simultaneously, the price difference being the reasonable five to fifteen per cent. But the size of print and the quality of paper in both editions remain, in most cases, unchanged. The typical difference is that hardbacks tend to be sewn, while paperbacks are glued.
Efforts to broaden the margin of profit by tweaking with technical aspects of book production in Poland popped up at the close of the twentieth century. Some popular classic novels of considerable length, for instance, Maria Dąbrowska’s Noce i Dnie (Nights and Days) or Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Nad Niemnem (On the Niemen River) that previously appeared invariably in four volumes each, were published as single volumes. The print remained the same, what changed was the size of the book pages, which was enlarged to A4. The cover made from hard carton was lavishly – or garishly – illustrated, the newly reinvented classics becoming the bane of the-end-of-the-school-year awards, and gifts appropriate for children attending the ceremony of their first communion. Such volumes look nice on the shelf, can be read at a desk, but it is impossible to curl up with them in a bed, unless you are a Mike Tyson, and holding two to three kilos in your hand for hours on end you find a trifling matter.
New-fangled private publishers of textbooks came to the rescue. They reissued school-required-reading novels, poetry and plays in the traditional format but on worse paper, placed somewhere in between the communist times’ ‘toilet paper’ and the exquisite paper of luxury editions. In one word the school classics became available on decent paper. What the publishers skimped on was the size of print which progressively suffered the condition of acute miniaturization. But schoolchildren’s eyesight is on average robustly excellent, so no worries in this department, and sales continue to be brisk.
Publishers catering to the adult audience do realize that their customers are accustomed to large and not-smudgy print which was the standard before 1989 and to a large degree remains the same to this day. Angling for more profit by releasing a popular book in smaller print is not worth the risk. Those who can read the larger print book without glasses are known to be loath of acquiring spectacles just to enjoy a novel with tinier print. They would rather suffer the indignity of lower quality paper, though they are aware that the logo announcing the paper to be coming from ‘sustainable’ forests is hardly anything more but a thinly disguised ruse to push a shoddy produce onto the market.
Acquiring English added to my adventures as a reader. Before Amazon.com was founded, purchasing books in this language was a torturous challenge, if you were based in Poland. Firstly, you had to buy dollars or pounds sterling, then establish a foreign currency account in the bank and pay for exorbitantly expensive wires with payments to publishers or larger bookstores that agreed to supply you with books from abroad. And mind you, in the nineteen nineties an Anglophone volume, on the average was ten or more times expensive in absolute terms than its Polish counterpart. Buying English books was an extreme sport, as a single volume could deprive you even of half of your monthly salary, package and postal charges on top of its retail price. Luckily, in the meantime, many organizations and institutions from the West gifted numerous English-language books and journals to the freshly postcommunist countries. A Western academic on a visit in Poland might take a pity on you, and pass into your hands a scholarly monograph, or an already read and unwanted volume of fiction.
The situation of a Polish reader with a smacking of English to her soul improved at the turn of the twenty-first century. Debit cards became popular and those in combination with the internet allowed for online purchases of books. The obvious choice was Amazon.com, due to its huge range and its promise to supply books to every spot on Earth. In these times long gone, it didn’t matter, when based in Poland, if you bought a desired volume from the United States or Britain. Its price with packing and postage amounted to the same cost. However, what I soon discovered was that, as a rule of thumb, American editions of the same titles came on much better paper, in larger format volumes and with bigger print than their British counterparts.
In most cases, American softcover (that is, not pocketbook) editions were more pleasing to touch and eye than any British paperback. In the former case, on average, paper was thinner, stronger and whiter, and print was bigger than in the regular run-of-the-mill British hard cover novel. US publishers did not economize on glue for the spine, unlike their colleagues in the United Kingdom.
I wondered why such a difference appeared and cleaved the Anglophone book market. Visitors from the English-speaking world, at first, didn’t know what I was talking about. But when in the due course I confronted them with the physicality of British and American books from my collection, they couldn’t deny the existence of the difference. They scratched their heads and sagely opined that it was a throwback, in the case of the British publishing industry, of the wartime and postwar austerity measures that had dumbed down the quality of books. Funds and resources economized in this manner were initially essential for war effort, then for reconstruction and easing out the economic decline connected to the dismantling of the British Empire.
