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Текст книги “30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories”
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Автор книги: Mark Twain
Жанр: Зарубежная классика, Зарубежная литература
Текущая страница: 3 (всего у книги 20 страниц)
During three days the couple walked upon air, with their heads in the clouds. They were but vaguely conscious of their surroundings; they saw all things dimly, as through a veil; they were steeped in dreams, often they did not hear when they were spoken to; they often did not understand when they heard; they answered confusedly or at random; Sally sold molasses by weight, sugar by the yard, and furnished soap when asked for candles, and Aleck put the cat in the wash and fed milk to the soiled linen. Everybody was stunned and amazed, and went about muttering, “What can be the matter with the Fosters?”
Three days. Then came events! Things had taken a happy turn, and for forty-eight hours Aleck’s imaginary corner had been booming. Up – up – still up! Cost point was passed. Still up – and up – and up! Cost point was passed. STill up – and up – and up! Five points above cost – then ten – fifteen – twenty! Twenty points cold profit on the vast venture, now, and Aleck’s imaginary brokers were shouting frantically by imaginary long-distance, “Sell! sell! for Heaven’s sake sell!”
She broke the splendid news to Sally, and he, too, said, “Sell! sell – oh, don’t make a blunder, now, you own the earth! – sell, sell!” But she set her iron will and lashed it amidships, and said she would hold on for five points more if she died for it.
It was a fatal resolve. The very next day came the historic crash, the record crash, the devastating crash, when the bottom fell out of Wall Street, and the whole body of gilt-edged stocks dropped ninety-five points in five hours, and the multimillionaire was seen begging his bread in the Bowery. Aleck sternly held her grip and “put up” as long as she could, but at last there came a call which she was powerless to meet, and her imaginary brokers sold her out. Then, and not till then, the man in her was vanished, and the woman in her resumed sway. She put her arms about her husband’s neck and wept, saying:
“I am to blame, do not forgive me, I cannot bear it. We are paupers! Paupers, and I am so miserable. The weddings will never come off; all that is past; we could not even buy the dentist, now.”
A bitter reproach was on Sally’s tongue: “I begged you to sell, but you—” He did not say it; he had not the heart to add a hurt to that broken and repentant spirit. A nobler thought came to him and he said:
“Bear up, my Aleck, all is not lost! You really never invested a penny of my uncle’s bequest, but only its unmaterialized future; what we have lost was only the incremented harvest from that future by your incomparable financial judgment and sagacity. Cheer up, banish these griefs; we still have the thirty thousand untouched; and with the experience which you have acquired, think what you will be able to do with it in a couple years! The marriages are not off, they are only postponed.”
These are blessed words. Aleck saw how true they were, and their influence was electric; her tears ceased to flow, and her great spirit rose to its full stature again. With flashing eye and grateful heart, and with hand uplifted in pledge and prophecy, she said:
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“Now and here I proclaim—”
But she was interrupted by a visitor. It was the editor and proprietor of the Sagamore. He had happened into Lakeside to pay a duty-call upon an obscure grandmother of his who was nearing the end of her pilgrimage, and with the idea of combining business with grief he had looked up the Fosters, who had been so absorbed in other things for the past four years that they neglected to pay up their subscription. Six dollars due. No visitor could have been more welcome. He would know all about Uncle Tilbury and what his chances might be getting to be, cemeterywards. They could, of course, ask no questions, for that would squelch the bequest, but they could nibble around on the edge of the subject and hope for results. The scheme did not work. The obtuse editor did not know he was being nibbled at; but at last, chance accomplished what art had failed in. In illustration of something under discussion which required the help of metaphor, the editor said:
“Land, it’s a tough as Tilbury Foster! – as we say.”
It was sudden, and it made the Fosters jump. The editor noticed, and said, apologetically:
“No harm intended, I assure you. It’s just a saying; just a joke, you know – nothing of it. Relation of yours?”
Sally crowded his burning eagerness down, and answered with all the indifference he could assume:
“I – well, not that I know of, but we’ve heard of him.” The editor was thankful, and resumed his composure. Sally added: “Is he – is he – well?”
“Is he well? Why, bless you he’s in Sheol these five years!”
The Fosters were trembling with grief, though it felt like joy. Sally said, non-committally – and tentatively:
“Ah, well, such is life, and none can escape – not even the rich are spared.”
The editor laughed.
“If you are including Tilbury,” said he, “it don’t apply. He hadn’t a cent; the town had to bury him.”
The Fosters sat petrified for two minutes; petrified and cold. Then, white-faced and weak-voiced, Sally asked:
“Is it true? Do you know it to be true?”
“Well, I should say! I was one of the executors. He hadn’t anything to leave but a wheelbarrow, and he left that to me. It hadn’t any wheel, and wasn’t any good. Still, it was something, and so, to square up, I scribbled off a sort of a little obituarial send-off for him, but it got crowded out.”
The Fosters were not listening – their cup was full, it could contain no more. They sat with bowed heads, dead to all things but the ache at their hearts.
An hour later. Still they sat there, bowed, motionless, silent, the visitor long ago gone, they unaware.
Then they stirred, and lifted their heads wearily, and gazed at each other wistfully, dreamily, dazed; then presently began to twaddle to each other in a wandering and childish way. At intervals they lapsed into silences, leaving a sentence unfinished, seemingly either unaware of it or losing their way. Sometimes, when they woke out of these silences they had a dim and transient consciousness that something had happened to their minds; then with a dumb and yearning solicitude they would softly caress each other’s hands in mutual compassion and support, as if they would say: “I am near you, I will not forsake you, we will bear it together; somewhere there is release and forgetfulness, somewhere there is a grave and peace; be patient, it will not be long.”
They lived yet two years, in mental night, always brooding, steeped in vague regrets and melancholy dreams, never speaking; then release came to both on the same day.
Toward the end the darkness lifted from Sally’s ruined mind for a moment, and he said:
“Vast wealth, acquired by sudden and unwholesome means, is a snare. It did us no good, transient were its feverish pleasures; yet for its sake we threw away our sweet and simple and happy life – let others take warning by us.”
