A preamble to A Republic of Books, portions of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.
There is a wonderful quote from a fabulous movie of long ago, often repeated but seldom fully appreciated: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Perhaps it’s strange to you that I apply a quote from a movie to the death of the book, which is the greater subject here. Then perhaps you should look more closely at that movie. It was not technology that killed the book—nor the internet, or digital reproduction, or any of those contrivances that you’ve heard complaints about. They were only means. Mere tools. ’Twas beauty. The perfect nature of the book itself, that physical vade mecum of bound pages, whether pulp or rag or vellum, sewn or stapled or glued, covered in leather or cloth or not covered at all, that was the reason and cause for its destruction. Such an empiric beast could not be allowed to survive in a fungible world. No matter the subject—novel, or history, or tract—the book was an existential threat. With writers having sacrificed verity in favor of favor and acceptance, such a corporal art, and the ready evidence it revealed of their deceit, could not be allowed to co-exist. With the very climate itself having been made political, the ‘author’ had become just another tool as well and the need for the book, that hairy sublime that we had known, was made doubtful. With the advent of the internet and the ascendency of nescience and the commutable labyrinth of the web, the virtual had become ‘real’ and the book was at last defunct. The Great Bezos had spoken.
Certainly the tag, ‘book’ will be carried on. And ‘pages.’ And ‘word.’ Orwell predicted all that too, as meanings are altered to suit the need of authority. But now we have arrived at that last moment. The great misbegotten beast that was the book lay dead on the street in New York. And all the things that the book once was, nasty and false and true and kind, are dead as well, along with that industry of editors and publishers, critics and agents, and not least, the mortal authors themselves who once believed in their own veracity and perspicacity. All gone. Deceased. As dead as the once wild beast that made them possible. A computer can now write as well as the graduate of a university writer’s workshop. Garbage in, garbage out. Compassion made to order. Empathy on demand. There’s a formula for that, don’t you know. Just keep it Strunk and White.
Art has now evolved beyond postmodern, to postmortem.
And the movie industry is departed as well—not coincidently, using the same recipe. A King Kong cannot be imagined today, (I reference the 1933 masterpiece, not the modern abortions) only copied—and badly at that. Computer graphics can now simulate almost anything but real life—but then, that was once the subject of actual authors, not authoritarians.
I read years ago that the actor Steve McQueen, a favorite of my youth, refused a movie role because he would not cry on demand. I respected him the more.
It is in that spirit of not crying on demand that I write this book.
You are here, at a rest stop. The arrow marks the spot on the highway map.
‘All hope abandon, ye who enter.’
Dante said as much.
But I would like to say a little more.