February 4, 2012:
What is next? Seedless apples?
I don't know. I was in New York Thursday having lunch with a friend and had something under an hour to kill afterwards before my bus left, so I dropped into the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Ave. at 18th Street, their flagship store, to look at their books in American history. It was intimidating. Each bookcase in that section was about seven and a half feet tall and there were maybe fifteen of them, probably a thousand titles all told. At least 800, anyway. I looked at them and I thought, do I really want to add another one? Then I had another thought: damn, I only have about forty-five minutes to look at them. And where else can I find anything like this abundance? What are we going to do when all the bookstores disappear?
Publishing is in the midst of this huge transition and nobody knows how it's going to turn out. Will physical books disappear, replaced by ebooks? I just can't believe that. Of course I'm an old guy so it figures I wouldn't be able to believe that, especially looking around the house, the bookcases, the 6-7,000 books in the house. I'm thinning them out now, carton by carton, in the hopes of exposing the floor space in the two rooms I use as offices; and I don't mind getting rid of them, up to a point. But they represent, no, more than that, they embody my own intellectual history, the progress of my interests, my passions over the years, and while I know, being old, that I'll never read most of them, I can't get rid of them all. Not by any means. They mean too much to me. Even if I haven't read them yet I know where they fit in my own private map of the world.
And I'm reluctant to get rid of them too because I don't know what I'm going to do next. The project I have been aiming my life toward for so many years is exceedingly difficult and hard to pin down, it's in American history, so I have to keep most of my books on that subject, and there are a great many. At the same time I despair of this project, it's really difficult, it's hard to sell to a publisher, any publisher, I've discovered, and I have other projects that would be much easier, for which in fact I've already written material (years ago), and for which I also have a great many books. So I can't get rid of those, either. I am getting rid of the Arctic books. I've done the Arctic. I'm sick of ice; I'll never write another adventure book (unless someone begs me to, and for serious money); that phase of my life is over. I hope. But nothing is fixed in a writer's life. He begins again just about every day. When he's writing he has to read over in the morning what he did the day before, then figure out what to say next, how to say it, and where it will fit in the overall design, which itself changes with each sentence, each thought. And for me, well, I never think I know enough. Other people always know more. Thus this library of mine. I use it to mine the material, to know more. It's a never ending process. But it does actually end, and I'm old, and the end game is upon me, and I'm not sure what to do next. Or whether I can even do anythiing that will sell, because publishing is in such big trouble, publishers are scared, and you never know where or when you're going to find somebody to take a chance on you and your big ideas.
I think I'm going to be experimenting with the ebook market soon; I have a bunch of essays, starting with the ethics columns I wrote for Esquire, to which I'll add some of the other pieces with moral themes I've written over the years, and I'll make a book out of them. Maybe go over to the dark side and publish it with Amazon. But I don't know. I love real books, books you can hold in your hand, flip the pages of, write in the margins of. I don't feel I'm reading a book unless I can write in the margins. Books are wonderful physical objects, and the greatest invention for storing knowledge mankind has ever conceived. Browsing through bookstores has been one of the most satisfying pleasures of my life.
Well, I suppose I'm going to write another one, no matter what. It's what I was born to do; I have no choice. Add one more title to those shelves, if there are still shelves stocked with books when I'm done. Wish me luck. Wish us all luck, because without books, it's the dark ages all over again.