He lay silent awhile, with closed eyes; then as the chill of death crept upward toward his heart, and consciousness was fading from his brain, he muttered:
“Money had brought him misery, and he took his revenge upon us, who had done him no harm. He had his desire: with base and cunning calculation he left us but thirty thousand, knowing we would try to increase it, and ruin our life and break our hearts. Without added expense he could have left us far above desire of increase, far above the temptation to speculate, and a kinder soul would have done it; but in him was no generous spirit, no pity, no—”
A Dog’s Tale
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me, I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But, indeed, it was not real education; it was only show: she got the words by listening in the dining-room and drawing-room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday-school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off, and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble. If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious, and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was. By and by, when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages, and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand, and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way – that was the word Synonymous. When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down wind on another tack, and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment – but only just a moment – then it would belly out taut and full, and she would say, as calm as a summer’s day, “It’s synonymous with supererogation,” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack, perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed, and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.
And it was the same with phrases. She would drag home a whole phrase, if it had a grand sound, and play it six nights and two matinées, and explain it a new way every time – which she had to, for all she cared for was the phrase; she wasn’t interested in what it meant, and knew those dogs hadn’t wit enough to catch her, anyway. Yes, she was a daisy! She got so she wasn’t afraid of anything, she had such confidence in the ignorance of those creatures. She even brought anecdotes that she had heard the family and the dinner-guests laugh and shout over; and as a rule she got the nub of one chestnut hitched onto another chestnut, where, of course, it didn’t fit and hadn’t any point; and when she delivered the nub she fell over and rolled on the floor and laughed and barked in the most insane way, while I could see that she was wondering to herself why it didn’t seem as funny as it did when she first heard it. But no harm was done; the others rolled and barked too, privately ashamed of themselves for not seeing the point, and never suspecting that the fault was not with them and there wasn’t any to see.
You can see by these things that she was of a rather vain and frivolous character; still, she had virtues, and enough to make up, I think. She had a kind heart and gentle ways, and never harbored resentments for injuries done her, but put them easily out of her mind and forgot them; and she taught her children her kindly way, and from her we learned also to be brave and prompt in time of danger, and not to run away, but face the peril that threatened friend or stranger, and help him the best we could without stopping to think what the cost might be to us. And she taught us not by words only, but by example, and that is the best way and the surest and the most lasting. Why, the brave things she did, the splendid things! she was just a soldier; and so modest about it – well, you couldn’t help admiring her, and you couldn’t help imitating her; not even a King Charles spaniel could remain entirely despicable in her society. So, as you see, there was more to her than her education.
When I was well grown, at last, I was sold and taken away, and I never saw her again. She was broken-hearted, and so was I, and we cried; but she comforted me as well as she could, and said we were sent into this world for a wise and good purpose, and must do our duties without repining, take our life as we might find it, live it for the best good of others, and never mind about the results; they were not our affair. She said men who did like this would have a noble and beautiful reward by and by in another world, and although we animals would not go there, to do well and right without reward would give to our brief lives a worthiness and dignity which in itself would be a reward. She had gathered these things from time to time when she had gone to the Sunday-school with the children, and had laid them up in her memory more carefully than she had done with those other words and phrases; and she had studied them deeply, for her good and ours. One may see by this that she had a wise and thoughtful head, for all there was so much lightness and vanity in it.
So we said our farewells, and looked our last upon each other through our tears; and the last thing she said – keeping it for the last to make me remember it the better, I think – was, “In memory of me, when there is a time of danger to another do not think of yourself, think of your mother, and do as she would do.”
Do you think I could forget that? No.
It was such a charming home! – my new one; a fine great house, with pictures, and delicate decorations, and rich furniture, and no gloom anywhere, but all the wilderness of dainty colors lit up with flooding sunshine; and the spacious grounds around it, and the great garden – oh, greensward, and noble trees, and flowers, no end! And I was the same as a member of the family; and they loved me, and petted me, and did not give me a new name, but called me by my old one that was dear to me because my mother had given it me – Aileen Mavoureen. She got it out of a song; and the Grays knew that song, and said it was a beautiful name.
Mrs. Gray was thirty, and so sweet and so lovely, you cannot imagine it; and Sadie was ten, and just like her mother, just a darling slender little copy of her, with auburn tails down her back, and short frocks; and the baby was a year old, and plump and dimpled, and fond of me, and never could get enough of hauling on my tail, and hugging me, and laughing out its innocent happiness; and Mr. Gray was thirty-eight, and tall and slender and handsome, a little bald in front, alert, quick in his movements, business-like, prompt, decided, unsentimental, and with that kind of trim-chiseled face that just seems to glint and sparkle with frosty intellectuality! He was a renowned scientist. I do not know what the word means, but my mother would know how to use it and get effects. She would know how to depress a rat-terrier with it and make a lap-dog look sorry he came. But that is not the best one; the best one was Laboratory. My mother could organize a Trust on that one that would skin the tax-collars off the whole herd. The laboratory was not a book, or a picture, or a place to wash your hands in, as the college president’s dog said – no, that is the lavatory; the laboratory is quite different, and is filled with jars, and bottles, and electrics, and wires, and strange machines; and every week other scientists came there and sat in the place, and used the machines, and discussed, and made what they called experiments and discoveries; and often I came, too, and stood around and listened, and tried to learn, for the sake of my mother, and in loving memory of her, although it was a pain to me, as realizing what she was losing out of her life and I gaining nothing at all; for try as I might, I was never able to make anything out of it at all.
Other times I lay on the floor in the mistress’s work-room and slept, she gently using me for a foot-stool, knowing it pleased me, for it was a caress; other times I spent an hour in the nursery, and got well tousled and made happy; other times I watched by the crib there, when the baby was asleep and the nurse out for a few minutes on the baby’s affairs; other times I romped and raced through the grounds and the garden with Sadie till we were tired out, then slumbered on the grass in the shade of a tree while she read her book; other times I went visiting among the neighbor dogs – for there were some most pleasant ones not far away, and one very handsome and courteous and graceful one, a curly-haired Irish setter by the name of Robin Adair, who was a Presbyterian like me, and belonged to the Scotch minister.
