Much has been written in the two weeks since John Updike's death—about the wonderful precision of his prose and, as Charles McGrath put it, his “unswerving belief in the power of words to faithfully record experience.” But what has not been noted—and understandably, given all there is to note about a man who published 27 novels, 13 collections of stories, nine volumes of poetry and 10 collections of nonfiction—is that Updike was more than a great writer who believed in the power of prose; he was a believer in print.
On two occasions that I can recall, Updike delivered impassioned pleas on behalf of the book qua book. Today, as our industry struggles to leverage its storied yesterdays into viable tomorrows, the book as we have long known it, the one Updike loved since he was a child lost in the stacks at the Reading, Pa., public library, is in peril. Cloth over board, quarter-bound in leather with deckle-edge paper and Smythe-sewn signatures and a foil-stamp—those components of the book are just about over. Even today's books are considered too expensive, too heavy, too old media to survive in a commercial marketplace aswarm with ever-new digital content delivery systems, few of which involve paper, ink, glue or leather, much less gold foil.
Cannily, Updike delivered each of his encomia to the book at industry gatherings, where he could make the most difference. He indulged in these musings at his own expense, refusing to blow his horn, even when he was the honored guest. At the 2006 BEA in Washington, Updike was a breakfast speaker, sharing the dais with another writer named Barack Obama and the humorist Amy Sedaris. I don't know what Updike's comments might have been had not Kevin Kelley's essay, “Scan This Book,” appeared in the previous Sunday's New York Times magazine. Perhaps he would have talked about his forthcoming novel, Terrorist, due that fall from Knopf. Instead, in front of a roomful of booksellers, Updike politely tore Mr. Kelley's “piece of prophecy” into strips. Kelley had contended that copyright protection “schemes” were holding back an explosion of digital content, and that authors' future value would not reside in copyright anyway, but, as Updike put it, in “selling aspects of their works and access to their creator.” Updike compared this “grisly scenario” to “preliterate societies where only the presence of the author can authenticate a text.” He thanked booksellers for being among “the last holdouts” and encouraged them to “defend your lonely forts, keep your edges dry. Books,” he said, “are intrinsic to our human identity.”
A still earlier Updike commentary on the book occurred in 1998, when publishing was a different place. Independent bookselling was still in game battle with the chains, Amazon had not yet achieved world domination. There were no e-books, iPods or Kindles, and Twitter was just a word that Updike would eschew in describing the sound of birds. Updike was accepting the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his remarks, he told of how the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, came to pass—discovered at Knopf by Sandy Richardson, and then ushered into print by Harry Ford—“a perfect knight of the print world, an editor and designer both, who gave me a delicious striped jacket, an elegant page format in the typeface called Janson, that I have stuck with for over 40 books since.” Updike went on to praise the industry to an audience this time more publisher than bookseller. “One of its strengths and charms,” he said, “has been its relative modesty, bow tie more than black tie, a modesty that translates into an ability to publish, without catastrophic loss, books that will appeal to a few, and to give the public an immense variety of products, a variety that is both a proclamation and an enjoyment of American freedom.” Publishing, he said, “scarcely needs glamour when it has at its command something better, beauty—the beauty of the book.”
One wonders what else we must bury with John Updike. He might be the last to have a half-century relationship with one publishing house; he might be the last to have a rubber-stamp made with his publisher's address, with which to facilitate the delivery of his vast and welcome output. He might also be the last to see his literary creations as organically connected to their presentation as object, as book. He also takes with him whatever he thought about the many Kindle editions of his works, which Knopf of course must produce in today's market. A Kindle text is not available in the Janson typeface that Updike so loved. Alas, perhaps Rabbit is not at rest.