I love it when something that you think will be good turns out to be even better than you’d hoped. Case in point: author Sherman Alexie’s visit to The Colbert Report last Tuesday night. I expected Alexie to chat up his latest book, War Dances. I didn’t expect to be treated to such an intelligent commentary on the future of book culture in America.
Colbert starts out by affirming the author’s decision not to allow the digital distribution of his book. Alexie cites concerns over piracy and privacy as his motivation for doing so. I’ve noted here on the blog how certain e-book devices can expose book lovers to all sorts incursions into their intimate reading lives. Alexie, for his part, ups the ante. “I’m an Indian,” he states. “I have plenty of reasons to be worried about the U.S. government” peering over his shoulder while he e-reads. Colbert — ever the (alleged) enemy of literacy — chimes in with his objection to digital books. “You can’t burn a Kindle.”
Alexie then notes how the revenue structure of the music industry has changed in the digital era. Here I believe he over-reaches somewhat, but in any case his claim is that the music is no longer what primarily makes money for top recording artists. Now, touring and performances comprise their primary revenue stream. He fears the same may one day hold true for book authors as well, suggesting a future in which the book-as-cultural-artifact will become incidental to paid-for author appearances. And here Alexie echoes one of Kevin Kelley’s predictions from his 2006 bombshell published in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“, from which the late John Updike recoiled in horror.
The rest of the interview offers something of a rejoinder to this vision for the future of the book. In a word, it is unsustainable. Alexie recounts how the experience of the book tour has changed for him over the last decade or so. It used to be that he would engage all sorts of local media and indy bookstores while traipsing around the country to promote his latest work. Today, Alexie complains, “the localized appreciation of books is gone.” Book blogs notwithstanding, what little coverage books receive in the media today mostly occurs in the national press — in exclusive forums like The New York Times and, well, The Colbert Report. Chain bookstores, meanwhile, now play host to the vast majority of author events. The result, he notes, is not only a diminished conversation about books at the local level, but also the elimination of untold numbers of book-related jobs that are ancillary to, yet nonetheless sustain, the book industry proper.
I can’t say that I agree with everything Alexie had to say about the past, present, and future of books in America, but his insights were provocative enough for me to air them here. I do agree with his final point wholeheartedly, though: “White folks should be ashamed that it’s taking an Indian to save part of their culture.” Indeed.