The 1976 film "Network" is an acerbic satire of television's single-minded obsession with mass ratings.One of the film's main characters, Howard Beale, is called the "Mad Prophet of the Airways," and his weekly harangues produce a "ratings motherlode"--yet he constantly admonishes his viewers to "Turn the damn tube off!"During one such rant Beale berates his audience as functional illiterates: "Less than three percent of you even read books!" he shouts messianically--and then promptly collapses from a sort of apoplexic overload.
Almost twenty years later, contemplating the contemporary American publishing scene, I feel a Bealean rage coming on (and with it a vague longing for one of his fits).While three percent of the American population in 1976 would have been a little over six million readers, recent surveys suggest that the consistent buyers of books in this country now total no more than half that number, and may even be as few as one million.
That's total readership: your avid bodice ripper fans who buy romance in six-packs lumped in willy nilly with high brow mystery addicts who idolize PBS-bred Brits ... To say nothing of your popular science market, your science fiction market, your fitness market, your self-help market, your gourmet cooking market, your home carpentry market, your computer hacker market, your quilting and preserving and canning and gardening and hiking and hang gliding and bungee jumping market ... that is, all of these markets taken together may have around a million fans.
Imagine all possible readers of anything made of words crammed into a bookstore roughly the size of 10 football stadiums.Large for a bookstore?Remember, with only one million readers to accommodate, it's the only bookstore.Just this one, and most days even it is cavernously empty; a single big, echoing bookstore in a nation of 250 million people, at least 200 million of whom can, if they so choose, read.Our potential customers total then not even one percent of the reading-capable population, but only half of one percent.If there are 100 million computers in this country, then there may be 100 times as many computers as there are consistent readers of books.
Well, it's a post-book world, you respond.Books are, like the horse and buggy, obsolete.Like the typewriter.Like the barbershop quartet.Like the Cold War.
And yet we holdouts, we inveterate readers, we who love our books so well for reasons so