One of the defining moments that led to wanting to launch Two Dollar Radio was reading a book by Andre Schiffrin called The Business of Books. The subtitle says it all: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. Schiffrin was a lion of the publishing industry, the editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon for many years, who published a veritable hit list of classic literature, whose ouster by the new brass at Random House sparked street protests attended by Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel. Schiffrin died on Sunday.
The Business of Books is essential reading for anyone who wants to start a press, and should be for any serious writer trying to publish. At the time I read the book, Eliza and I were living in Ocean Beach, a neighborhood in San Diego, surrounded by self-proclaimed “gutter-punks” and punk music and head-shops and surf culture. We were clawing out a living four blocks from the ocean, but we were young and we were idealistic and I’m not sure I’ve ever read quite as much as I did during that time.
I picked up The Business of Books at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, where we had traveled for a camping trip. This setting of the stage is perhaps most amusing to me, in realizing that I romanticize my own reading of that book as some do On the Road or Jesus’ Son. It was a book about a cultural pursuit, sure, but it was also a political manifesto in its own right. As I read the book while an unpopular president was waging a pair of questionable wars, with television news over-eager to break questionable reports, the book seemed prescient, and it was possible to trace the path – through the publishing industry – to the dark place where our culture resided.
“The end of the Cold War has not had a beneficial intellectual influence on publishing or, indeed, on any of the other media. We have lost much of our curiosity about the communist world and the Third World, curiosity that once provided raw material for a great many important books. But we have seen the development of a new ideology, one that has replaced that of the Western democracies against the Soviet bloc. Belief in the market, faith in its ability to conquer everything, a willingness to surrender all other values to it – and even the belief that it represents a sort of consumer democracy – these things have become the hallmark of publishing.”
“Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of the mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society. The need for public debate and open discussion, inherent in the democratic ideal, conflicts with the ever-stricter demand for total profit.”
Dennis Johnson, of Melville House, pays great tribute to Schiffrin on their blog, as well as refutes The New York Times’ obituary’s repeated assertion that Schiffrin was booted from Pantheon because of a failure to turn a profit. At Melville House, Johnson published Schiffrin’s memoir, A Political Education, and knew the man well. The advice Schiffrin gave Johnson when the latter was considering officially launching Melville House, via Renata Adler, was “whatever you do, don’t do it.”
I was in New York City in the fall of 2010 to see Grace Krilanovich appear at the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 Under 35’ party. My original plan was to go the following night to hear the National Book Award finalists read from their work, but someone emailed me a link to an event hosted by n+1 and Verso, where Keith Gessen would speak with Schiffrin at The New School. Rather than attend the reading, I decided to see Schiffrin. It was interesting, as he spoke in greater detail about the evolution of the large publishers and his work at The New Press. In the Q+A that followed, the students in attendance were pre-occupied with the advent of e-books, and were buying the hype of the day that print was dying or dead.
After the discussion concluded, I approached Schiffrin on the stage, and thanked him for his work and his spirit and his drive, and said that he had been a great source of inspiration for me in starting our own press. He smiled politely and asked how it was going. I told him it was going pretty well. Then I thanked him again, and left.