The Fetishistic Book

The Wall Street journal, the newspaper where I work, recently revamped its look: a smaller format, a new typeface and a new mandate to write the stories behind the news rather than simply presenting the news. The paper has shrunk by 20 percent, the editors and reporters have 10 percent less space to work with and the reported $18 million the move has saved every year is likely to help most of us reporters keep our jobs for the next year or so. In addition, The Journal’s publisher, Gordon Crovitz, in deeming this new iteration of the newspaper’ “Journal 3.0,” is emphasizing our relationship with our online publication, Breaking stories will appear online, and analysis can wait for the print edition.

This marks not so much a mere rethinking of the paper’s strategy, but its evolution. Dow7 Jones, owner of The Wall Street Journal, has always had a kind of online presence, and its online edition is quite successful, with some 800,000 subscribers who pay $99 a year for it. Before the Internet, there was the Dow Jones ticker, which printed out breaking news and transaction prices. So Dow Jones has been an electronic publisher for more than 100 years. So not much has actually changed. A reporter friend of mine once said he thinks that while newspapers are likely to be around for the remainder of our lifetimes, they are likely to fade away in the not-too-distant future.

I disagree. People do want information fast and from a variety of sources, but I don’t know if they want to give up entirely the tactility of a newspaper.

For the same reason, I don’t think books are going to disappear. Books remain, in some way, a fetishistic object, and nothing can really replace the feel of a book in one’s hands. Certainly not a PDA. Or a newfangled electronic book reader. Even though audio books are wonderful and truly connect us to our innate storytelling heritage as humans, the printed book is a singular sensation. I belong to a book group made up of editors, writers, agents and publishers, and we read exclusively children’s books, mainly young adult ones, from the “Little House” books to “Holes.” Many of my fellow members are parents, and their children are avid readers. This might be a result of the mother or father being in the business—though no one can force a child to read on his or her own—but í think it’s part of our makeup. As these children get older, its likely they will gravitate toward electronic storytelling, whether its videogames or handheld devices playing movies or some other medium not yet invented. But it’s also likely they will continue to be readers of books, based on that childhood fondness for escape through the intimacy of the reading experience.

But will books themselves evolve? I just received a lovely note from a reader who appreciated that he could immerse himself in a world he did not know, in a way he hadn’t anticipated, in my novel, “Late and Soon,” which is set in the New York art world and whose heroine is a specialist in 19th-century art at Sotheby’s. With novels, you can become a character in a way you cannot in other media. Oh, we identify with a hero or heroine onscreen, but in reading, say, of Jane Eyre’s plight as a child, we are her; we are living through those predicaments. Plus, Americans like to learn something from their novels. We are a nation of strivers.

That said, in some ways, it may be that books will become another niche of the arts, such as dance or opera—still vibrant, but not earth shattering. Of course, there are big exceptions. No one could have predicted the staggering popularity of the Harry Potter books—such phenomena are perhaps once-a-generation—which proved how culturally important books can be. It’s unlikely that novels will stay on the best-seller list for more than a year (although, again, “The Da Vinci Code” proved differently), just as it’s unlikely that any one TV program will be as popular as the hit series of the

1960s and 1970s, before the age of cable and niche television. Today, a network show that pulls in 15 million viewers a week is considered a hit, but in the 1960s, when “The Beverly Hillbillies” regularly had a weekly audience of about 65 million, a show7 that drew 15 million viewers would have been considered a major failure.

Today, when a literary first novel sells 20,000 copies, it is considered a success. Satisfaction with sales like that would probably have been unheard of 40 years ago. But 40 years ago, publishers took the time to nurture promising artists. Just as TV executives nowadays rarely give a show the time to find an audience, if an author cannot make a go within two or, at most, three books, publishers are unwilling to keep him or her on.

But publishers are not at fault here—they are business people, and for the most part, they work for publicly held conglomerates that look for sales successes at every level. I do think they will likely adjust their expectations further downward and accordingly pay out less to authors.

But I do not think that books will go away. At all. Even if they remain simply the inspiration point for Hollywood movies good and bad, they’ll still be here, since movies often lead viewers back to reading the source material, which as often as not is a book. But I do think they will in some way become, with some exceptions, the fetish object of the intellectual. That’s not such a bad thing. It means that they no longer speak to the masses. But then, it’s a rare work of art that does.

About the Author

Robert J. Hughes

Robert J. Hughes, an arts reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is also the author of “Late and Soon,” a novel.

View Essays