However, these temporary measures became permanent, thus constituting the new standard of the book in Britain, and according publishers bigger profits without eliciting an angry reaction on the part of readers. The latter knew no better having already been raised on austerity-style reading material. On the other hand, America had not known austerity measures during the war, so the decent prewar standards of book production survived there through the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Perhaps Amazon.com noticed the increasing traffic of books from America to Europe, and decided to cash in on it. At the beginning of the twenty-first century a pronounced difference appeared in the cost of packing and postage for books supplied by Amazon.com from the United States and Amazon.co.uk from Britain to Europe. The difference was not exorbitant until the middle of the first decade of this new century. Now, it does not make economic sense to buy a book from America via Amazon.com, if the same title can be acquired from the British branch of this online behemoth. Nevertheless, as an avid reader, enamored of the sensual physicality of the p-book, I persisted, against a better judgment, in this debauched custom.
I stopped, three or four years ago. How do I satisfy my addiction now? Being a typical p-book junkie, I suffer withdrawal symptoms and at present am on the lookout for a badly needed dose of my favorite drug. But its usual pushers, publishing houses, even those in America, decided to wean me off it. They began to publish books on shockingly inadequate paper, in the same small and faint – almost shadowy – print (to cut on the cost of ink, I presume) and in the same shoddy manner as their British colleagues. British and American editions of the same book are now exactly the same, poor in quality, often foregoing previously obligatory switches between UK and US spellings, the cover illustration remaining the sole tentative difference.
In Britain the previously austerity-measures-led and the current e-dumbing down of the p-book was opposed by the Folio Society, founded in nineteen forty-seven. The company sticks to its original mission of producing ‘editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman.’ De facto, the firm publishes now luxurious – and quite expensive (thirty to forty pounds sterling per a volume of fiction) – books that more often are purchased to adorn rooms than to be read. The high quality covers made of cloth or leather, the sewing and illustrations are enticing, but pages tend to be too thick and quite large at the typically B5 size, which makes Folio volumes rather heavy and difficult for perusal at leisure, away from the desk.
Volumes of classics and contemporary masterpieces from Everyman’s Library have been a reply to these Folio drawbacks. The series was originally conceived and published by J M Dent in the first seven decades of the twentieth century, before its present-day, brushed-up, incarnation was launched on both sides of the Atlantic by Random House and Alfred A Knopf. The volumes are sewn, meticulously clothbound, with matching dust jackets and ribbon markers. Priced at about ten pounds sterling a volume, they successfully compete with better quality paperback and hardbacks, as well. The paper used for the production of Everyman’s Library books is decent to good quality, not too thick, white rather than yellowish, and of good opacity. In hand, a handsome volume from this series feels strangely as if it were a French or German hardback. The mystery is easily solved when you take care to check on the copyright page that the book was manufactured in Germany, where the artisan quality of books remains high in comparison to what is on the offer in bookshops across the Anglophone countries. The only reproach which I have vis-à-vis Everyman’s Library is its inconsistent typography, the actual print of a given volume is gleaned from other editions, with no attempt at uniformity. Thus the size of print varies from volume to volume, sometimes adequate and irksome at other times.
The only type of books in which you can be sure of receiving good size jet-black print on strong and thin, white and high opacity paper are those brought out by companies specializing in large-print volumes. The needs of poor-sighted readers were noticed first by the English company Ulverscroft that since nineteen sixty-nine has been resetting popular books in sixteen point type. In the United States the Thorndike Press serves the very same needs of the reading public. Strangely, the species of large-print publishing companies is unknown in continental Europe. To some it may be the sign of lagging behind the Anglo-Saxon world. But on a closer scrutiny, it appears that there is still no need for publishers of this kind there, as the quality of the p-book has not been dumbed down so much yet in Italy, Poland or Estonia.