The servants in our house were all kind to me and were fond of me, and so, as you see, mine was a pleasant life. There could not be a happier dog that I was, nor a gratefuler one. I will say this for myself, for it is only the truth: I tried in all ways to do well and right, and honor my mother’s memory and her teachings, and earn the happiness that had come to me, as best I could.
By and by came my little puppy, and then my cup was full, my happiness was perfect. It was the dearest little waddling thing, and so smooth and soft and velvety, and had such cunning little awkward paws, and such affectionate eyes, and such a sweet and innocent face; and it made me so proud to see how the children and their mother adored it, and fondled it, and exclaimed over every little wonderful thing it did. It did seem to me that life was just too lovely to—
Then came the winter. One day I was standing a watch in the nursery. That is to say, I was asleep on the bed. The baby was asleep in the crib, which was alongside the bed, on the side next the fireplace. It was the kind of crib that has a lofty tent over it made of gauzy stuff that you can see through. The nurse was out, and we two sleepers were alone. A spark from the wood-fire was shot out, and it lit on the slope of the tent. I suppose a quiet interval followed, then a scream from the baby awoke me, and there was that tent flaming up toward the ceiling! Before I could think, I sprang to the floor in my fright, and in a second was half-way to the door; but in the next half-second my mother’s farewell was sounding in my ears, and I was back on the bed again., I reached my head through the flames and dragged the baby out by the waist-band, and tugged it along, and we fell to the floor together in a cloud of smoke; I snatched a new hold, and dragged the screaming little creature along and out at the door and around the bend of the hall, and was still tugging away, all excited and happy and proud, when the master’s voice shouted:
“Begone you cursed beast!” and I jumped to save myself; but he was furiously quick, and chased me up, striking furiously at me with his cane, I dodging this way and that, in terror, and at last a strong blow fell upon my left foreleg, which made me shriek and fall, for the moment, helpless; the cane went up for another blow, but never descended, for the nurse’s voice rang wildly out, “The nursery’s on fire!” and the master rushed away in that direction, and my other bones were saved.
The pain was cruel, but, no matter, I must not lose any time; he might come back at any moment; so I limped on three legs to the other end of the hall, where there was a dark little stairway leading up into a garret where old boxes and such things were kept, as I had heard say, and where people seldom went. I managed to climb up there, then I searched my way through the dark among the piles of things, and hid in the secretest place I could find. It was foolish to be afraid there, yet still I was; so afraid that I held in and hardly even whimpered, though it would have been such a comfort to whimper, because that eases the pain, you know. But I could lick my leg, and that did some good.
For half an hour there was a commotion downstairs, and shoutings, and rushing footsteps, and then there was quiet again. Quiet for some minutes, and that was grateful to my spirit, for then my fears began to go down; and fears are worse than pains – oh, much worse. Then came a sound that froze me. They were calling me – calling me by name – hunting for me!
It was muffled by distance, but that could not take the terror out of it, and it was the most dreadful sound to me that I had ever heard. It went all about, everywhere, down there: along the halls, through all the rooms, in both stories, and in the basement and the cellar; then outside, and farther and farther away – then back, and all about the house again, and I thought it would never, never stop. But at last it did, hours and hours after the vague twilight of the garret had long ago been blotted out by black darkness.
Then in that blessed stillness my terrors fell little by little away, and I was at peace and slept. It was a good rest I had, but I woke before the twilight had come again. I was feeling fairly comfortable, and I could think out a plan now. I made a very good one; which was, to creep down, all the way down the back stairs, and hide behind the cellar door, and slip out and escape when the iceman came at dawn, while he was inside filling the refrigerator; then I would hide all day, and start on my journey when night came; my journey to – well, anywhere where they would not know me and betray me to the master. I was feeling almost cheerful now; then suddenly I thought: Why, what would life be without my puppy!
That was despair. There was no plan for me; I saw that; I must say where I was; stay, and wait, and take what might come – it was not my affair; that was what life is – my mother had said it. Then – well, then the calling began again! All my sorrows came back. I said to myself, the master will never forgive. I did not know what I had done to make him so bitter and so unforgiving, yet I judged it was something a dog could not understand, but which was clear to a man and dreadful.
They called and called – days and nights, it seemed to me. So long that the hunger and thirst near drove me mad, and I recognized that I was getting very weak. When you are this way you sleep a great deal, and I did. Once I woke in an awful fright – it seemed to me that the calling was right there in the garret! And so it was: it was Sadie’s voice, and she was crying; my name was falling from her lips all broken, poor thing, and I could not believe my ears for the joy of it when I heard her say:
“Come back to us – oh, come back to us, and forgive – it is all so sad without our—”
I broke in with such a grateful little yelp, and the next moment Sadie was plunging and stumbling through the darkness and the lumber and shouting for the family to hear, “She’s found, she’s found!”
The days that followed – well, they were wonderful. The mother and Sadie and the servants – why, they just seemed to worship me. They couldn’t seem to make me a bed that was fine enough; and as for food, they couldn’t be satisfied with anything but game and delicacies that were out of season; and every day the friends and neighbors flocked in to hear about my heroism – that was the name they called it by, and it means agriculture. I remember my mother pulling it on a kennel once, and explaining it in that way, but didn’t say what agriculture was, except that it was synonymous with intramural incandescence; and a dozen times a day Mrs. Gray and Sadie would tell the tale to new-comers, and say I risked my life to say the baby’s, and both of us had burns to prove it, and then the company would pass me around and pet me and exclaim about me, and you could see the pride in the eyes of Sadie and her mother; and when the people wanted to know what made me limp, they looked ashamed and changed the subject, and sometimes when people hunted them this way and that way with questions about it, it looked to me as if they were going to cry.
And this was not all the glory; no, the master’s friends came, a whole twenty of the most distinguished people, and had me in the laboratory, and discussed me as if I was a kind of discovery; and some of them said it was wonderful in a dumb beast, the finest exhibition of instinct they could call to mind; but the master said, with vehemence, “It’s far above instinct; it’s reason, and many a man, privileged to be saved and go with you and me to a better world by right of its possession, has less of it that this poor silly quadruped that’s foreordained to perish”; and then he laughed, and said: “Why, look at me – I’m a sarcasm! bless you, with all my grand intelligence, the only think I inferred was that the dog had gone mad and was destroying the child, whereas but for the beast’s intelligence – it’s reason, I tell you! – the child would have perished!”
