On a brief visit to Jerusalem I walked the streets of Mea Shearim, one of the city’s more colorful neighborhoods, and home to Haredi Jews. The ingenuous tourist could be forgiven for thinking that he or she has strayed onto a film set depicting the life of a nineteenth-century Jewish shtetl. But life in Mea Shearim is for real, preserved the way it was a hundred years ago. My eye caught a trio of skinny, pallid-looking men in tall black hats and draped in black frock coats. They stood there in a circle as if mumbling the words of a prayer in unison. One cradled a weighty leather-bound tome. As he opened the bible (and I’m guessing there), I noticed that the book was actually a hollowed-out cavity, a box camouflaged inside a book. Inside the book wrist watches shimmered. This little detail cheered me no end, and for a moment I thought I had turned up in the Odessa of Babel’s stories.

In May 2011 the Argentine artist Marta Minujin exhibited her installation Torre de Babel de Libros on San Martin Square in Buenos Aires. Fashioned from books from all over the world, the tower was twenty-five meters high. Croatian newspapers proudly published a list of all the Croatian titles in the project, as if the whole thing was about the massive international success of Croatian literature. Yet the mytheme of the Tower of Babel points to the opposite: failure. Nimrod, a descendant of Noah, initiated the building of the tower out of a desire to create “a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.” Enraged by the hubris and unbridled ambition of it all, Yahweh destroyed the tower and punished its builders by giving them different languages, short-circuiting access to Google Translate along the way. The story goes something like that, perhaps a little different.

One way or another, books have always been multifunctional: depending on the user they have been good for kindling, bonfire fuel, brownbagging, bookshelf supports, wine coasters, secret piggy banks, status symbols, and/or window cleaning paper. Marta Minujin is far from alone, many contemporary visual artists have used, abused, and defamiliarized books in different ways. In one of Richard Wentworth’s cerebral installations, books hang by string from the ceiling, in others, broken plates, hand watches, and candy wrappings jut out like strange bookmarks. Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, Tree of Codes, is an artistic installation affordable to all. Foer has disemboweled every page of his favorite bedside reading—Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles—creating a “window” on each page that alters the meaning of the original text. Having suffered this “vandalistic” artistic treatment, Schulz’s book has ended up a new original work, one authored by a “vandal,” just like Duchamp and his famous Mona Lisa with moustache.

Video clips currently doing the Internet rounds also make keen use of “vandalistic” narration. In Can a Book Save Your Life a professional shooter fires a gun into a handful of recent books, testing how bulletproof they are. Another, Bill Simmons’ Book Can Save Your Life, proves that shot with a 9mm gun, Bill Simmons’ book indeed can. The Spanish clip Did You Know the Book? takes up the apparent end of the Gutenberg era, a likeable young sales rep presenting the book as a completely new product and explaining its advantages—no wires, no batteries, no viruses, easy to read, easy to handle. There is a Norwegian clip with a similar message. In a monastery library somewhere an older monk is having trouble getting to grips with a book, bringing to mind the struggle early adopters endured with the computer. A younger monk patiently explains to the elder how one uses it, but then loses his cool and leaves him an instruction manual. These examples—some of which have been randomly selected from the cultural mainstream, and others equally randomly from its fringes—clearly point to both the death of the book and the death of literature itself (the latter having died the moment it turned into—“books,” i.e. merchandise). Yet authors (better known in the publishing world as content providers), book industry employees (who used to be called publishers) and consumers (until recently referred to as readers) aren’t exactly going quietly into the night—a desperate resuscitation of the corpse is underway, a final shakedown for the last penny.

The more irremediable the death of the book becomes, the more wild and flailing the resuscitation effort. The publishing industry is producing a greater number of books, and is doing so faster than ever before. The good old days when literary bestsellers appeared every few years, or maybe once a year, are irrevocably past. Today global bestsellers burn brightly on a monthly basis, and then fizzle as fast as New Year’s firecrackers. Overnight fame and hefty advances reserved for the few lucky puppies are no longer a secret, and neither are the annual earnings of the industry’s top producers. [1] All this whets the appetites of the millions of hungry rookies. The examples of jackpot debutantes suggest that anyone can make it if they want to, one just needs a little bit between the ears, a good look, a little luck—and spectacular (and spectacularly speedy) canonization is guaranteed.

The production of books has increased to the point that books are rarely actually read, let alone seriously evaluated. Anonymous commentators on Amazon.com (a few brief comments, like it—don’t like it, little stars), bloggers, twitterers (even briefer comments), and even authors themselves have taken over critical duties. In the Guardian series of clips Review My Book! authors gush about why it is that their book should be reviewed, the end result being the desired (self-)review. It isn’t easy for writers to reconcile themselves with their disappearance from the literary scene, their drowning in an endless ocean of other authors and books. Many are taking matters into their own hands. Some go in for self-promoting videos, or if you are Umberto Eco, you revise an old book and create a digested and simplified Kindle-friendly edition (The Name of the Rose); self-resuscitation at its most panicked. In fear of evanescence many dream up wacky passions or hobbies, this kind of supplementary authorial trace a way to expand the club of devotees and potential readers. Some come out swinging for the protection of birds or panda bears, others vegetarianism, others worry about global warming—and some will do whatever it takes. In a television interview Charlotte Roche—the best-selling author of (in her own phrase) “the hemorrhoid novel” Wetlands—popped her partial denture out, showing viewers her missing front tooth, tossed the denture high in the air, caught it in her mouth, and settled it back in place with her tongue. The audience went into rapture.

This world wouldn’t be hurtling along with such speed were its own destruction not constantly at its heels—this is the sentiment of the anonymous collectively authored manifesto The Coming Insurrection. The literary world is no longer a space of contemplation, subversion, spiritually enriching escapism, or discovery, but one of spectacle. Nor is the book any longer “the temple of the soul” —it is a bare bummed product little different from a bottle of Coca Cola. Writers can be ticket holders in the lottery, daydreamers, clued-up entrepreneurs, intellectual proles, exhibitionists, content providers, whatever, but like it or not, they are all participants in the society of spectacle. Measured by its yardsticks, they divide into winners and losers.

On the subject of Coca Cola, there is a good joke from the repertoire of Cold War humor. Ronald Reagan is woken in the middle of the night:

“Mr. Reagan, Sir, the guys from the evil empire are up painting the moon red!”

“What the hell?!”

“The Russians are on the moon and they’re painting it red!”

“Get our boys up there the writing Coca Cola on it, pronto,” Reagan replies groggily.

If we leave the political connotations of the joke to the side (these days even the gung ho Chinese are into graffiti!), then the mytheme of the Tower of Babel appears ghostly on its semantic field. The world is divided into losers—who clamber towards the moon seduced by the poetic idea of painting it red—and winners just waiting to write Coca Cola on a red backdrop. Losers win the right to the consolation of “symbolic capital” (to use Bourdieu’s term); the winners get the fame and money. Until recently the realization of “symbolic capital” underpinned the entire literary system, with its evaluatory codes, publishers, critics, theorists, translators, university literature departments, journals, literary prizes and so forth. Today that system is ruins. Hope is gone; getting paid is all that remains. And as far as the book goes, yes, a book can save your life. But only if it is bulletproof.

August 2011, Translated by David Williams

* According to Forbes magazine, in 2010 James Patterson took top honours with $84 million in earnings, followed by Danielle Steel ($35 million), Stephen King ($28 million), Janet Evanovich ($22 million), and Stephenie Meyer ($21 million), with young adult novelists Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, and Suzanne Collins further down the list.