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the Complete Review
the complete review - books

So Many Books

Gabriel Zaid

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To purchase So Many Books

Title: So Many Books
Author: Gabriel Zaid
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 2003)
Length: 144 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: So Many Books - US
So Many Books - UK
So Many Books - Canada
Bien trop de livres ? - France
So viele Bücher - Deutschland
  • US subtitle: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance
  • Spanish title: Los demasiados libros
  • Based on the original Spanish version, first published in 1972, but revised (and updated)
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

A- : neat little overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 30/10/2004 Steven Poole
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/11/2003 Margo Jefferson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Into this minuscule volume are crammed so many more thought-experiments, serene witticisms and ideas that almost all other books look incontinently windy by comparison." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "One of the pleasures of So Many Books is that its content and form are perfectly synchronized. Zaid makes his points in a vivid, concise way; his text is a compactly designed 144 pages. Each chapter could be a separate essay, but there is a clear overview; So Many Books is a whole with an air of improvisation." - Margo Jefferson, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       So Many Books is a small volume but crams a lot in, as Zaid examines book culture in a time when the flood of books being published seems nearly (or entirely) overwhelming.
       "Why read ? And why write ?" he asks. After all:

After reading one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand books in a lifetime, what have we read ? Nothing. To say "I only know that I've read nothing," after reading thousands of books, is not false modesty. It is strictly accurate, to the first decimal place of zero percent.
       Zaid makes a great deal out of the number of books that are being published -- and one of the few weaknesses of the book is that he makes too much of it, at least for the present. A million books published worldwide in 2000, he suggests -- a book every thirty seconds -- but that figure includes duplicate editions (the same book published by different publishers in the US and UK (as is the case with this volume, too)), translations (the same book, just in a different language), and new editions of previously available titles (out-of-copyright classics are often available in multiple editions at your local bookstore). Ignore all these and the number of titles new to the market in any given year is already much smaller. More significantly, the majority of these titles are not books to be read in any traditional sense: from textbooks to cookbooks to many 'scholarly' offerings they serve a variety of purposes but are not what we are usually talking about when talking about reading.
       In fact, in all but the largest European countries and a few others (the US, China, Japan, and perhaps a handful of others), it is well within most readers' ability to read the entire domestic output (i.e. written by locals, not translations or imports) of fiction (novels, short story collections published in book form, etc.). Even in the US or UK it would be possible (though it would be close to a full-time job) to read every book of poetry published domestically in any given year. Yes, many, many books are published annually worldwide -- and with the spread of publishing-on-demand, where anybody can publish anything, the number may prove absolutely overwhelming soon -- but for now the situation is still not quite as overwhelming as Zaid (and many others) make it out to be.
       Certainly, one can only read a small fraction of what has been and is being published, but even in the narrow category of fiction there's a good deal that most readers likely would never even care to read; the number of books that might appeal to or be appropriate for any given reader might still be unmanageable, but it's not of so many orders of magnitude beyond them as Zaid initially suggests. He seems to understand this, too, and among the more interesting points he makes is that books have a "natural readership" -- a number of readers, ranging anywhere from one to millions, for whom the book is a perfect fit -- and that books are that rare thing that can accommodate tastes in this way. Making a movie that only has a small natural audience isn't possible because of the necessary investment, and hence it will never be made and the selection of available movies will always be limited (and pitched to the lowest common denominator -- however low the producers feel it is necessary to sink). But anyone can publish a book for a relatively small amount of money, even if it is a book that could, at best, only be of interest to a tiny number of readers. Of course finding that audience, regardless of its size, is another matter; indeed, among the difficulties of there being 'so many books' Zaid addresses is that of finding the 'right' ones -- matching reader and book.
       Zaid focusses a great deal on writing, too -- even beginning the book with the observation:
The reading of books is growing arithmetically; the writing of books is growing exponentially.
       He notes that already many more people appear to write poetry than read it, and that the explosion in the number of books being published has paralleled the "proliferation of academic degrees", as:
     Publishing is a standard part of establishing an academic or bureaucratic career. It is like writing the necessary reports or properly filling out the forms required to enter a competition. It has nothing to do with reading or writing. Reading is difficult, it takes time away from the pursuit of a career, and it doesn't gain anyone points except in lists of works cited. Publishing is a means to an end. Reading is useless: it is a vice, pure pleasure.
       In fact, Zaid is exaggerating for effect here; he does hold reading in (much) higher regard -- but he does also make good points about the costs of reading. "Time is by far the most expensive aspect of reading", he notes -- and hence: "Reading is a luxury of the poor", one that those who are paid well to occupy their time in other ways (i.e. 'working') can ill afford.
       Zaid clearly thinks it's a shame that nowadays: "Confronted with the choice between having time and having things, we've chosen to have things" -- allowing us to accumulate books, but not to devote the necessary time to read them and make them part of our everyday conversation. He doesn't offer any real solutions to the problem of the proliferation of books (and, ultimately doesn't really seem to find it such a bad thing anyway), but makes a good case for the continuing value of reading. Matching books and readers, and getting the proper discussions going -- whether by critics informing potential readers of books that may be of interest, or among readers themselves -- are what is important.
       Zaid's short chapters pack a lot in, but it's all appealingly presented and thought-provoking. Not everything is adequately worked-through -- particularly that basic complaint of there being 'so many books' (the numbers aren't as clear-cut as he -- and the media generally -- make them out to be) -- but these arguments and observations certainly make for a good starting point.
       Very enjoyable, very interesting, and certainly recommended.

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So Many Books: Reviews: Other books by Gabriel Zaid under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Gabriel Zaid was born in 1934.

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© 2008 the complete review

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