They disputed and disputed, and I was the very center of subject of it all, and I wished my mother could know that this grand honor had come to me; it would have made her proud.
Then they discussed optics, as they called it, and whether a certain injury to the brain would produce blindness or not, but they could not agree about it, and said they must test it by experiment by and by; and next they discussed plants, and that interested me, because in the summer Sadie and I had planted seeds – I helped her dig the holes, you know – and after days and days a little shrub or a flower came up there, and it was a wonder how that could happen; but it did, and I wished I could talk – I would have told those people about it and shown then how much I knew, and been all alive with the subject; but I didn’t care for the optics; it was dull, and when they came back to it again it bored me, and I went to sleep.
Pretty soon it was spring, and sunny and pleasant and lovely, and the sweet mother and the children patted me and the puppy good-by, and went away on a journey and a visit to their kin, and the master wasn’t any company for us, but we played together and had good times, and the servants were kind and friendly, so we got along quite happily and counted the days and waited for the family.
And one day those men came again, and said, now for the test, and they took the puppy to the laboratory, and I limped three-leggedly along, too, feeling proud, for any attention shown to the puppy was a pleasure to me, of course. They discussed and experimented, and then suddenly the puppy shrieked, and they set him on the floor, and he went staggering around, with his head all bloody, and the master clapped his hands and shouted:
“There, I’ve won – confess it! He’s a blind as a bat!”
And they all said:
“It’s so – you’ve proved your theory, and suffering humanity owes you a great debt from henceforth,” and they crowded around him, and wrung his hand cordially and thankfully, and praised him.
But I hardly saw or heard these things, for I ran at once to my little darling, and snuggled close to it where it lay, and licked the blood, and it put its head against mine, whimpering softly, and I knew in my heart it was a comfort to it in its pain and trouble to feel its mother’s touch, though it could not see me. Then it dropped down, presently, and its little velvet nose rested upon the floor, and it was still, and did not move any more.
Soon the master stopped discussing a moment, and rang in the footman, and said, “Bury it in the far corner of the garden,” and then went on with the discussion, and I trotted after the footman, very happy and grateful, for I knew the puppy was out of its pain now, because it was asleep. We went far down the garden to the farthest end, where the children and the nurse and the puppy and I used to play in the summer in the shade of a great elm, and there the footman dug a hole, and I saw he was going to plant the puppy, and I was glad, because it would grow and come up a fine handsome dog, like Robin Adair, and be a beautiful surprise for the family when they came home; so I tried to help him dig, but my lame leg was no good, being stiff, you know, and you have to have two, or it is no use. When the footman had finished and covered little Robin up, he patted my head, and there were tears in his eyes, and he said: “Poor little doggie, you saved his child!”
I have watched two whole weeks, and he doesn’t come up! This last week a fright has been stealing upon me. I think there is something terrible about this. I do not know what it is, but the fear makes me sick, and I cannot eat, though the servants bring me the best of food; and they pet me so, and even come in the night, and cry, and say, “Poor doggie – do give it up and come home; don’t break our hearts!” and all this terrifies me the more, and makes me sure something has happened. And I am so weak; since yesterday I cannot stand on my feet anymore. And within this hour the servants, looking toward the sun where it was sinking out of sight and the night chill coming on, said things I could not understand, but they carried something cold to my heart.
“Those poor creatures! They do not suspect. They will come home in the morning, and eagerly ask for the little doggie that did the brave deed, and who of us will be strong enough to say the truth to them: ’The humble little friend is gone where go the beasts that perish.’”
ПРОШУ ПОМОГИТЕ ДО ЗАВТРА ОЧЕНЬ НАДО АНГЛ НЕ ОЧЕНЬ ЗНАЮ ПРОШУ. 51 БАЛЛ ДАМ.
HUNTING FOR A JOB
S. S. McClure
I reached Boston late that night and got out at the South Station. I knew no one in Boston except Miss Bennet. She lived in Somerville1, and I immediately started out for Somerville. Miss Bennet and her family did all they could to make me comfortable and help me to get myself established2 in some way. I had only six dollars and their hospitality was of utmost importance to me.
My first application for a job in Boston was made in accordance with an idea of my own. Every boy in the Western states knew the Pope Manufacturing Company, which produced bicycles. When I published my first work “History of Western College Journalism” the Pope Company had given me an advertisement, and that seemed to be a “connection” of some kind. So I decided to go to the offices of the Pope Manufacturing Company to ask for a job. I walked into the general office and said that I wanted the president of the company.
“Colonel Pope?” asked the clerk. I answered, “Yes, Colonel Pope.”
I was taken to Colonel Pope, who was then an alert energetic man of thir- ty-nine.I told Colonel Pope, by way of introduction, that he had once given me an advertisement for a little book I had published, that I had been a College editor and out of a job. What I wanted was work and I wanted it badly.
He said he was sorry, but they were laying off hands3. I still hung on4. It seemed to me that everything would be all up with me5, if I had to go out of that room without a job. I asked him if there wasn’t anything at all that I could do. My earnestness made him look at me sharply.
“Willing to wash windows and scrub floors?” he asked. I told him that I was, and he turned to one of his clerks.
“Has Wilmot got anybody yet to help him in the downtown6 rink?” he asked.
The clerk said he thought not.
“Very well”, said Colonel Pope. “You can go to the rink and help Wilmot out for tomorrow.”
The next day I went to the bicycle rink and found that what Wilmot wanted was a man to teach beginners to ride. I had never been on a bicycle in my life nor even very close to one, but in a couple of hours I had learnt to ride a bicycle myself and was teaching other people.
Next day Mr. Wilmot paid me a dollar. He didn’t say anything about my coming back the next morning, but I came and went to work, very much afraid that I would be told I wasn’t needed. After that Mr. Wilmot did not exactly engage me, but he forgot to discharge me, and I came back every day and went to work. At the end of the week Colonel Pope sent for me and placed me in charge of the uptown7 rink.
