In online age, books need support, historian says
Historian Douglas Brinkley somewhat sheepishly acknowledged Monday that he had broken one of his own rules - he shopped at an independent bookstore but didn't buy. What he found would probably become online purchases.
The prolific author and professor at Rice University told a gathering at Washington University celebrating books by faculty members that he was browsing in the University City Loop and came across Subterranean Books.
As a big book buyer, Brinkley said, he normally would have purchased additions to his collection, but because he was traveling, he just made note of volumes he would likely buy online when he returned home - and probably at a cheaper price.
But, he added, that savings is a steep price to pay in exchange for threatening small, independent book sellers with extinction - particularly when such stores often help local authors by showcasing their works.
"If you can afford it," Brinkley said, "keep spending money at independent bookstores."
He added that large online booksellers aren't the only things threatening the publishing industry today. Because of the ubiquitous nature of information to be found on the Internet, publishers have had to slash their staffs, leading to what Brinkley called "slapdash publishing," both in terms of subject matter and in terms of the quality of their finished product.
Authors have to quadruple-check everything, he added, because editors who used to be their backstop have seen their jobs cut, even at university presses. For academic books, he said, professors should reach out and help each other.
"We are selling more books now than ever before," Brinkley said, "but the quality of publishing is in ghastly decline. As an author, we deserve some of the blame for that, but publishing houses are downsizing so badly, there's no one else to look at this. There's no backstop. There's nobody in New York or Cambridge who will really be there to monitor your mistakes.
"Once they edit it, it's off to the races."
As much as authors have to take responsibility for the final product, he added, there is only so much they can do to make sure their work is error-free.
"Unless you're a masochist," he said, "it's not really fun to reread your narrative 250 times."
Not all aspects of the Internet are bad, Brinkley admitted. He said he even used Wikipedia to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt's historic speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in 1910 - the same spot where President Obama went to speak on Tuesday. And Brinkley authored a book about Roosevelt.
But, he said that the problem with Wikipedia is the problem of the Internet in general - too much of a chance to get misinformation and too few people out there making sure that the facts and factoids are correct.
"This is the genius of the university press world," Brinkley said. "There is a vetting process for university presses."
Not to mention the sheer tactile pleasure of holding a book in your hand as opposed to peering at a screen all day long.
"If you love books," he said, "there is something thrilling about touching that is impossible to get out of an e-book. There is an aesthetic quality."
He added that the online information onslaught has contributed to a shorter attention span, which in turn has led to a move for shorter books, particular in history and biography. Brinkley said that such a trend might work out fine, as long as the briefer books are readable but not dumbed down.
And he put in a plug for the value of libraries and the people who run them, even when almost anything can be found online.
"Librarians are unsung today," Brinkley said. "There is a feeling of why do you need a librarian? You have the whole world on your laptop."
Libraries, he said, can act as a community gathering place, a spot where people can learn what reference books are out there and understand how the world's knowledge is catalogued.
"I think professors may have to play a role in encouraging activities at public libraries for people," he said. "They need to be keeping independent bookstores and public libraries alive more than they used to."
Doing so, Brinkley concluded, will help make sure that quality books survive, without forcing a feud between the writers of scholarly books and the writers of pop history and culture.
"In a world where tabloid, tacky celebrity entertainment is reigning supreme," he said, "for us to have that argument among ourselves is a mistake. We're living in an extraordinary time of communication, but the need for scholars and books and centers for the humanities is still there."
Brinkley's appearance was the first of two nights celebrating books by Washington University faculty members, sponsored the university's Center for the Humanities and the university's libraries.
At Monday's event, history professor Peter Kastor and English professor Jessica Rosenfeld talked about their books; Tuesday evening, Akiko Tsuchiya, a professor of Spanish and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and music professor Craig Monson, will talk about their works at an event featuring New Yorker magazine cartoonist Roz Chast.
Contact Beacon staff writer Dale Singer.