Summer reads 7: Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Sort Of Books, 2004)

I took a number of physically small books away on our summer break, and have blogged about them as ‘Summer reads’. I was only dimly aware that they were all gifts – either from friends who thought I’d enjoy them or from publishers who hoped I’d blog about enjoying them.

So Many Books was the former kind of gift, and has its own opinion on books as gifts. An early chapter says that they ‘threaten the recipient with the task of responding to the questions “Have you read it yet? What did you think of it?”‘ and goes on:

In fact, the most uncommercial slogan in the world might be: ‘Give a book! It’s like giving an obligation.’

(‘An Embarrassment of Books’, page 13)

The obligation in this case was entirely enjoyable.

Gabriel Zaid is a Mexican poet and essayist. His Wikipedia entry lists a formidable number of essays on a broad range of topics. This little hardback, of the kind that sits on the front counter of a bookshop, is a series of short essays that revolve around the vast number of books published each year: the impossibility of any one person reading more than a tiny fraction of them; the way books, compared to movies or TV shows, are inexpensive to produce in small numbers so don’t have to be best-sellers to be viable; the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘commerce’; the nature of reading; the way many people, especially academics and aspiring poets, want their writing to be published but tend not to read other people’s; why economies of scale apply to motor vehicles but not to books; and more.

So Many Books (which my fingers keep wanting to call Too Many Books, not necessarily what Zaid means) was published in Spanish as Los demasiados libros in 1996, and in Natasha Wimmer’s gorgeously smooth translation in 2003, before Amazon had completely dominated the book market, and before e-books and self-publishing really took off, so some of it is well out of date. But an update would require some tinkering at the edges of Zaid’s arguments rather than wholesale rethinking.

Regular readers of this blog will be able to tell that the book touches subjects close to my heart. Here’s Zaid on careful rewriting and copy-editing:

[A writer who] is a doctor, a lawyer, or an executive … can’t devote himself to rewriting a paragraph over and over, although the additional work might save his readers time. It is absurd for the writer to devote two hours to saving his reader a minute if the text is a note to his secretary. But if it is a book with twelve thousand readers, each minute represents a social benefit of two hundred hours in exchange for two, and the reward is one hundred times the cost. …

Of course, the cost of reading would be much reduced if authors and publishers respected readers’ time more, and if texts that had little to say, or were badly written or poorly edited, were never published.

(‘The Cost of Reading’, p 88–89)

Here he is being completely wrong about reading very slowly (see my series of blog posts on A la recherche du temps perdu, The Prelude, the Iliad, and now Middlemarch):

Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligible than reading it slowly enough? It’s like examining a mural from two centimetres away and scanning it at a rate of ten square centimetres every third day for a year, like a short-sighted slug. This doesn’t allow for the integration of the whole, for taking in the mural at a glance.

(‘Some Questions About the Circulation of Books’, p 72)

On bookshops:

To be angry because a book isn’t where you want it to be is to be angry at the randomness of fate.

(‘Constellations of Books’, p 110)

Early in my blogging life I wrestled with the word fortuitous in a number of posts. I’m pleased to report that Gabriel Zaid uses it in a way I find completely unproblematic:

In a good bookshop, supply and demand are fortuitous, but not chaotic: they have a physiognomy, a recognisable identity, like constellations. The probability of finding a particular book increases in relation to the clarity of the shop’s focus, the diligence and shrewdness of the bookseller, and the size of the business.

And from page 75, the opening of ‘The End of the Book’:

No experts in technological forecasting are predicting the end of fire or the wheel or the alphabet, inventions that are thousands of years old but have never been surpassed, despite being the products of underdeveloped peoples. And yet there are prophets who proclaim the death of the book. This prophecy is understood as an apocalyptic judgment: the overabundance of books oppresses humanity and in the end will provoke divine wrath. But as a technological judgment, it doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny.

The essays are witty, instructive, thought-provoking, satirical and totally readable. If you stumble on them, possibly in someone else’s to-be-read pile or a street library, I encourage you to dip in.

And that’s a wrap for my Summer Reads.

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