Colonel Pope was a man who watched his workmen. I hadn’t been mistaken when I felt that a young man would have a chance with him. He often used to say that “water would find its level”, and he kept an eye on us. One day he called me into his office and asked me if I could edit a magazine.
“Yes, sir, ” I replied quickly. I remember it flashed through my mind that I could do anything I was put at — that if I were req uired to run an ocean steamer I could somehow manage to do it. I could learn to do it as I went along8. I answered as quickly as I could get the words out of my mouth, afraid that Colonel Pope would change his mind before I could get them out.
This is how I got my first job. And I have never doubted ever since that one of the reasons why I got it was that I had been “willing to wash windows and scrub floors”. I had been ready for anything.
Вопросы часть 1
Paraphrase the sentences using phrases from the text:
1)Miss Bennet and her family received him very warmly.
2)Everybody tried to help him to find some kind of job.
3)Their concern and hospitality were very important to him.
4)He told Colonel Pope that he was unemployed and needed any job very much.
5)The man thought that everything would be lost for him if he didn’t find a job.
6)He had never ridden a bicycle in his life.
7)Mr. Wilmot neither employed the journalist nor dismissed him.
8)The boss made him responsible for the uptown rink.
9) It suddenly occurred to him that his willingness to do any job had helped him to get his first job.
Вопросы на них надо дать ответы.
IV Questions on the text:
1)Who was the only person the author knew in Boston?
2)In what way was he received? Why was it of great importance to him?
3)What made the young man apply for a job to the Pope Company?
4)Describe Colonel Pope. What was his answer to the young man’s sto-
5)Why did the man still hang on though he found out that the company was laying off hands?
6)What question did the Colonel ask him? Describe the young man’s job and say whether he coped with it.
7)Why did the man continue to work for Mr. Wilmot though he hadn’t engaged him?
8)What happened at the end of the week?
9)What job was the young man offered in the long run?
10)What idea flashed through his mind?
11)What helped the man to get his first job?
The future of the book
From papyrus to pixels
The digital transformation of the way books are written, published and sold has only just begun
FINGERS stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every Latin sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the book’s early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering.
In 44BC Cicero, the Roman Republic’s great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis (“On Duties”). It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. Not all his words were new. De Officiis draws on the views of various Greek philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of which have since been lost. Cicero’s, though, remain. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. “No one will ever write anything more wise,” he said.
The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis. Cicero probably dictated de Officiis to his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn. Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices. A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. The lush edition in your correspondent’s hands—delightfully, and surprisingly, no gloves are needed to handle it—is one of the very first such copies. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466.
Some 500 years after it was printed, this beautiful volume sits in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, its home since 1916. Few physical volumes survive five centuries. This one should last several more. The vault that holds it and tens of thousands of other volumes, built in 1951, was originally meant to double as a nuclear-bomb shelter.
Although this copy of de Officiis may be sequestered, the book itself is freer than ever. In its printed forms it has been a hardback and, more recently, a paperback, published in all sorts of editions—as a one off, a component of uniform library editions, a classic pitched at an affordable price, a scholarly, annotated text that only universities buy. And now it is available in all sorts of non-printed forms, too. You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin and any number of other tongues.
Many are worried about what such technology means for books, with big bookshops closing, new devices spreading, novice authors flooding the market and an online behemoth known as Amazon growing ever more powerful. Their anxieties cannot simply be written off as predictable technophobia. The digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage. Veterans and revolutionaries alike may go bust; Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to Fust and other creditors.
But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.
Books like de Officiis have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape it. The ability they offer to preserve, transmit and develop ideas was taken to another level by Gutenberg and his colleagues. Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as “On the Origin of Species”; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.
Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.
What is the future of the book? It is much brighter than people think.
Chapter II: In which deaths foretold do not unfold
ALMOST as constant as the appeal of the book has been the worry that that appeal is about to come to an end. The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears. In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage.
Historically books were a luxury item. Having become cheap enough for the masses in the 20th century, in the 21st century digital technology and global markets have made them more accessible still. In 2020 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, according to Bowker, a research firm, up from around 8,100 in 1960. Those figures do not capture the many e-books that are being self-published without an ISBN.
Many of those self-published books are ones in which traditional publishers would have had no interest, but which almost-free distribution makes worthwhile: do you feel like checking out some Amish fiction? The size of the text, as well as the size of the niche, becomes less of an issue, too; short stories and novellas are making a comeback. “Before there used to be too-big-to-carry and too-short-to-print,” says Michael Tamblyn, the boss of Kobo, an e-reading company. “Now all those barriers are gone.”
Even the most gloomy predictors of the book’s demise have softened their forecasts. Nicholas Carr, whose book “The Shallows” predicted in 2020 that the internet would leave its ever-more-eager users dumb and distracted, admits people have hung onto their books unexpectedly, because they crave immersive experiences. Books may face more competition for audiences’ time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and television came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years. But it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”—864 pages in paperback—shows that people still tackle big books.
And they are willing to cart them around, too. The much ballyhooed decline of the physical book has been far from fatal. “I thought everything was going to change so much more quickly and so much more radically,” says Ellie Hirschhorn, chief digital officer at Simon & Schuster, a big publisher, who had predicted in 2020 that half of all book sales would be e-books by 2020. Instead, last year e-books accounted for around 30% of consumer book sales (not including professional and educational books) in America, the largest book market in the world and the country where e-books took off most quickly. In Germany, the world’s third-largest, e-books were around 5% of consumer book sales last year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy. The growth rate of e-books has recently slowed in many markets, including America and Britain. Publishers now expect most of their sales to remain in print books for decades to come—some say for ever.
There are a number of reasons. One is that, as Russell Grandinetti, who oversees Amazon’s Kindle business, puts it, the print book is “a really competitive technology”: it is portable, hard to break, has high-resolution pages and a “long battery life”. Technology companies that are used to consumers flocking to snazzy features and updates have found it surprisingly challenging to compete with a format of such simplicity, and consumers are uninterested in their attempts to do so. All most want is the ability to change font size, which is attractive to older eyes. Experiments with reinventing the presentation of books—by embedding sound and video inside e-books, for example—have fallen flat. Sales of e-readers, the most popular of which is the Kindle, are in decline. “In a few years’ time,” a recent report by Enders Analysis, a research firm, predicts, “we will look back at e-readers and remember them as one of the shortest-lived of all consumer media devices.”