Some Anglo-American publishing houses seem to be cashing on the deficiency they themselves have been instrumental to creating. In the latter half of the twenty hundreds, in the wake of the 2004 ‘big bang’ enlargement of the European Union, when cheap flight operators began to transport rapidly growing numbers of passengers across the continent, the new publishing genre of the ‘exclusive airport edition’ book appeared. It is a paperback edition either equal in size to the original hardback or even bigger by a third, printed on good quality paper with ample print. This product advertised as ‘luxurious,’ a rare sight in a British or American bookstore nowadays, is your standard p-book in any French or Dutch bookshop. I wish my command of French or Dutch were better, so that I could be better prepared to choose between Anglo-American and continental editions of the recent releases of interesting book titles.
These days I don’t know where to turn to make sure that for my money I will get a decent p-book, not an unreadable shadow of it. Ten years ago I bought a copy of Sven Lindqvist’s enlightening work A History of Bombing (2001), to which the London publisher Granta Books made an unforgivable disservice by bringing it out in point eight type. Even when you have healthy eyes, after ten or twenty pages into the book your eyes feel the strain. I wanted so much to read it that I had to resort to photocopying the entire book in a substantially enlarged format. So much for sustainability and saving trees. I believe that the more poorly books are manufactured, with the use of increasingly worse paper and smaller print, the more paper is actually wasted, especially on ad hoc solutions to make hardly readable p-books of today user-friendly.
In India and Canada English-language p-books are still published to a quality that was standard in the United States a decade or two ago. The explanation may be the continuing artisan tradition and not yet automated human labor in the Indian Subcontinent and Canada’s vast paper industry. When I have a choice of obtaining a volume of fiction or a scholarly book manufactured in Britain and India, I always go for the latter. As a bonus, Indian book paper is mostly done from rags and without the employment of chlorine-based chemicals, so books from Delhi and Bombay are fragrant, a source of continuing olfactory pleasure, unlike their UK/US counterparts on ‘toilet paper’ that – I am sorry – does stink. Nowadays the production of an increasingly bigger number of British books is outsourced to India. Initially, to the reader’s delight they were manufactured to the good ol’ Indian standard. Perhaps, this irked the task-masters in distant British publishing houses, as it could give British readers wrong ideas on what they might want to expect from books, as a result causing them to reject the typical fare of toilet paper-style paperbacks. At present books in Britain, either printed locally or in India are the same shoddy produce. The insidious British tradition of p-book dumbing is already spreading to South Asia. And why not? if the profit margin is increased many times over by the simple switch from decent to appalling standards, errr, that is, from standard to substandard, which is becoming the new golden (?) standard.
Some time ago I fell under the spell of the Canadian writer, Alice Munro’s, atmospheric stories. But it is a disgrace to read such heavenly prose in British or American paperbacks. I felt like crying when I saw her crystalline paragraphs reduced to grey smudgy ant-size print on yellow-greyish paper, rough and grainy to touch and unpleasant to my nose and eyes. Pleasure to be pleasure indeed, form must match content. The latter was in front me, but I had to hunt far and wide in search of the appropriate form. Sure enough I discovered that the original hard cover editions of Munro’s books are published in Canada under McClelland & Stewart’s famous imprint of Douglas Gibson Books. The covers are hard, not flimsy; the paper acid-free and creamy, not grey-yellowish; and the print sizeable and elegant, not myopia-inducing. Now I am on the lookout for McClelland & Stewart hardback editions when buying Munro’s collections of stories from Abebooks.co.uk or Amazon.ca.
Scholarly tomes were slower to catch this originally typically British disease of the atrophied book. Decent-size print, excellent paper, sewn spines and sturdy cloth-bound covers ruled the day in university presses on both sides of the Atlantic until the seventies and eighties during the last century. The deterioration of the academic book began earlier in Britain, I suspect, due to the persisting example of the fiction section in bookstores, filled up with flimsy pocketbooks that emanate an off-putting stench, to which present-day readers, generation after generation, must have already grown accustomed, and some may even be addicted. I would not be surprised if a British reader might actually miss this unpleasant whiff when reading a volume published to the standard typical in Italy or Belgium.
