“”[R]eaders care not a whit about cover design or even good writing, and have no attachment at all to the book as object. Like addicts, they just want their fix at the lowest possible price, and Amazon is happy to be their online dealer.” – Steve Wasserman, in “The Amazon Effect.”
“You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” – Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, after 91 years of dreaming and writing and breathing and wondering. I am sure by now that everyone reading this knows this fact. It is a fact; an incontrovertible, real thing that happened. But his words, his conjured presence in them, the lessons and pleasures many have gleaned from them, will last for a very long time. That too, I think, is incontrovertible. President Obama paid tribute to him, and a quick Google search will yield a list of many more. The outpouring of reflections and memories is everywhere. One of the last old masters has left us.
I was preparing to write about the anxious, chaotic state of publishing when this happened. I planned to respond to an article that I read at the end of last week, entitled “The Amazon Effect,” which was published recently in The Nation and made available on its website. The article is a detailed discussion of how Amazon has become such a massive force of commerce. Because Jeff Bezos started the company by selling books, and Amazon retains a leading role in the bookselling business, the article discusses that business at length. It is, in the end, a sort of love letter to the company and its way of doing business, to the mercenary sensibilities of Bezos and to the massive changes Amazon is fomenting in the world of books. It is an article about books that really doesn’t care about books, or readers, but of how the way that books are distributed and discovered are being mightily altered.
I felt a trickle of sadness spiral around my thoughts as I finished the article. The world that was presented in this article was a sterile matrix of commerce, enlivened only by the need of Amazon to reign supreme: “Amazon, not surprisingly, is keen to sharpen its competitive edge, to use every means at its disposal to confound, stymie and overpower its rivals.” The article’s praise of the destruction and overthrow of the book world did not feel liberatory, but obliterating. Books were no more than marketed information packets to be dangled before eager addicts at cut-rate prices to secure market supremacy. We were, apparently, supposed to feel grateful that this “avaricious imperium” “bulldozes” everything in its path while giving grants to literary magazines? Only at the end of the article does the author admit that critics have “a fair point,” but this weak admission after a hagiographic onslaught of admiration for Amazon seems tacked-on for “balance.” Clearly we are supposed to poo-poo these naysayers and appreciate the brave new world ahead of us.
So there I was, rather cranky and miserable about the state of books in the world, when another blow fell: Mr. Bradbury’s passing. I felt disconcerted about it, and a bit sad. I never met Mr. Bradbury, and I had read his major works and enjoyed them, but he was not the powerful influence on me that he was on many others. He was a bright star in the firmament of writers in the genre that I loved. The work of his that had the greatest effect on me was Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was unsettling and enlightening at the same time. I had read most of Heinlein’s juveniles by the time I picked the book up, but Bradbury startled me with his language and with the power that curled around the words and slipped into your mind, sometimes not revealing their fullness until much later. The quotation that has always stuck with me is this one: “Everything that happens before Death is what counts.”
As I started to read the obituaries and tributes, that line came back to me. I am a thorough thanatophobe, and I read, and write, in part to keep that fear in check. So, to read that book, and to come away with that quotation, for it to dwell in my head, was strange and valuable. What counts is what we are doing now, what we experience, what decisions we make, what goals we pursue, even in the face of that incontrovertible approach of Death. The fact of the matter is that Death cannot matter, because it is absolutely inescapable. What has to have meaning, what we have to give meaning to, pour our hearts and efforts into, is everything besides the fact of Death. That idea did not take firm root in me until I read that book. I have forgotten the lesson from time to time, but those words continue to wind like a sinuous smoke around my thoughts, bringing me back to the fire of living. Reading and writing provide that refreshment in my mind, reiterating that Death is irrelevant and that we should not just live, but create, recreate, help each other create, agitate for creativity and diversity and richness and astonishment, demand sharpness of vision and all of the clarity we can muster and share.
The Amazon Effect is not about living, or creating, or seeing more clearly; it is about power-over, about taking power from people. It is about turning all books into interchangeable products and transferring money and dominance to an entity that prefers people (including writers) to be consumers, to be, in varying degrees, those addicts that Wasserman talks about. It is an effect that can erode community (fraught term that it is) in favor of commerce. It strives to exhaust, incompletely to be sure, the significance of books by endeavoring to homogenize them into cheap packets of information and entertainment. In fact, the Amazon Effect looks to some people like the coming of catastrophe and death. As one publisher put it “Amazon could have been a bright and shining star, lighting the way to increased literacy and improved access to alternative literatures. Alas, it looks more likely to be a large and deadly asteroid.”
But what can diminish the Amazon Effect is the Bradbury Effect, is the love of books and words that works like his stir in us. Cat Valente wrote a wonderful love letter to libraries the other day, and this passage in particular spoke to me:
“We are all half beast and half library. We are half big, awkward, occasionally fire breathing thing who want to be loved so terribly much, who want to be useful and good, and half all the books that ever stuck with us, changed the construction of our brains and the architecture of our hearts. We are half creatures afraid of bumping into the world the wrong way and roasting something accidentally and half a jumble of instincts toward wonder and kindness borne to our innermost selves on rafts of so many books and stories. We are all wyveraries.”
We are made by the world even as we make and remake it. The words we take in matter, even if only a tiny bit. This becomes exquisitely, achingly obvious when we have to acknowledge that Death has ended someone’s path through life, and their everything-that-happens has come to an end. In that moment we find ourselves seeing what counts. And with Ray Bradbury, what counted for most people was not how many books he sold or how much money he made, but how his writing inspired them, how his works motivated them to think and create, to imagine and to hunger to imagine more. From what I have read so far, and from what I myself have taken from his writing, what he gave people, what he aroused in them and what they found in his words was not The Amazon Effect, was not the drive to conquer and bully and undercut the competition, but to dream and see the world from different angles, to love what is poetic and flawed about the world around us, and to live and crave living as if there is no Death, because that fantasy is what keeps us going day after day, and we must seek it out and say yes to it at every opportunity if we really want to make life count.