You do not need a dedicated e-reader to read an electronic book. The multipurpose tablet devices which are replacing e-readers let you read books and—crucially—buy them whenever you like. Some forms of book benefit a lot. Heavy readers of genre fiction—romance, thrillers and science fiction—were early converts to the cheaper, more portable alternative. Other sorts of book have remained more stubbornly in print form, for various reasons. Physical books make better gifts; many people still want bookshelves in their homes. Parents who feel that their children are spending too much time with screens go for printed books as an alternative, which means a new generation is growing up in contact with print.
Perhaps more unexpected than the flourishing of the book is the health of some publishers. When the music and newspaper industries were ravaged by the internet over a decade ago people feared the same fate would befall publishing. “I thought I would say to people, ‘I’m what used to be called a book publisher’,” says Dominique Raccah, the boss of Sourcebooks, an independent publisher. But the volume of book sales has stayed steady, and publishers are still, for the most part, the people producing the books that sell. Revenues are down slightly because e-books are a significant part of the market and their prices are lower; but costs have fallen, and thus profits are still there to be made (see chart).
Publishers used to guess how many books to print and ship and then pay for unsold copies to be returned to them—sometimes as much as 40% of the print run. Print-on-demand systems—digital technology at the service of physical books—reduce risks by enabling publishers to print smaller batches and then fire off more copies quickly if a book sells well. This has proved especially helpful for smaller publishers, such as university presses, says John Ingram of Ingram Content Group, a book distributor.
Analogies with the music and newspaper businesses have proved flawed. The music business collapsed in part because the bundle it was peddling fell apart: people wanted the right to buy one song, not the whole album. Books are not so easily picked apart. The music business also suffered because piracy was so easy: anyone who buys a CD can extract the music it contains in digital format in seconds, and can then share it online. Creating a digital file from a printed book by scanning each page, by contrast, is a nightmare. The fate of newspapers has been driven by the decline of advertising—a business publishers (which sell books to readers, not readers to advertisers) were never in.
Where the publishers do their selling, though, is changing a lot. The biggest change of the past decade is the decline of physical bookshops, which is good neither for publishers nor the booksellers whose doors have closed. Borders, a chain of American book shops, and Weltbild, a German one, have gone under. The change affects which books have a chance of breaking out: bestsellers flourish, but midlist books that might have been discovered while browsing in a bookstore are worse off, because consumers cannot easily stumble upon them while shopping on the internet. To continue to bring in customers bookshops have changed their look, and increased the space they assign to nonbook products, like stationery, cards and other gifts. “A bookstore is defending a very specific lifestyle, where you want to take time out of your day and write or think or read,” says Sarah McNally, owner of a bustling independent bookshop in Manhattan.
There have been two casts of villain. First came the large chain stores in the 1980s that wounded independent booksellers and put many out of business. More recently Amazon, an online retailer that started with books in 1999 and now claims to sell “everything”, has ensured an ongoing wave of closures. Amazon is believed to control nearly half of total book sales and around two-thirds of e-book sales in America. In Britain its grip on the e-book market is even stronger. Booksellers and publishers see Amazon as similar to the enormous polar bear in the television show “Lost”, trampling through the tropical rainforest devouring victims at random.
Amazon is no devotee of literature. It sees books as a “gateway” commodity it can use to attract customers. It has squeezed publishers and muscled out other booksellers by discounting books and selling some below cost. Recently Amazon has been waging a very public, months-long war with Hachette, a large publisher, in which it has in the eyes of many abused the power that its market dominance provides in an attempt to squeeze Hachette’s profits and drive prices even lower. Already the average amount American consumers say they paid for a book (averaging both print and e-books) has declined around 40% since 2009, from $15.45 in 2009 to $9.31 last year, according to Nielsen, a research firm.
The book industry rightly feels torn between resenting Amazon for its dominance and its mercenary attitude towards books, while relying on the company for business and appreciating that it has made books more accessible to buyers. “They really are evil bastards,” Anthony Horowitz, an English novelist, has said about Amazon. “I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.” And it is not just buyers who have benefited. Many would-be authors have, too. Amazon has opened the doors for a hurried rush towards self publishing.
Chapter III: In which new sorts of author meet new sorts of reader
BEFORE the 19th century it was common for writers to publish themselves, a practice that carried no particular stigma, but imposed a significant burden of inconvenience on seller and buyer alike. One author in Paris had to direct buyers to his home on “Mazarine Street…above the Café de Montpellier, on the second floor using the staircase on the right, at the far end of the alley”. As publishing became a mass-market business in subsequent centuries, the self-published came to be seen as kooks or egotists, and treated as marginal in either case. Readers went to bookshops, bookshops bought from publishers and that was the way it was. Bookshops mostly refused to stock them.
Today self publishing has made a comeback. The internet enables people to sell their e-books and print books without the hassle of directing people to their homes or trying to get bookstores to display them. It also offers them success on a scale never before possible.
At last spring’s London Book Fair there was a booth rented by eight authors who said that, between them, they had sold a staggering 16m books and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list—all without the help of a traditional publisher. They are used to having their claims dismissed; Bella Andre, a self-published romance writer with an economics degree from Stanford, got so irked when a publisher challenged her heady sales figures that she took a picture of a bank statement and sent it to him. “No one is counting our books in any survey that comes out in the media,” sighed Barbara Freethy, another romance writer. She says that, as of September, she has sold over 4.8m books.
To write a book costs nothing but time. To hire an editor, cover designer, formatter and publicist can, if you think them necessary, be done for $2,000 or less. Amazon will publish and sell the resultant e-book to any of its 250m customers who may be interested; smaller sites will do the same, and many offer print-on-demand sales, too. Authors who self publish an e-book through Amazon get up to 70% of net sales, as opposed to the 25% they might get on an e-book that went through a publisher.
