Reviews > Culture

Electronic reformation?

Culture | Amazon.com, secrets, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Bible translation blues," Nov. 21, 1998

Electronics book wars
There's a war going on for control of what you read. Not content, sales. Three players-Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders Group-are fighting for control of the book market. The battle heated up this month as B&N bought Ingram, America's biggest book wholesaler (which last year purchased its religious counterpart, Spring Arbor). Now antitrust regulators at the FTC must scrutinize the deal. That means a wild marketing war will continue, even as independent bookstores get the squeeze. This decade has featured a building spree of megastores and price wars on the Internet. Say farewell to the tiny, vapid selection at the mall. Say hello to a revolution and maybe a reformation. What does this mean? A typical Borders store holds 200,000 titles (including videos, CDs, and magazines), but that doesn't match the 10 million selections at the online Borders. As with the rest of the digital revolution, this means a little guy with a good book, smart marketing, and strong business sense can make his brainchild available to a mass audience. Thus the Iron Curtain between the religious and secular markets is coming down. Now Christian writers and publishers can play ball with the big boys (for better or worse). Now is the time to grab postmodernity by the horns. The power of the old gatekeepers-the wholesalers and retailers who chose what books get stocked-is going away. Bottomless selections may be a giant cannonball into the bow of mediocre Christian media. Why buy a derivative evangelical self-help book when Amazon.com knocks 30 percent off Stephen Covey? Writers are now free to bypass the normal distribution channels. And if money is no object, a book can always be distributed for free by simply posting it on the Net. A niche is easier to grab today than ever before. Right now, there's a unfed audience of Christians looking for smart reads, not to mention a bottomless pit of nonbelievers. In the new electronic marketplace of ideas, Christians may well be able to make their presence felt. Dirty little secrets
Have you got a secret? The federal government has plenty of them. Too many, says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who argues in his book Secrecy (Yale UP) that all those secrets are undermining America. While Mr. Moynihan is one of the Democrats' elder statesmen, he also has a strong neoconservative streak. (He recently announced that he will not seek re-election in 2000.) Mr. Moynihan argues that our government's excessive secret keeping has fueled conspiracy theories of both Left and Right, specifically the paranoia pumped out by liberal filmmaker Oliver Stone. Mr. Moynihan notes with disdain that most people still don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK alone and do believe that the Feds are hiding the truth about space aliens. Now, he says, certain things obviously must remain secret, but the intelligence community must enter the Information Age, where pools of open information travel around the world at the speed of light. Death of Batman's creator
In 1939, Bob Kane was inspired by a Leonardo Da Vinci sketch of a flying machine called the Ornithopter to create a new super hero: Batman. With a dash of Zorro and some Golden Age comic book magic, the caped crusader became a cultural landmark, changing with the times and outliving his creator, who died this month at age 83. Unlike Superman, who was born a year earlier, Batman had no super powers. He resembled the pulp heroes of his time such as the Shadow, the Spider, and Doc Savage. These two-fisted crime fighters lived by their wits to show the world that crime doesn't pay. What gave Batman his longevity was his costume and the gimmicks that made him the hero of Gotham City. According to legend, super-rich Bruce Wayne became Batman after seeing his parents' murder. So he studied criminology, started working out, and started stockpiling gadgetry. The bat motif came because he wanted to bring terror into "cowardly and superstitious" criminals and avenge Mom and Dad's deaths. By the 1960s, comic books began falling out of the American mainstream into a niche market. Batman went to television and took a campy turn, with perhaps the most deliberately cheesy series in history. A wild series of actors-including Art Carney, Eartha Kitt, Liberace, Cesar Romero, and Joan Collins-upstaged the hero. The show was an instant hit in 1966, but the ratings shot right back down and the TV Batman was gone in two years. Over the last three decades, along with the culture, Batman became schizophrenic. The kitschy buffoon coexisted with a brooding, postmodern "Dark Knight" version that revived the comic book franchise. The combination coexisted in the recent series of Batman movies, which also skyrocketed in popularity, then came to a crashing halt. Batman's corporate parents at Time Warner will keep mutating their character. "He adapts to each era," Mr. Kane explained back in 1989. "He fights the battle for the little man.... He rights the wrongs that they cannot."

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