The first victim of the dumbing down of the scholarly monograph tome was print size. At the beginning of the twenty-first century it became as microscopic as the norm is in fiction pocketbooks and used to be in samizdat publications in the Soviet bloc. Some publishing houses used to reissue classical texts in paperbacks printed on rapidly deteriorating paper, but hopefully it was a phase not to be repeated. The big discussion on the danger of losing entire stores of knowledge, due to the poor quality of paper used by the publishing industry during the twentieth century touched a nerve. The pulping of decades-worth of issues of numerous newspapers brought the matter to the fore, the fear that we were sleep-walking into the wholesale obliteration of entire edifices of knowledge in this blind sprint to e-modernization.
The stop-gap solution was to digitize newspaper collections and deacidify twentieth-century book holdings. Looking toward the future it was decided to use acid-free, or ‘permanent,’ paper for manufacturing scholarly books and other publications of import. Most American university presses still observe this lofty ideal, but hardly anyone cares in Britain after the economic down turn that commenced in 2007. Sustainability and not-always fair fairtrade being all the rage, the ruse of the stamp of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) became the standard in Britain, from where it continues to spread farther afield, for instance, to Germany. Books must now be environment-friendly and conducive to the renewal of forests, which apparently entails even tinier print on the toilet paper-style page. The page’s background ‘greyness’ contrasts less and less with the faded ‘greyness’ of letters, hardly marked out by ink. Just a reminder to younger readers, in the quite recent past the page was truly white and the print jet-black. Nowadays you can almost mistake one for the other, even the best reading lamp being of no help in this predicament.
But this contrast of jet-black fonts on the snow-white page, previously defining of the p-book, now lost and replaced by grey on greyness, reminds me of the p-book’s competitor, the e-book, aka, the Amazon Kindle. Its inauguration in 2007 coincided with the beginning of the current economic malaise. A Kindle’s grayish screen offers a pocketbook-size page, as if the reader was to forget about the use of her other eye. Isn’t the p-book meant to afford two pages at once in a single glance? Initially, the device, or the so-called e-reader, was ridiculed, but five years later, in 2012, Amazon.com announced that it was selling one hundred and fourteen e-books for every one hundred p-books sold. The juggernaut of Google Books that commenced in 2004 with its mission to digitize all the books ever published and written, now offers so many millions of out-of-print and out-of-copyright titles that no p-publisher may even think about competing with this ‘service.’ The vast majority of the digitized books are supplied free of charge or sold as e-books, water on Kindle’s mill.
Should you wish to obtain a physical copy of such a book, the print-on-demand (POD) service has become quite widely available since the turn of the second decade in the twenty-first century. But this sweet promise of the possibility of purchasing every book ever published comes with a bitter aftertaste. When compared with the regular book, a print-on-demand copy of a book has more blurry print, the quality of POD maps and illustrations is appalling, and the pages sit awkwardly within the volume’s hardcover, as if ready to vacate their safe haven at any time. These problems are a degree worse in the case of POD copies of old books digitized by Google. The text is often scrambled and littered with imprints caused by faulty processing or imperfect retrieval of the digitized text. Frequently only sections of fold-out maps or diagrams are available, as the rest was missed out by a robotic scanner. The dumbing down of standards and readers’ expectations continues under the guise of non-stop ‘modernization’ in the name of the slogan of seemingly ‘glorious’ globalization. Alas… .
My most favorite ever bookstore chain, Borders, closed down in twenty eleven pushed out from the market by online booksellers and the e-book. This Anglo-American chain amounted to the postmodern reinvention of a coffee shop as a temple of intellectual reflection and discussion. When on a research fellowship at the Library of Congress, in two thousand three and four, I spent long and pleasant hours in the spacious and light Borders bookshop in Arlington City. In a welcoming armchair I was sipping coffee, leafing through books, correcting my doctoral dissertation for publication, and even managed to introduce my Daughter and Wife to the pleasures of Anglophone book culture. Little did I know then that it was the veritable Indian summer of this already doomed culture, on which in half a decade I would reminiscence with fondness, like another lost world, lost to the inexorable forces of turbo-post(to the fourth power)-modernity.
