Arts

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In the digital age, book culture turns to ‘flipbait’

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This isn’t the only thing I do around here, you know. Noodling around on the Internet and taking memes too seriously? Yeah, I do other things too. There’s a ficus I dump my water into sometimes. I’m sure there are other examples.

Oh! Here’s one: I’ve been editing the Boston Globe Books section. I know, you’d never know it was me since there’s zero mention of teens vaping Tide Pods or any of my usual trivial Internetty leavings. Devoting a large chunk of each week to fully immersing myself in contemporary book culture actually has been a welcome retreat from my usual not-waving-but-drowning position amid the roaring rapids of the Internet — though I’d be lying if I called it an escape.

If you ever want to see what the information age looks like when it’s all printed out, try doing this job. (I’d just ask that you wait for me to finish my turn, thank you.)

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There are a couple of things you notice about the world of books when your world becomes the world of books. One is that your relationship with the UPS guy tends to be a lot healthier when 15 deliveries is the annual rate as opposed to the daily. Our daily transaction is lopsided with guilt, as I can’t help but feel I’ve turned his role from delivery man to something more like “pre-garbage man.”

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Because, wow, another thing you notice is that holy [knowledge] there are way too many books out there.

If you don’t believe me, you can ask my husband, who desperately needs someone else to talk to about this. Or you can just look at our place. Around 2:30 p.m. each afternoon, a thud against the front door signals the arrival of 20 to 30 pounds of books (each of which will be replicated across warehouses and bookstores, where those still exist). Some of them arrive like fat, mute babies, carefully swaddled in bubble wrap and foam and tucked into puffy envelopes. Others show up seemingly vacuum-sealed between flats of cardboard, slim enough to slide under the door.

But once husked, sorted, and stacked, they all end up forming precarious towers — monuments to human achievement and former trees, which, over the course of just three months, have turned the available flat surfaces in our house into a bustling city of knowledge. Or a live-action model of my Gmail inbox. I honestly can’t tell anymore.

At the risk of winning the award for Most First World Problem Ever, receiving an endless stream of free books is actually kind of a nightmare.

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Not because they aren’t “good” books — my job is to find those, and there are plenty of them to be found — but because in many ways, book culture, in its dogged attempt to keep up with its paperless progeny, has attempted a replication of the Internet: its aggressive abundance, its hyper-nichey reach, and its overwhelming (and I just read that Naomi Klein book, so I’ll say it: catastrophic) disposability.

This means that my daily haul of promotional copies and advance galleys is typically light on what you’d call literature, and heavy on a brand of book that I can only call flipbait — hypertargeted, iffily written, and extremely generously-spaced tomes of pat prose that seem to seize on the same impulses and insecurities that fuel much of the pollution that passes for content online.

No need to shame flipbaiters by name or title, but some of it is hyperpolitical (one day I received three separate titles grousing about “grievance culture,” for those who enjoy complaints about complaints, I suppose?). Some of it pure pop pap (please stop talking about “Friends”. . . please?). But the bulk (and I mean bulk) of it falls somewhere between self-helpish and self-helpless (the dozens of titles I regularly receive instructing me to take more time for myself, liberate my mind from stress, and achieve greater productivity never seem to take into account how much reading I’d have to do first).

And while, yes, each individual book is a stunning realization of months, if not years, of grueling research, labor, revision, worry, and care, it’s my actual appreciation of this fact that makes it more difficult to stomach the other fact, that each of these unread books is essentially future-trash.

It doesn’t feel good or right, but it feels familiar. My former job back in the compact disc era was as a music editor at the Boston Phoenix, where my daily version of this was worse: Tubs of plastic jewel cases, glossy promo photos, promotional beer koozies. The more I’d beg publicists not to send me hard copies, and to take advantage of these fancy new MP3s they have now, the more trash would show up. Over time, it took a toll on how I consumed (and valued) music.

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Does the same risk exist again, 10 years later? Sure, but no more for me than for anyone else. This daily influx of knowledge and waste is merely a more palpable symbol of the information overload each of us experiences every day.

And any lingering environmental guilt I might carry over the bins of waste I wheel out to the street each week are offset by the reality that ostensibly greener cloud storage solutions (of, say, PDF copies of each book) have just as steep a carbon cost as doing things the old-fashioned way, if not worse.

So with 2.2 million books published each year (see? I’m a reporter too), a fair percentage of them showing up at my house, and many, many more to come, what’s the solution for a culture that’s too big for any of us to consume? Let’s just say the UPS guy will be picking a lot of these back up around Christmas. I hope you like “Friends.”

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.