NR Digital

City Desk

Volume Discount

by Richard Brookhiser

Books were like print-outs, with text on both sides of the paper, fastened together along one side with stitching (in older books) or glue. The pages, or papers, were numbered sequentially. There were front and back covers, hard or soft, usually with some kind of graphic design; sometimes real thought went into these graphics, just as it did for record jackets. The graphics, of course, did not change or stream.

The paper pages were surprisingly sophisticated. They could move backwards or forwards (turn) without clicking; a user could make notes directly on them with ink (pen) or graphite (pencil) styluses. Liquid spills were not recommended, but did not disable them. As long as the font was large enough, they were very easy on the eyes. They used no power.

The great shortcoming of the book was storage. Since the format accommodated only one text per platform, the reader required a separate book for every text. The space books took up in a city apartment could be enormous.

The city was a longtime center for producing and, to a great degree, creating books. Here is how they were sold at the end of the Gutenberg era.

When I was starting out, publishers paid for book parties. My first book was given two book parties, one in a pseudo–living room over the firm’s Fifth Avenue bookstore, another in the National Press Club in Washington. Those days are gone with the Evil Empire, at least for middling authors like myself. Now I pay for a cocktail party in a favorite restaurant; I invite my agent and my editor, older colleagues and best friends. I also used to ask people I was trying to impress, but they never RSVP’d, so I stopped. Serve wine only, not drinks; display only one copy of your latest (if there are more lying about, people will think they are free and walk off with them). Don’t make any remarks longer than “Have a good time,” and have one.

The city is one of the places a publisher would send you on a book tour, however meager and truncated, so it is lucky for them that I already live here and they don’t have to pay anything extra to wheel me around. Prime venues for author appearances include the 92nd St. Y and its Tribeca satellite. These are Jewish Y’s; all those centuries in shul have instilled an insatiable appetite for texts, however profane; once Jews and decaying Jews and ex-Jews read, they discuss among themselves. There are always sharp heads in the audience, and the Q and A afterwards is always good. If food is to be served, and it usually is, it will be plentiful.

Catholics do not read. Rich Protestants do a little, but over the years their surplus funds have gone to institutions that pretend to be universalist. Hence another venue for the performing author, the WASP club. The club that has been kindest to me was formed during the Civil War after its parent club refused to expel its Confederate members. Bearded Union generals stare from its walls; the library is paneled in South African mahogany. The hors d’oeuvres here are skimpy — you would eat better at Occupy Wall Street — but the bar is terrific. The questions are also good. When the author finishes, he is asked to autograph a copy of his book for the library shelves. The club librarian once showed me a curiosity: a book of John Updike’s, autographed by him, as is typical, on one of the front pages. But when I turned that page, I saw another inscription on the next, in a very different hand, which said, “I don’t know who that was, but I do know that I am John Updike.” A signature con; the talented Mr. John Hancock. Better check the bills in your wallet. Is IOU NOTHIN SUCKER really the Treasurer of the United States?

A third author venue is the bookstore. All my city appearances have been at chain stores. I live two blocks away from a terrific chain store, four stories tall, with a big, high-ceilinged lecture space overlooking a park; but I have always only appeared in smaller outlets, in basements or attics designed for house trolls, with chairs set up among the shelves for Children’s Books, Gay Studies, and Travel: Oceania. The audience at bookstores is the most unpredictable, and the questions can be ululations with rising inflections, but it is always best to be nice to everyone, as I learned when one particularly trying lady turned out to have brought four of my earlier books for signing (she also bought the new one). God bless her; I’ll discuss Freemasons with her all day long.

The personal appearance, however gratifying to vanity, is crude retail, make that barter, or hunter-gathering. Media is what moves books. That means radio and TV. I have lost count of the radio studios I have visited: the NPR station that looked like a closet, insulated with foam egg cartons; the business-network station on a courtyard that looked like a gleaming glass toilet bowl, the futurism of 1998. Then the TV shows: WFB used to appear on The Tonight Show, and all would be done for his latest. Gone, gone. In their death throes, television channels proliferated, and so I have sat at round wooden tables, speaking with the celebrity host, or the former minister. I have perched in a director’s chair in the window of the cable-news morning show, while tourists come to stare at Midtown gave a passing glance (who is that? John Malkovich?). I have offered straight lines to the liberal who pretends to be a winger newscaster (we talk about the Republican of the week, but they do show the cover of my book in the intro).

And now, it’s all going online, just as text is. My website was designed by a man in Kingston, N.Y.; I am struggling to learn how to post new appearances. Brother, for all time, hail and farewell.

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