All That Paper
From Madonna del Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli, 1481
Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?
At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems from this very space into which I am writing.
Inevitably, this tends to diminish the seriousness with which I approach any particular book. Certainly the notion that these works could ever be arranged in any satisfactory order, or that any credible canon will ever emerge, is gone forever. I’m disoriented and don’t expect things to be otherwise any time soon.
So would it be provocatively reductive to say that in the end our experience of literature might be crucially influenced by the mere supply and availability of the materials necessary for its production? If there hadn’t been all that paper, if printing costs had been higher, if the computer and Internet hadn’t opened up endless oceans of space on which to write, would we take our books more seriously? Would we find our way around more easily?