Thursday, March 25, 2010

Doctor Dolittle's Dog, or, An Editor's-Nose View of The Future

My favorite passage from The Story of Doctor Dolittle describes how the doctor's faithful (and very intelligent) dog Jip takes in the world through his nose. He's on a ship far out at sea at the time:
Then Jip went up to the front of the ship and smelt the wind; and he
started muttering to himself,

"Tar; Spanish onions; kerosene oil; wet raincoats; crushed
laurel-leaves; rubber burning; lace-curtains being washed--No, my
mistake, lace-curtains hanging out to dry; and foxes--hundreds of
'em--cubs; and--"

"Can you really smell all those different things in this one wind?"
asked the Doctor.

"Why, of course!" said Jip.  "And those are only a few of the easy
smells--the strong ones. Any mongrel could smell those with a cold in
the head.  Wait now, and I'll tell you some of the harder scents that
are coming on this wind--a few of the dainty ones."

Then the dog shut his eyes tight, poked his nose straight up in the air
and sniffed hard with his mouth half-open.

For a long time he said nothing.  He kept as still as a stone.  He
hardly seemed to be breathing at all.  When at last he began to speak,
it sounded almost as though he were singing, sadly, in a dream.

"Bricks," he whispered, very low--"old yellow bricks, crumbling with
age in a garden-wall; the sweet breath of young cows standing in a
mountain-stream; the lead roof of a dove-cote--or perhaps a
granary--with the mid-day sun on it; black kid gloves lying in a
bureau-drawer of walnut-wood; a dusty road with a horses'
drinking-trough beneath the sycamores; little mushrooms bursting
through the rotting leaves; and--and--and--"

"Any parsnips?" asked Gub-Gub.

"No," said Jip.  "You always think of things to eat.  No parsnips

I think a good editor is like Jip. The job is about sticking your nose into the wind and trying to figure out what's out there. Your sense of the marketplace, or of what's happening in the literary world, comes at you not in a sharp, high-def picture, but a jumble of impressions and images, some of which you can read more clearly than others.

It's the same for me with the future of publishing. I have a pretty potent whiff, for example,  of an explosion of e-books and e-readers for the next few years. But I can't yet smell on  the wind the future for bookstores, which are surely challenged by this development. I have caught distinct notes that the digital marketplace is going to start erasing the distinction between books and magazines, but no scent of what that means for writers or book editors. One thing I can say for sure: the wind on deck in publishing offers a bouquet at least as rich and confusing as the breeze in Jip's nostrils.

Illustration by Hugh Lofting from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

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