I never realized how tragic it was that Hermione Granger had to open books and scan indexes to find spells well into the 2000s, while in the real world muggles could have Googled the info at lightening speed. But the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, one year before Google launched and the world wide web became everyday magic. When Adam Gopnik wrote about Ms. Granger’s problem earlier this year for The New Yorker it made me think that the advances made in reading devices—iPad, Nook, Kindle—combined with the enormous growth of e-book sales, are bringing us closer to the day when we might look back bemusedly at both the index Ms. Granger is scanning and the entire cloth-bound book, too.
Seated a few strides from his audience at the Power House Arena bookstore in Brooklyn, Gary Shteyngart was holding up his book, Super Sad True Love Story (2010), before giving a reading two months ago. Shteyngart’s novel is a love story that takes place in a kind of derivative future; a Vonnegut-esque hyperbole of the present. In it, books get more than bemused looks—they are relics that smell bad and have zero social value.
Set in New York City in an unknown year, after an unknown string of events (though prophetically, after the U.S. has defaulted on its debt), the government is run by the “Bipartisan party,” the currency is the Yuan-pegged dollar, and citizens carry an äppärät. A smartphone-like device, the äppärät broadcasts the wearer’s stats: credit rank, recent purchases, fuckability. Shteyngart’s main character, Lenny Abramov, is a Russian-American man of almost forty. He has great credit and an okay personality. Lenny Abramov is usually the ninth most attractive man out of the ten in a room.
Like the art of developing photos or the satisfaction of dropping vinyl onto a spindle, the tactile value of bound books is recognized as an endangered treasure, too.
Lenny Abramov meets Eunice Park, a twenty-something Korean-American with great fuckabilty, in Italy. Mutually attracted by low self-esteem and immigrant-family camaraderie, the two enter into a tenuous and sometimes uncomfortable love affair back in New York City. Each character’s voice serves to present the novel’s central tensions: mortality, technology, family, and a more subtle undercurrent of ennui about the future of books.
This last subject is the second love story being told in Shteyngart’s novel, and the one that really got to me. Eunice Park graduated college without learning how to read full sentences (only the abbreviated blips from CliffsNotes-like texts). Sentences, Shteyngart leads us to deduce, have been condensed to a sort of 1984 circumspeak of acronyms like, “JBF,” meaning “Just butt-fucking you.” Which makes the concept of a paper book pointless. “I think I just refluxed my lunch,” says a young man when Lenny Abramov mentions his “Printed, bound media artifacts.”
Lenny Abramov, sentimentalist and old world academic that he represents, sprays his real books with Pine-Sol. In one strangely tender, strangely sad (and maybe erotic) scene, Lenny Abramov reads to Eunice Park from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A book he loved as a teenager—as his notes in the margins prove—Lenny Abramov skips to the sex to keep Eunice Park interested. “People just aren’t meant to read anymore. We’re in a post-literate age. You know, a visual age,” says Lenny Abramov, comforting Eunice Park about her lack of reading skills. It is Super Sad.
It’s true that book sales in the real world tanked in 2004 (just look at Google trends). The air of doom and gloom surrounding writing (books, newspapers, magazines) is heavy; the recent closure of Borders doesn’t help, either. There are also more than a few extremely pessimistic outlooks on bound books’ future. But in reality book sales have made a comeback as a recent report from BookStats can attest. “Between 2008 and 2010 total revenues and sale units grew for the publishing industry as a whole, while e-book revenue for trade publishers increased by 1274 percent year on year,” reported PaidConent.org. The question remains, will e-books continue to make thousand-percent leaps in growth, eventually swallowing the book publishing industry whole?
The world still seems divided on where its future will take the cloth-bound book. The written word could persist while the skeletons of its bindings (doorjambs, as Eunice Park refers to books) are burned—not out of malice but out of a necessity for space. I tend to think that the bindings will stick around. Like the art of developing photos or the satisfaction of dropping vinyl onto a spindle, the tactile value of bound books is recognized as an endangered treasure, too. Even now at the University of Virginia, school groups tour the Rare Book Room in the university’s library. Michael Suarez, director of the Rare Book Room, told National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” (July 17th, 2011), “We insist that students touch and smell and shine light through items… and understand the book as history.” Shteyngart’s novel gives me hope, too. Great writing and a good story aside, Super Sad True Love Story stops to examine where books are headed; shines light through them, and helps readers like me remember to remember the book. I for one am not ready to stop scanning a real index, or to stop holding the spine of a real book.