Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:
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?
I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?
There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?
Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?
Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.
Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:
Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?