But why are publishers so hell-bent on getting their readers accustomed to the shoddy and unbecoming reinvention of today’s p-book? I presume that most follow the crowd, quite unthinkingly and uncritically, hoping that this would prevent them from going under. Those who lead the peleton are the omnivorous online commercial-cum-technological IT behemoths of Amazon, Apple, or Google: global, ubiquitous and (apparently) unstoppable. They thrive on gathering, processing and repackaging information, the vast majority of which has been created in the modern times, or during the last two to three centuries.
They have seized this information as their birthright, and announced the development as a new benchmark of progress that cannot and should not be opposed. These veritable multi-groups’ self-declared mission is to make all the information instantaneously available to everybody all over the planet. But having seized it for free, the behemoths of the after-the-postmodernity times propose that they must take whatever a small fee – pecuniary or in kind (that is, the time the user is compelled to watch or read advertisements, and thus, to divulge, often unconsciously, information on her customs and behaviors that are, in turn, commercialized) – for the ‘service’ in order to finance and further develop these miracles of technology.
So who is serving whom, if such a thing as ‘service’ is genuinely involved in this matter at all? Intellectual endeavors of millions have been dragooned into the ‘service’ of the e-behemoths, on the sly, safely out of the public view. What happened happened, the development is presented in turn as a fait accompli in the ‘service’ of the same public at large and, even, of wider social good. Strangely, this very public must pay for the wholesale theft of their own intellectual property and for their access to it, the guardians of this property – states and national libraries – shrinking away from their responsibilities, shrugging in feigned disbelief at what they have done, and totally indifferent to what may follow in the future.
What is the difference between ‘service’ construed in this manner, and thieving or conning? The situation is similar to the post-2007 parable on the hard-working and risk-taking banker. If, as a result of his actions, a bank prospers, the banker is rewarded with a multi-million bonus, but if his bank collapses he is rewarded with a multi-million bonus, too. Those who end up paying through their noses for this win-win situation for bankers are taxpayers, because banks are too big to fail; while on the contrary, state budgets and state welfare systems must be sacrificed to save the failed banks. It turns out that public good is whatever bankers may define as such, mainly the good of their deep pocket. The same is true of the IT behemoths, public good is truly public and good, as long as it does not hinder their profiteering from the seizure of what until recently belonged to the public, on the one hand, and does not stop the cash flow of payments for making the seized information available to the public, on the other. From enclosures to e-closures, indeed.
The established worldwide mass media conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann, Fininvest, Lagardère Group, News Corp or TimeWarner, have been startled by the break-neck speed of the e-change and do their best not to be left out hanging in the cold. They adapt themselves to and are coopted to the novel infosphere reshaped and reinvented by Amazon, Apple and Google, among others. This infosphere bristles with money and profit, a glittering globe spinning majestically high up in the heavens of stratospheric finance, with few openings that only the biggest players on the block can notice and are able to tap.
One of the first victims of this blind stampede (forward or into oblivion?) is the p-book. My strong suspicion is that the dumbed down standard to the tune of which it is manufactured, already widely accepted by docile readers, is a – or even the – strategy, on the part of the big players, to wean the Anglophone population off the p-book. If the p-book’s print is of such poor quality, its paper stinks, the spine does not hold, why not to exchange it for an e-book to be read on a Kindle. The e-book reader is slick, gadget-y and trendy, it becomes a kindle to brush sides with your mobile and i-pad, unlike with an un-evolved and un-loved p-book. The Kindle’s e-page is greyish and small, but should you like the print to be bigger or in a different font – voilà – here it is. You are tired of reading, no problem, the e-reader will read to you, courtesy of automatic voice generation. And should your family complain of the dusty, stinking and moldy books in the bookcase tucked out of view in the utility space under the stairs; to the scrap paper bin with the p-volumes!; a good riddance, and a good – ahem – P on them! Surely, thousands of volumes will easily fit into your Kindle.
