10/24/2007 01:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Publishers and Readers are Natural Enemies

Now that fewer and fewer people are reading books and more and more people are writing them, the most lucrative activity in the literary world today is giving advice to wannabe writers on how to write, get an agent, and get published. The advice varies wildly from source to source, and from month to month, but on one thing there is complete agreement: to please a publisher a book should be something to get done with as fast as possible. Publishers today want 'page-turners'--books you can finish reading before the plane lands, or finish listening to before you get to work.

Publishers are like frat boys. Frat boys don't drink to savor the libations--they drink to get drunk. Publishers want books to chug-a-lug. Real readers are like wine connoisseurs--they want books to sip, to savor--books they don't ever want to end. Books they'll want to reread.

Rereading is anathema to publishers. They want to publish books you "can't put down", but once having achieved that difficult goal will never be tempted to pick up again. The ideal books for publishers are potato chip books--books that are all exactly alike, and that you can never consume just one of, because the quality is never quite good enough to be completely satisfying.

The other day I picked up an old English novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim. I was scanning for a remembered funny passage, and found myself reading instead--reading with a sigh of voluptuous pleasure that reading hasn't given me for years, the sense of embarking on a delicious, leisurely journey. How rare that seems lately. With all too many contemporary novels I find myself skimming a lot. I know they're supposed to be good so I hurry through to find out why people think so.

Don't misunderstand me. I have the utmost admiration for several dozen contemporary authors. I read everything they write and recommend them to everyone I know. Yet I rarely read them with that unhurried pleasure of 'curling up with a good book' I wish would never end. More often than not I read, like everyone else seems to today, just to get to the end.