Sam Leith

Facebook’s founder asked his 31 million followers to pick up a book. That can only be good news

Facebook's founder asked his 31 million followers to pick up a book. That can only be good news
Text settings

It’s the private messages Mark Zuckerberg will have sent early in the new year that I’d really like to see. The one to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for instance, which I imagine reading along the lines of: 'Jeff UO me 1 lol. ;).' Or to Oprah Winfrey: 'Yo, O-dawg! BURNNN!!' Or to Zoella: '@zozeebo: Book selling well? Watch this.'

He’s a better man than me if he resists the temptation. His new year’s resolution this year, announced on Facebook, was to read a new book every fortnight, and – essentially kicking off the biggest book club in the history of the universe – he invited his 31 million followers to join him. The results?

His first selection was – praise be – nothing by Paulo Coelho, Mitch Albom or Ayn Rand. It didn’t tell you how to be the best you can be, or win and keep on winning, or discover your inner dolphin. It was, instead, a chewy book about international relations by a distinguished columnist-cum-academic.

And within hours Moisés Naím’s two-year-old The End of Power had sold out at Amazon, rocketed to the top of Barnes and Noble’s bestseller charts and is being earnestly discussed in all media everywhere. Nice for Mr Naím. Nice for the world of books, too.

It is no particular cause for rejoicing that the publishing economy for serious books is so dependent on the random lightning strikes of well-funded prizes, mega-celebrity endorsements and so on (Philip Hensher writes in the forthcoming Spectator of how dire the situation for the short story in the UK now is: a couple of jazzy fat prizes but no regular outlets for reasonably remunerated publication).

But beggars can’t be choosers: for publishers of literary fiction it’s far better that the Man Booker or Costa or Folio prizes exist than not. And if 26 books this year – many of which we can have every reason to believe will be interesting ones – get a Zuckerberg sales boost, that is a boon to their publishers and it is a boon too to their authors. Money and fame, for writers, means two things: time to write; and the likelihood of a publisher to write for.

Having enjoyed the Amazon-sells-out news story, this time, it’d be smart if from now on Zuck quietly warned publishers of his choices ahead of time – as Man Booker does ahead of the shortlist announcement – so as to enable them to get the presses rolling. That would be a service to publishers and readers alike.

I once had cause to write - unkindly, but I was chagrined at the thought of his youth and his vast fortune - that Mark Zuckerberg is what plimsolls would look like if they had faces, and I do not entirely resile from that position. I loathe almost everything about Facebook – especially its messaging system, and arch-especially that it demands you install its wretched Messenger app if you want to get your messages on the go. I mistrust it on privacy.

But you’d have to be a whole other class of curmudgeon not to admire Zuckerberg’s resolution and regard it as a great good in the world.  Among other things Mr Zuckerberg has a direct line to a generation of so-called digital natives. These folk, far more than the television-soaked generation before, are all (contra some more luddite imaginings) deeply immersed in text and the written word; but it means something to have their social-media god-emperor point out: 'Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I'm looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.'

He puts that just right. Books are part of a balanced media diet. They command and reward a different type of attention from netty stuff; and the two need not be antagonistic, indeed, can and should be complementary.

I saw someone sneer on Twitter that one book every two weeks makes the Facebook founder a slow reader. Well. He has a day job. A book a fortnight, for busy people, is a perfectly creditable ambition. A 2013 poll suggested that 28 per cent of Americans hadn’t read a single book in the previous year. Only 20 per cent had read more than 11.

So a big Facebook like to all that. But let Mr Zuckerberg bear in mind: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s Voltaire by way of Stan Lee. I’d love to see the Facebook founder, over this year, building up a bibliography with room for both.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articleSociety