Cri de Coeur

Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future

by Jason Epstein
Norton, 188 pp., $21.95

When I am feeling optimistic about the prospects for literary culture, I imagine a book like the one everybody ran around trying to steal in Neal Stephenson’s 1995 sci-fi novel The Diamond Age. Called a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, this “propaedeutic enchiridion” came with its own power pack, a voice-recognition interface, “smart paper” computer pages, “nanoreceptors” to measure the reader’s pulse, and a database that amounted to “a catalogue of the collective unconscious.” Until you could read it on your own, it told you stories in a lovely contralto, even while you slept, about what you dreamed. Designed to grow up alongside feisty four-year-old girls, it encouraged heroic behavior and subversive thinking.

When, on the other hand, I am feeling realistic, the future looks a lot more like Huxley’s Brave New World, full of sex-hormone chewing gum, super-Prozac soma, lots of “feelies,” the occasional orgy-porgy, and a monthly flush of “Violent Passion Surrogate,” where our kidstuffs will be hatched from gene samples, according to a color-coded caste system, and then conditioned at naptime in nightmare dormitories, by “hypnopaedia,” into “elementary class consciousness” and a hatred of botany and books.

The big surprise about Book Business, an elegant cri de coeur fashioned by Jason Epstein from a lecture series he gave at the New York Public Library in October 1999, is its optimism. From Epstein, who has edited books for fifty years—most of those years at Random House before, during, and after its successive sackings by vandals, visigoths, huns, and agents; and most of them downhill for principled publishing in general, from Parnassus to the mall, from Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, and Eliot to How I Lost Weight, Got Rich, Found God, and Changed My Sexual Preference in the Bermuda Triangle—we might have expected weeping-willow lamentations or arrows from a wounded bow.

He’d have earned that right. The manufacture of best sellers instead of literature has to look obscene to someone who was present at the creation, a divine rainmaker, of three different American literary institutions (about which, more in a minute). Someone who, through a golden mist, remembers watching home movies of Thomas Mann after Sunday brunch at Alfred Knopf’s house in Purchase. Someone who recalls W.H. Auden in a torn overcoat and carpet slippers at his publisher in the old Villard mansion on Madison and 50th, with William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Dr. Seuss, across the hall from a Cardinal Spellman who actually wrote poems that Random House actually published. Someone who was off-and-on buddies, depending on the thermostatic reading of the dis-tempered times, with the vanished likes of Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, lower Bloomsbury bohemians like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the truculent Partisan Review crowd. And, especially, someone who has seen some of the best minds of his generation, not starving, not hysterical, not naked, but dragging themselves through the first-class seats looking for a stipend from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Nor does looking on …

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