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A Hothouse of Goofiness: The American Book Industry

The renowned American jazzman Charlie Parker, introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre in a Paris club during the 1949 jazz festival, reportedly said, "I'm very glad to have met you, Mr. Sartre. I like your playing very much." According to writer Boris Vian, who also played trumpet and often served as master of ceremonies at the club, Sartre merely stared back at Parker in silence.

The story is probably not apocryphal: Parker, the free spirit and inveterate master of the put-on, was not above tweaking the high and mighty whether he knew who they were or not; Sartre, pompons in his growing celebrity, was humorless and intolerant by nature. Still, this was essentially a trivial incident, the chance meeting of two disparate creative souls on their way to world fame.

Were this to involve members of today's American book publishing scene, though, it would probably be turned through descriptive hubris into something quite different: a protest against racist oppression and colonialism, perhaps, or a principled defense of artistic integrity. Unfortunately, such a perverse view would be all too typical of many of today's publishing elites. Sad to say, many years past its glory days as a business for serious well-meaning gentlemen like Maxwell Perkins and Bennett Cerf or brilliant headstrong iconoclasts like Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright, as the millennium approaches the book business appears rudderless, adrift on...

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