130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

A Book is just a Widget

February 14, 2014

I buy a good deal of stuff from Amazon, as do many Americans. It’s convenient, the prices are low, and delivery is quick. As an avid reader, author, and scholar, I also get obscure titles from the vast Amazon inventory. But I love going to my local bookstore, The Bookworm, to browse the latest hardcover fiction and non-fiction. When I am hot to get a new book, I first try the local seller before going online.

I just finished reading one of the most enlightening articles ever written about publishing, and one that every reader should consult before making another book purchase at “the world’s largest bookstore.” George Packer, the New Yorker writer who recently published The Unwinding to rave reviews, has taken his trenchant pen to the current dilemma facing all book publishers: whether or not to knuckle under to Amazon’s increasingly belligerent and destructive business practices. The fate of the book (not only print editions but also digital ones) is at stake.

I know something about how much power Amazon wields because I recently published a book with W.W. Norton. The Vintage House was written for a mass audience, and received rave reviews from every corner. My co-author and I signed a contract giving us 10% of “net sales” instead of cover price sales. We have yet to make back our modest advance, and Amazon has been our worst enemy.

You see, the giant bookseller, which controls the market worldwide, not only gets a discount of 50% or more from virtually every major publisher, but also charges promotion fees for each book on its site. These promotion fees directly determine where the book will be placed, how it will be seen, and ultimately how well it will sell. Only the biggest selling authors can demand a $10,000 promotion from Amazon, and only they receive the kind of royalties once standard among all writers of fiction, non-fiction or scholarly titles. Packer’s research suggest that royalties are virtually non-existent for many small market authors, and my experience suggests that he is right. Once Amazon takes its cut, not only royalties but also profit and overhead vanish. Books become commodities that do not even break even on their cost of production. As one publisher said, “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value–it’s a widget.”

What does this mean for writers around the world who want to create art, advance knowledge, provide entertainment, share ideas, and generally do what writers have done since the advent of written language? Packer’s article suggests that unless “content providers” in the print media fight the Amazon model of books as low-value commodities, the public will be deluged with poor quality, Walmart-like units that pretend to be books. The dumbing down of culture by the Internet will look tame compared to what will happen to print media of all types, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly and art books.

The way to kill the octopus that is Amazon is not more market saturation but less. Just as musicians have taken their art directly to their selective markets, so authors will need to become producers and sellers who can control the distribution of their own work. The Internet’s vast reach can actually help authors to reach their audience, circumventing Amazon’s new wholesale distribution system.

Packer’s sobering survey of the publishing industry should cause a few intellectuals to take this technological threat seriously. Not only are libraries being looted by billionaires, these same captains of finance are dismantling a magnificent culture of book publishing that has flourished since the time of Gutenberg. Were he alive today, Homer would fear this brave new world, though he might well go on the road to sing his tales, encouraging us to be bards and to bring our stories directly to the people.