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Despite the dumbing down, books will survive

Music is condemned to a streaming hell of bits and bytes, but books are here to stay, even if only as furniture

Bookstore on the left; former music store on the right (Dan Perry photo)
Bookstore on the left; former music store on the right (Dan Perry photo)

Here’s a picture worth 1,000 words: the bookstore at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport limps bravely on, with its week-old copies of the Economist and disorderly piles of best-sellers; next door, the former music shop offers cables, headsets and electronic paraphernalia amid a sadly dwindling selection of CDs.

I will hazard a prediction: CDs are toast, condemning music to a streaming hell of bits and bytes, whereas books will survive. It looks like sales are actually up of late.

Why is this, when both are digitizable, and Amazon would like nothing more than to kill off books as well and be done with “bricks and mortar” warehouses?

It is appealing to consider that books will survive because people love the tactile experience of holding them, leafing through their pages, smelling the ink and highlighting special passages so that they may efficiently revisit manifestations of wit, insight and brilliance.

Alas, I do not think so. Most people never did and will not in the future read all that much. They think reading is looking at the words in gossip rags.

No, books will survive because a minority of the people will always flaunt their books as furniture and decoration in their homes.

I am not ashamed to say I do this as well. My home office boasts close to 1000 books, arranged various ways (my Londonian friend James has multiple times more and shows them off without any shame; it makes him feel better about being in hedge funds).

There are many worse things a person can do than spending months reading these works.

In recent months I have read almost everything by Guy de Maupassant, a libertine Frenchmen of the 19th century who writes about rascals from what seems like personal knowledge. The shelves groan with collections of Nabokov and Kundera, Zweig and Waugh, Maugham and Kingsley Amis (not the more pedestrian son). There is little there that is American, I am sad to say (except Vonnegut and Damon Runyon), and almost nothing current (except for the valiant Brit Ian McEwan; long may he scribble).

There is a distinct preference for fiction, which I find contains more fundamental truth than non-fiction, limited as the latter is to the little that the writer has actually seen, heard or learned.

I sometimes just look at these shelves and derive pleasure. That is not a sensation Kindle libraries can summon up.

Which brings us to the sad fate that has befallen records, cassettes and CDs. Only a handful of fanatics buy them anymore. I am a big fan of music, but stopped buying CDs myself a few years ago. It’s all iTunes now, I’m afraid.

This is clearly a terrible shame. There is no comparing an iTunes library or a Spotify list to the physical object that comes with artwork and lyrics and a booklet perhaps illustrated by the artist, or the artist’s graphic artist.

The people of the world need objects to avoid feeling like subjects. Why, then, have they abandoned musical objects? A few ideas:

First off, the plastic was lame. CDs took over the market and their miserable plastic cases were both unappealing and fragile, certainly not looking in any way like decorations for a home. A late move to more elegant cardboard cases could not undo this misfortune.

Second, the musical experience is for most people less immersive. It is seen as something to have in the background. It is something that can be experienced at random, via the intermediation of a radio station or internet playlist. That’s not the level of commitment of a book.

Thirdly, the music industry betrayed its customers by flooding the market with rubbish. How many albums that are not “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Abbey Road” are worth listening to all the way through? Most have a song or two, then filler. The people saw this, and albums were discredited in a way that books could never be. You cannot randomly reshuffle the order of the chapters in a book and have it be no different; with most albums no one would even notice, in their rush to skip to the few decent songs.

Fourth, music is a divisive vexation that undermines societal and inter-generational harmony. Not everyone likes the same books, it is true, but there is near-consensus on what is pulp fiction, what is guilty pleasure, what is quality and what is classic.

With music, the question of quality is political, and a matter of identity. No one can agree on anything.

I have a friend in Cairo who is a generation older than me (though he cultivates a mystery featuring skullduggery about his exact age); he torments the many comers to his home with big band music of an era bygone, which he adores.

My friend could tolerate the classic rock that I would occasionally scheme to put on; but he would have no truck with the more modern stuff, for example the Dandy Warhols or Morcheeba (which were edgy in the 1990s).

“Ah don’t even call that MUSE-ic,” he declares in disturbing Texan tones.

I sometimes mock him as my daughters mock me. There is little that interests them less than hearing of my disdain for today’s popular music.

About the only thing I can stand now is relics of the past who are still standing, like U2 or Bruce Springsteen. And to be fair, they have faded upsettingly as well.

I will miss the music shops. I was an ideological consumer. Years ago I discovered that Israeli music was surprisingly good. When visiting the country, I would go to a record store, ask for the best 10 new albums, quibble with the salesperson only a little and then buy them all on principle. It had about it a sense of romance.

On a recent pre-corona trip to Europe I walked into the store on the right and examined the pitiful stand of CDs. Nothing appealed. I bought a cable for my bluetooth headset.

There is not much romance in a cable.

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