A farewell to the staunchest ally of books
Many of the obituaries following the passing of legendary editor Jason Epstein last Friday have gone to great lengths to illuminate the highs and lows of a career spent in service to books and to literary culture. There have been detailed accounts of Epstein’s launch of the Anchor paperback series in 1953 while at Doubleday, and his role in the founding of the Library of America and the New York Review of Books. Epstein thought big and fought to bring the best literature to readers everywhere in affordable media, even sending out free copies of the NYRB to campuses so that cash-strapped kids could feed their minds with the words and ideas of such luminaries as Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren, and many, many others.
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Epstein reportedly got the idea for Anchor while working as one of the very lowest men on the totem pole at Doubleday, where one of his duties was to go through the slush pile, perusing one unsolicited manuscript after another. Those of us who have worked in publishing or who have done unremunerated labor as interns know just how daunting and funny this task can be. (If you want a taste, watch My Salinger Year.) The Vintage paperback series began to roll out under the auspices of Alfred A. Knopf in 1954, just after Anchor’s debut, and you could hardly ask for more concrete proof that the latter had caught on. Though Epstein popularized rather than invented the trade paperback, it would be hard to imagine publishing today without Anchor and Vintage, to say nothing of the Library of America and the NYRB. Epstein brought ambition and a keen business sense to an industry not synonymous with shrewd practicality and certainly not with profitability.
As his career in publishing stretched on, Epstein grew increasingly attuned to the impact of new and evolving technologies on the industry’s business models, and in particular on how Amazon and e-books would alter the way people read. The New York Times obituary says that Epstein “saw the digital universe as a potential ally” in the dissemination of books, good books, to as many people as possible, but as usual the Times gets it wrong.
At the end of a 2012 interview, Epstein made a few remarks encapsulating views he articulated in more detailed form in certain of his NYRB pieces on the digital revolution. He thought that the replacement of printed books by e-books would be a horrid thing, helping to turn books into just one more disposable medium that people flick on or off. E-books may be convenient, but the danger is their vulnerability to erasure. With the deletion of a file, with the click of a mouse, a book existing only in electronic form disappears so fast and utterly it is as though the book never was.
Epstein saw this vulnerability as the advantage of the traditional, printed medium. He knew that if you spend your life working on a book, you might want some kind of hedge against an act of vandalism or piracy or an accident or a global meltdown that purges digital files from the Earth.
He grasped that if you are a bibliophile, you may want the object of your devotion to exist in more tangible, durable, permanent form than an electronic file. Words on a screen will never carry the same cultural resonance or associations or offer the same experience as the sight, smell, and feel of printed books. Epstein had little use for the wisdom of Jeff Bezos, who has said, “The book really has had a 500-year run. It’s probably the most successful technology ever. . . . But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.”
Public taste affirms the wisdom of Epstein more than that of Bezos. Epstein lived just long enough to have seen the news that print book sales rose 8.9 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 figures. As Publishers Weekly puts it, “Print Book Sales Had a Huge Year in 2021.” This suggests that during the period when the pandemic began to wane and fewer people were stuck at home—during precisely the time when we had more options and could eschew solitary activities if we chose—people wanted to spend more of their money and more of their time reading books, real books.
Known through his career as an aggressive businessman, Jason Epstein decisively proved the über-businessman, Bezos, wrong.