All that’s true. But what if Amazon or another e-book provider decides to automatically ‘recall’ some titles from your Kindle on the sly and, subsequently, makes them disappear by removing these e-books blacklisting them away from its website? With no recourse to the already decommissioned p-libraries or p-bookstores priced out of existence, not only the cash flow for the use of information will be streamlined straight to the coffers of the few remaining big players, but the e-behemoths and mass media conglomerates will be in position to shape the totality of the information, with no public interference of any import. Will they refrain from using this power so tantalizingly within their reach? I doubt it. Whatever is available will be used sooner rather than later. And such total, absolute power over information will corrupt absolutely, the IT behemoths joining and eventually becoming identical with the government, the state. Berlusconi’s Italy has trailblazed the path to show us how to proceed with such a marriage of information and government, so as to attain the sublime ideal of e-power.
It turns out that George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four was far too simplistic. Control over information, and by extension, over human minds, in this post-future future of the coming decades will be even more ubiquitous, and because of that, more imperceptible. The realistic unreality or unreal reality of the coming new will be as irrealy real and equally really unreal as the world conjured by Haruki Murakami in his sprawling fresco of a novel, 1Q84.
First, in twenty eleven I came across the book in its original Japanese, handsomely published in three volumes. It was in Sapporo, in the very north of Japan on the island of Hokkaido, where I sojourned shortly after the armageddon of the unprecedented tsunami and the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in the Fukushima power plant. Tens of thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands were deprived of shelter or had to flee the contaminated zones. Eerily, time and again the Japanese government chose to downplay the danger of radiation and contamination, like the Soviet bloc countries had done in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in nineteen eighty-six. Citizens attempting to screen the radiation on their own were prevented from posting their findings on the web, and in due course officials coaxed them to stop taking such measurements altogether.
Life went on as usual, despite the palpable fear felt under the mask of calm and propriety. It was as if I had entered another world. Instead of the drabness of communist totalitarianism, where brutal violence is naked to be seen by all, like in today’s North Korea, I was surrounded by colorful crowds and shops with an unheard-of mass of goods and numerous contraptions of which I had no idea even existed or to what ends they may be employed. Food was excellent, nutritious and healthy (though some, perhaps, radioactive). Life was good, I had never seen it better.
Except for the Romaji transliterations of Japanese road signs and plaques into Latin characters I could not read anything. I was back to the land of illiteracy which I had left almost forty years ago when I had gone to my Polish elementary school in nineteen seventy-four. After spending long days on research in the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University, I hungered for a good story to read. I downloaded some from the net, but it was not a genuine item. I wanted a book, a p-book, badly. I longed for the sight of books for the smell of coffee, in one word for a true bookstore.
My wishes were answered with a vengeance. Near the railway station I came across the large two-storey Kinokuniya bookshop. Hundreds of bookcases in neat rows tightly but elegantly filled up the space, all full of enticingly beautifully and meticulously manufactured p-books. Perhaps, Japan is the last place on Earth where p-books are celebrated as objets d’art on a mass scale. The sheer variety of such p-treasures makes the head of an Anglo-American reader spin. She rubs her eyes in disbelief, but it is not a dream. The world of the über-p-book is within your hand’s grasp, but nevertheless hidden behind the impenetrable glass wall of Japanese script and language.
I rationed my visits to Kinokuniya to once – or at most, twice – a week not to lose mind. I spent hours leafing through colorful, garish or elegant, but full of images and graphic flourishes volumes, magazines, pictorial books, atlases, or graphic novels. Finally, made dizzy by all the p-opulence, which starved my newly illiterate eye even more, my eye hungering for stories, I sighed and forked out two thousand yens (or over thirteen pounds sterling) for an exquisite cup of coffee with an artisan cookie sporting a meticulously rendered full-color landscape of a Japanese garden against the background of steep mountains. The waitress, who brought the ordered coffee and cookie to my table, was dressed up as if straight from one of the best restaurants in interwar Mitteleuropa. Hard to believe that the scene took place in what is still known as Japan’s ‘Siberia;’ and until recently was ‘developed’ by a Colonization Commission.
