William LynchArit John has just run a highly negative piece on The Atlantic Wire about now-ex-CEO of Barnes & Noble William Lynch, based on Susan Berfield’s reporting in Bloomberg Businessweek. And as you might judge from the title, “Barnes & Noble’s Ex-CEO Might Still Have a Job If He Cared About Books,” a main thrust of John’s critique of Lynch is that he just didn’t care about—or understand—books.

Indeed, John implies that Lynch showed his lack of understanding and appreciation of books by preferring e-books to the genuine printed article. John cites Lynch’s interview appearance on Bloomberg TV: “Lynch was asked what book book—as in, printed book—he was reading at the time. ‘I don’t really read physical books that much anymore, I like to read digitally,’ he said. ‘My wife is reading a lot of physical books,’ he added.”

Pretty damning stuff, I think we’ll all agree.

This touches on something I noticed myself recently: My bookshelves are gathering dust, literally. The layer of dust on my books is very deep and obvious. And yet I’m reading almost constantly, when I’m not writing and when I have a spare moment or a hand free. Either on phone or tablet. There’s rarely a book out of my hand or off my person. Given that, do I really not care about books just because I’m not reading them on paper?

William LynchFor me, and probably for many others now, including Lynch, the choice of medium is a question of convenience of all kinds—access to free books via Project Gutenberg and its ilk; access to non-DRMed publications; access to titles and topics that would be ludicrously difficult and expensive to get hold of if I was reading in print. I live in Budapest, where the best local English-language bookstores are hardly comparable to any B&N under Lynch’s dominion or not. So I’m hardly neutral.

Nonetheless, I read constantly and deeply. And I write, creatively, in styles and genres that demand long and deep reading in preparation as the literary equivalent of five-finger exercises, and can’t be attempted without it. With all that going on, do I really not appreciate writing and literature simply because I don’t read them on woodpulp that much these days?

Let alone the fact that the book trade that John cleaves to as an icon of value churns out more non-books and unbooks than have probably ever disgraced the virtual shelves of e-bookstores. How many trees have been pulped, how many carbon credits burned, to pump out the latest scraped-together gardening or paleo diet title to swell a chain’s dump bins and  Big Five’s remainder list? Can any industry that spews out such drivel in such volumes really claim to care about books?

You can probably guess what my answer is going to be: There are no book books any more. There may be reader readers and then just plain readers, but books and e-books are all just books now. Maybe Lynch was a reader and not a reader reader, but so are most publishing executives, judging from what they produce.

If you want to get sniffy about the medium of a work of literature, you had better be damn sure you are capable of handling the message. Otherwise your snobbery is as shallow and false as that of any Fitzrovia or Manhattan bookperson getting a quasi-intellectual buzz off PEN meetings and author soirées, while continuing to pollute our shelves with trash.


  1. I have made the argument many times that people of his generation who make an argument for the value of paper are engaging in a form of economic snobbery—it’s easy for them to say they prefer paper when they are far enough along in their lives to be able to afford large houses with tons of space to store it all. I live in a very highly urbanized area where the cost of real estate is astronomical. I simply don’t have the storage space to store it all in paper. So for me, it is a choice between keeping the paper—but borrowing and not ever owning the books—-or being able to buy them and keep them thanks to the marvels of digitization. I’d argue that ebooks are opening up the concept of book ownership to MORE people than paper ever did, for just this reason. Now, I can have 2000 books and they take up no space!

  2. How true, Joanna. As someone else with limited space, I myself empathize endlessly. In a sense DRM of nonlibrary e-books and other obstacles to full ownership are a form of unwitting class warfare waged by business people out of touch with their customers. The best cure would be no DRM or at least just social DRM without hardware or software limitations. Yet another approach, far less satisfactory, would be arrangements between content providers and libraries for “book lockers” where readers could keep their lawfully “purchased” ebooks. No need to worry about losing access because a company went out of business. I in fact made this suggestion to the DPLA, which, as far as I know, has never acted.


  3. Well, I’m far along in my life and I live in a small house, which I grant is larger than many urban apartments, especially the closets they call apartments in NYC, but I assure you I do not have “tons of space”. And I do not view myself as an economic snob.

    I read both ebooks and physical books and I buy both. I prefer physical books for those books I want to keep and possibly refer to or read again; I prefer ebooks for most fiction, which I consider read-once-and-throw-away books.

    In order to accommodate my preference for hardcover books, I have chosen to have, for example, 1 TV rather than multiple TVs; I choose not to buy other space-taking goods that would eat up the space I can devote to books.

    I have a friend who prefers physical books and lives in a 550-square foot apartment. It is crammed with books and he has chosen to live without TV and without a DVD player and without a surround sound system, doesn’t have a dog or cat, etc.

    Another friend rarely reads but collects art. She has hundreds of paintings stacked up in her small apartment and buys more when she sees something she likes. She, too, has no TV, preferring to stare at a painting than at a TV screen.

    My point is that, at least when it comes to me, the economic snobbery argument falls on deaf ears. People make choices as to what is most valuable and important in their lives. Some people can’t imagine living without a TV in every room; some can’t imagine living without physical books in every nook and cranny; some love modern art whereas others hate it. You make your own choices; why blame others for the choices you make.

  4. @Rich: I live amid my share of paper books, but I have only so much space for expansion of my physical library. As for your friend with 550 square feet, imagine how many more books he could squeeze into his life for keeps if he bought new ones in E. Publishers should see E as an opportunity, not a threat.

    With so many young people in Joanna’s situation, let’s hope that publishers will be more respectful of the concept of genuine e-book ownership. Would that DRM or no DRM was a choice that Joanna and I could make on a particular title! As it happens, Joanna is avoiding DRMed books.


  5. The persistence or transience of given books and their formats is less an issue than the persistence or transience of the influence of given books on our perspective. If that is so, then it is useful to consider the influential ones and perhaps prefer the formats and functionality of those that worked best to shift your thinking.

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