Last year Amazon’s sales of self-published books were around $450m, according to one estimate; a former Amazon executive thinks the number is higher. In America about a quarter of the books that got an ISBN in 2020 were self-published, according to Bowker—almost 400,000 titles. In 2020 self-published books accounted for one out of every five e-books purchased in Britain, according to Nielsen.
“Wool” started off as a short story online about a subterranean city called the Silo. Reader enthusiasm and feedback encouraged its author, Hugh Howey, to extend it into a novel. More enthusiasm followed. Simon & Schuster, a big publisher, did an unusual deal to license rights to the print book, while Mr Howey continued to sell the e-book off his own bat. It became a bestseller and may become a film. The film of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, the poster-child for online fiction, hits cinemas next year. Like “Wool”, E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades. ” started off online, and some of its e-book success has been attributed to the fact that reading erotica is more discreetly done on a tablet. But since being acquired by Random House it has done remarkably well in its printed form, too. All told, it and its two sequels have chalked up sales of over 100m worldwide.
Like Ms James, most writers still sign with publishers when they have the chance, because print books remain such a sizeable chunk of the market. But the self-publishing boom is changing how those publishers work. Self-published authors attract readers by selling their books for just a few dollars and are aggressive about offering promotions to boost sales. This puts pressure on publishers’ prices—especially in genre fiction, where self publishing is most powerful. In the past five years the revenues of Harlequin, a publisher of romantic fiction, have dropped by around $100m; in May it was purchased by HarperCollins.
As well as changing what publishers can charge for some types of book, self publishing also changes how they go about finding them. Publishers hoping to spot the next hot thing have started to scour online writing sites, such as Wattpad, where people receive feedback on their work from other users. Any interest they show is normally warmly appreciated. In the past 12 months the average earnings for self-published authors have probably been around $1,180, reckons Mark Coker, the boss of Smashwords, a self-publishing platform, with most of them getting less than that. Such authors find themselves highly dependent on Amazon’s recommendation system and websites that offer promotions to boost their sales; most readers still gravitate to books that have been professionally written, edited and reviewed.
But the advantages of being “properly published”—editors, promotion, and the like—should not be oversold. “We have to be careful not to compare the reality of self publishing with the ideal of legacy publishing,” says Barry Eisler, a thriller writer. In 2020 he walked away from a publisher’s advance of $500,000 in favour of the self-publishing route; he says the decision paid off well. Susan Orlean, an author and a staff writer at the New Yorker, considered something similar for a recent book. “In a million years I would have never thought of that before,” she says. She thinks the day will come when publishers may have to start unbundling their services. “The mere fact that publishers make hardcover books won’t be a powerful enough argument. They will have to reimagine their role.” Publishers could start offering “light” versions of their services, such as print-only distribution, or editing, and not taking a cut of the whole pie.
Publishers realise that they have to change. “Publishers will only be relevant if they can give authors evidence that they can connect their works to more readers than anybody else,” admits Markus Dohle, who runs Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer-book publisher.
Such connection is crucial, because the same technology that is making it easier for people to publish their own books is also making it easier for them to explore new ways of finding, sharing, discussing and indeed emulating the books of others. (Ms James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” started off as fan-fiction based on the characters of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling “Twilight” books.) From online reviews to the world’s numerous literary festivals to all sorts of social media, writers are ever more aware of and available to their audiences. Ms Orlean says she was used to “writing into the void”, but now posts regularly about what she is working on. For her and others the contact seems like an opportunity. Others find it irksome. Most, probably, see it as a bit of both. But it is not going away. And it is not entirely new.
In Cicero’s day authors ready to launch their newest work would gather their friends at home or in a public hall for a spirited recitatio, or reading. Audiences would cry out when they liked a particular passage. Nervous authors enlisted their friends to lend support, and sometimes even filled seats with hired “clappers”. They were keenly aware of the importance of networking to get influential acquaintances to recommend their works to others. The creation of books started off as something both personal and social; the connection embodied in that dual nature is at the heart of what makes books so good at refining and advancing thought. It was just that the practicalities of publishing in the printing-press age made the personal connections a bit harder to see.
Chapter IV: In which standards are always in steep decline, and life gets ever better
THOSE whose tastes do not run to the dystopic “Wool” or the embondaged “Fifty Shades…”, who fear that nothing good can come of readers asking authors anything on Reddit and that Flaubert was well-served by his lack of Facebook friends, will find a kindred spirit in Niccoló Perotti. In 1471 the humanist scholar complained to a friend, “Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or better still, be erased from all books.” His worries were echoed for centuries. “If everyone writes, who will read?” asked Christoph Martin Wieland, an 18th-century German writer.
As new means of production, new means of distribution and new audiences have grown up hand in hand throughout the modern history of the book, they have always been looked at askance by representatives of the old order. This may be why novelties have often been slow to take over. Scrolls continued to be used for hundreds of years after the codex was developed. Early printed books tried to diminish the shock of the new by looking like handwritten manuscripts, rather as e-books have, to date, aped print.
But as printers grew in ambition they experimented with ways to make new sorts of “book” that could do things the old ones could not. The ability to mass produce short pamphlets easily and cheaply led to the creation of Flugschriften, or “flying writings”, such as those penned by Martin Luther; these pamphlets were purchased by people who had never been able to afford a book. Printers gradually pushed into other new genres with no history: almanacs that would forecast weather patterns, chapbooks containing folk tales.
In the 19th century stereotyping, which allowed for whole sheets to be set at once, gave publishers the opportunity to reach new populations of readers through magazines and newspapers and also to expand the world of book-buyers. Their “Yellowbacks” (in Britain) and dime novels (in America) started off as affordable reprints of older books, not least because that meant not having to pay authors. But in time the publishers came to experiment with new types of content that reflected readers’ interests and demography, such as Westerns and guides to practical knowledge. A similar pattern arose with the introduction of affordable and portable paperbacks in the middle of the 20th century.
Experiments with form have been complemented by experiments with business models. Publishers in the 17th and 18th centuries often sold books by “subscription”, which meant that consumers would agree in advance to buy a book after seeing a prospectus. It acted as a market test. If not enough people were interested, the project could be dropped.
