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Back to the Future


While half-watching a basketball game last weekend with the sound off, I happened to look up when a commercial for the iPhone came on: just a hand and the phone, nothing fancy, but captivating enough, I guess, that I found myself turning the sound on and leaning forward a little. The hand onscreen was scrolling through a selection of e-books on its virtual iBook shelves, and I felt a frisson when I saw that the hand had a Paul Auster novel in its collection.

I’m not a huge Auster fan, but seeing a book by a serious writer on a TV commercial–wait, was I really seeing this?  Then the hand scrolled down to look at some other shelves, and there was, okay, something by Nelson Mandela, Julia Child’s memoir, and then–are you kidding?–Infinite Jest. The hand clicked through to the Julia Child first chapter for a second before deciding it needed to purchase something. It clicked a “best sellers” tab and went straight for–what?–Cormac McCarthy, before coming back to earth somewhat and plunking down for a Stieg Larsson.

It’s not tremendously surprising, I guess, that an Apple commercial would include a nod to respectable literature. Most Apple partisans probably at least pretend to be readers of the occasional serious book. And sure, McCarthy has been on Oprah, and he’s been connected to the Hollywood money faucet for several years now. But Oprah is master of her own universe; it’s not like her attention to books has caught on with other TV entertainers. Even Charlie Rose seems to have stopped pretending that he reads “important” novels. Infinite Jest as a marker of style? Sure, in Williamsburg or a college town, but on a March Madness-watching, Apple-buying scale?

Maybe I’m making too much of this. Certainly it proves nothing definitive. I’m not trying to say that Apple is going to bring literature suddenly into the mainstream again. Corporations have done book publishing few favors in the recent past, and there’s no reason to think that the likes of Apple will be any better stewards of literature than Hachette or News Corp. has been.

But not very long ago, it seemed like fancy gadgets such as Apple produces could only accelerate the erosion of the market for literature, the way that movies and TVs and computers did before them. I would say that we can no longer be so sure about this. At least for a few seconds during that commercial, before the basketball game came back on and I muted it and picked up the book of poems I was reading, I was even sure of the opposite.

(Note: Speaking of iPhones and commercials, we’d like to formally announce the release of the Submishmash Editors App for the iPhone.)