Having finished the coffee, my hunger for reading matter growing in leaps and bounds, I sneaked back among the shelves, making a bee line, quite squeamishly, to the English-language section. Its wares looked like poor relatives in tattered clothes in comparison to even the humblest one of the humble Japanese books. I winced at having no choice but to take my dose of the p-dope from there. It felt like going to a megalopolis’s seedy district, crime- and drug-infested.
You want proofs? Here it is: Let us take Jared Dimond’s famous work Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). In two thousand its Japanese translation came off the press in two volumes with the matching covers. The translation is more lavishly illustrated than the English original, the images, instead of being bunched up in the section with all the illustrated pages, are spread throughout the text, usefully and thoughtfully placed close to the paragraphs which discuss them. In the English originals the images are relentlessly black and white, in the translation they are given in full color, which is also generously lent to maps and diagrams. I did wish I could read in Japanese.
I felt the same about the Japanese original of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I waited patiently for an English translation to read the novel. In late twenty eleven, it was finally released, in a single volume in the United States, and in the incomprehensible two volumes in Britain. Alas, so much of the author’s and the translators’ work reduced to near-illegibility presented in unwieldy bulky copies of tiny grey print on grey pages. I restrained my impulse to buy the long-awaited novel on sight, having noticed, in the course of my travels across Europe, that elsewhere the Polish, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Bulgarian or Czech translations of 1Q84 all appeared in three volumes, on excellent paper with decent size print, usually at half (or less) the price of the Anglo-American editions. And to emphasize the shameful quality of publishing in Britain and the United States, let me mention that in twenty twelve 1Q84 was reissued in six small handsome paperback volumes, two per each volume of the novel, all complete with ribbon markers. I felt as if transported back to the belle époque in Europe, where bringing out popular novels in five or ten volumes was a good norm, not a folly.
Why all the dumbing-down of publishing standards in the Anglophone world? If producing p-books in an elegant fashion is profitable for the book market of a hundred and twenty million in the German-speaking countries, of sixty million in France, thirty-five million in Poland, or ten million in the Czech Republic, why are the Anglo-American publishers tweaking so relentlessly the very form of the p-book, while targeting the fabulous market of 300 million consumers? Greed and profit are part of the answer. The other half of the explanation is the drive at pushing the unwilling but sleep-walking reader to switch their pecuniary valuable reading addiction to the e-book.
Then the software and hardware producers will cash in on their ‘services’ that in reality will introduce a barrier between the reader’s eye and the book, where earlier there was none. Isn’t it so that to ‘access’ a p-book a pair of good eyes and a lamp or sunshine do suffice? The, as it is advertized, easier access to the e-book must be always mediated through the e-reader, for instance a Kindle. Any p-book easily survives a fall from the reader’s hand onto the tiled floor or into a steaming bath. In the latter case, after drying up, the wavy pages are not as beautiful as before, but the p-book can be read again. No problem. But such occurrences in the case of a Kindle, much costlier than a p-book, mean the end of the contraption’s life and the instantaneous loss of a veritable library of e-books that the reader has gathered on it.
Who profits from the change? readers, books, information, public good, accessibility, the world’s endangered rain forests? Or maybe, just maybe, the IT behemoths and the mass media conglomerates? Regular changes in technology, known as ‘improvements,’ will require readers to update and replace their e-readers. E-books will be transferred from one contraption to another, and corralled time and again to an upgraded software format. In the process some will be lost, and the reader will need to re-purchase them, because availing of the run-of-the-mill warranty on such incidents will be too time-consuming. Anyway e-books are cheap, ergo, more profit for the e-behemoths increasingly diversifying and merging with the mass media conglomerates. The latter will follow the former’s example on how to monetize copyright-free information and public good itself. More profit to them, too, as physical copies of p-books will, at last, cease littering precious storage room. Away with them, to cyberspace!
Why would you want to have anything to do with this rubbish? The ugly stinking clumps of chemically processed wood pulp, these troglodyte p-books, an unseemly sight on the discerning reader’s desk; they are good for nothing. Entrusting information, your words to them? An outrage! Would you? The future belongs to our saved forests, fairtade, full access for all, privatization and fair profit – for the preselected very few. Darwin was right, wasn’t he, eh? He was, truly was, but wait a moment, what is this darwin?