In the 18th century another new model arose in Britain, tailored to the needs of a literate class that wanted to read more than it wanted to buy: “circulating libraries” sold annual memberships that allowed readers to always have a book on the go. The most powerful of them, Mudie’s, was the Amazon of its day in terms of market power, says Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University. It would often buy up as much as half of a book’s print run for its network of borrowers; if Mr Mudie chose not to stock an author’s book, it could become an immediate dud. The circulating libraries’ business model encouraged publishers to put out books in three volumes, so three people could be reading one book at once; novelists would write to the form, fleshing out their prose to fill the “triple-decker” format. The development of magazine and newspaper serialisation further encouraged some novelists towards length, as well as setting up a distinctive rhythm of cliffhangers at the end of each instalment.
People tend to think of new genres as inferior to those that preceded them. Novels were particularly popular among circulating libraries’ patrons, much to the chagrin of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who harrumphed that he “dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading”. But history has been kinder to Walter Scott’s triple-deckers and the serialised doorstops of Alexandre Dumas, as it has to self-published oddities such as Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” or Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way”. Publishing technologies have replaced each other; business models have come and gone. But the various forms of book that have been encouraged along the way have almost all, like the texts of the greatest books themselves, persisted.
Chapter V: In which ideas from the past move on into the future
OF THE various ways in which technology is expanding what a book can be, one of the most successful so far has been to add to books something that children have enjoyed for ever, and that most people required until the 20th century: another person to do the reading. The cost of recording audiobooks has fallen from around $25,000 in the late 1990s to around $2,000-3,000 today, says Donald Katz of Audible, an audiobook firm owned by Amazon. Books that lend themselves to performance or seek to inculcate self-improvement do particularly well as readings; commuting provides a perfect time for partaking of them. Audible, which is headquartered in New Jersey, says it is the largest employer of actors in the New York area. They do their spirited recordings from texts read off iPad screens—which they prop up on piles of books.
Information technology could provide new ways of getting words from the page to the brain, as well as old ones. Spritz is an application which beams words to a reader one at a time. Like a treadmill, readers can set their own speed and read more quickly, because their eyes can stay in one place instead of scanning a page. Its most immediate application is to allow longish texts to be read on smallish screens, such as those of watches. However Frank Waldman, Spritz’s boss, thinks people will consume whole books this way, as well as poetry, allowing poets to set their poem’s cadence for readers. (An online version of this essay allows you to read this chapter by way of Spritz, if you wish.)
The syncopated spritzing of sonnets and sestinas may or may not turn out to be a big hit; but new sorts of book that use the capabilities of technology for more than just recreating pages are, in time, a sure thing. And so is the decline, even possibly the demise, of some old sorts of book. Matt MacInnis of Inkling, an e-book company, says that the key question is “What are the things books used to do for us that software will now do for us?” Presenting people with procedural information they need in order to take on a simple task or fulfil a well-stated goal is one of those things. Books that simply tell people how to fix their Toyota, how to cook tarte tatin or how to find a place to stay in Tokyo would seem to have a limited future unless they can become objects that meet aspirational, not just informational, needs. On the other hand, books which actually teach, rather than simply inform, could have a very bright future, their pedagogy enriched by embedded media and software that adapts them to the user’s pace and needs.
And if publishers find that some sorts of book no longer make money, they will be able to do a better job selling the ones that do thanks to the far greater amounts of data that can be gathered when books are sold on the internet or read in electronic form. HarperCollins, for example, has found that when it discounts backlist books, around 10% of consumers buy another title from that author. “That’s information we never had before in the print world,” says Brian Murray, the boss of HarperCollins. Another big publisher is experimenting with “dynamic pricing” on around half of its e-books.
Data can also help decide what sort of content to acquire, particularly in the fields of academic, business and science publishing. Safari Books Online, a sort of database for book content owned by O’Reilly Media, uses data about subscribers’ reading habits to improve its offerings in this way. And Amazon has a trove of data about how people read, including how much time they spend on each page and when they abandon books. As yet, publishers do not have much access to these data; Amazon keeps them to itself. If or when publishers gain more, and start to think about them more deeply, data may be one of the aspects of the electronic world that change their business most.
This may not be to the advantage of authors seeking to make a living at their trade. One of the reasons dud books get published is that no one is quite sure what will sell. Publishers spread their bets on the basis of instinct, taste, friendship, hunches and stubbornness—for all of which a more data-rich world has less room. While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers, says Mike Shatzkin, an industry analyst.
This too could in part be seen as a return to previous eras, when people did not expect to earn a living by writing books, but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than being just faded pictures on the inside back cover.
And writers who are not also performers may find that new opportunities arise. People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as Pubslush and Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams. In February a young woman raised $380,000 through Kickstarter for “Hello Ruby”, a children’s book that teaches programming skills. Some will go on to greatness. Unbound, founded in 2020, has already helped produce a novel, Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake”, which was longlisted for the 2020 Man Booker prize in fiction.
Such funding is just another way in which the functions previously all wrapped up in publishing are being unbundled, and in which books are becoming more social. Those who use e-reading devices can see which passages were highlighted by other users, and there is talk of expanding offerings so people can discuss books in the margin at the same time. Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book predicts that some e-books will start to be sold with a “gloss” of commentary from their authors or other well-known critics, sort of like the director’s cut version of films.
There will be new experiments in storytelling, new genres born of the electronic age, and new authors who never would have been discovered in a print-only world. But there will also go on being lots of books in print—many of which may be more pleasant to hold, feel and own than ever before. In the face of the e-book there is “an imperative now to make the entire physical package itself special”, says Scott Moyers, an editor at Penguin Press. At the extreme is Arion Press, which sells sumptuous copies of classics that have been printed on letterpresses. Its two-volume Don Quixote with goatskin binding and lush illustrations sets readers back a bit more than $4,000.
Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand; the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. People may no longer try to pass on wisdom to their sons and daughters through slave-written scrolls, as Cicero did in de Officiis, or even in print. It may even be that Voltaire was right, and that none of them will ever write anything more wise than what was set down 2,000 years ago. But it will not be for want of effort, or of opportunity, or of an audience of future readers ready to seek out wisdom in the books that they leave behind.
This article appeared in the Essay section of the print edition under the headline “From papyrus to pixels”
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