I'm fully prepared to complete every sentence I utter about John Hodgman in the future with the qualifier "is a delight." Author, comedian, professional voice actor, celebrity spokesperson -- Hodgman keeps the sort of schedule that would make even the most hardened globe-trotting blogger ball up into the fetal position. When we finally nailed him down for an interview on the Engadget Show last month, we asked him to meet us at the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen in midtown Manhattan. It's a place not far from Times Square that our producer Ben discovered while shooting a segment about the annual meeting of the Corduroy Appreciation Club, a group of menswear enthusiasts who meet each year on 11 / 11 -- the date most closely resembling corduroy.
It's a strange and beautiful old space that dates back to the early 19th century, as a resource for apprentices of a society that can, in turn, be traced back to 1785. It seems to serve a different purpose now, a couple of older gentlemen shuffling in and out of the library during the three hours we spend there, each staying quiet, seated alone at a small table, reading novels and history books from off the shelves. For today, however, it'll serve as John Hodgman's own private library, the tongue-in-cheek backdrop for his long-awaited Engadget Show interview. Ben and I go back and forth a bit, prior to his arrival, debating whether or not he'll embrace the silly premise. He agrees immediately after traveling in from Brooklyn, offering up a single, key caveat: it's actually the annex to his own private library.
The cameras roll and without missing a beat, he slips into his deranged millionaire persona, a character that has popped up a bit over the past few years, as Hodgman has wrapped up his trilogy of "complete world knowledge," the last entry of which, "That is All," was released in paperback and audiobook forms this week. "This," the mustachioed author explains, "is the end of world knowledge." It's a journey that began in 2005, with the publication of "The Areas of My Expertise," an almanac of sorts compiling the comedian's knowledge of "matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological and hobo matters," to name but a small cross-section. Hodgman was a self-described former professional literary agent at the time, first making a splash amongst the literati some five years prior with the publication of the column "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" for uber-hip San Francisco publisher McSweeney's.
(Macs) were technology that made sense to me because they seemed to want to bend to how a human thinks as opposed to asking a human to bend to how a machine thinks.
The year following publication, Hodgman's buttoned-up visage scored him a spot as the Windows-powered antagonist to Justin Long's Mac, a white backgrounded ad campaign that generated a seemingly endless parade of 30-second spots. "There was zero question in my mind to audition for the series of ads, because I had been a user of Apple products early on," Hodgman tells me, seated behind an old grand piano that he'll end up playing with the soles of his shoes before the end of the shoot. "They were technology that made sense to me because they seemed to want to bend to how a human thinks as opposed to asking a human to bend to how a machine thinks -- which is exciting and fun for a lot of people, but not for me."
He recounts a laundry list of Apple purchases from the past two decades with the unwavering confidence of a man who has clearly been asked the question once or twice before. At the height of his endorsement fame, such revelations might have proved a genuine shock, as with a story recounted on PRI's This American Life as "I'm Not a TV Star, But I Play One on TV" in which the walking PC visited an Apple Store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood to pick up components, resulting in a self-described "general store-wide freakout."
It was around the time of those early purchases that the author, now playing the part of a deranged millionaire across various internet venues, was employed as a literary agent, utilizing company resources to discover that he was living in the past. "The best thing about my job in publishing," he explains, "aside from my friends and the authors I got to work with, was we got a T1 line in 1996 and I immediately became aware that we would not be having a revolution in publishing. It had already happened. Authors, writers were finding readers on their own without mediation of traditional agents and publishers like myself and no one was getting paid for it, but they were creating communities of readers and writers online that would eventually make a lot of the gatekeepers unnecessary."
It was through that T1 line that the author became acquainted with Real World reject turned publishing mogul Dave Eggers, on whose Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency Hodgman's deranged authority figure would first begin to take shape. "At the same time that we were watching the book industry play the lyre while Rome burned," Hodgman explains, "the internet was making a writing career possible for me in a way that it never could before, and I was completely, utterly aware and energized by it. Of course I was stealing internet from the literary agency where I worked, and what I was doing was finding other writers who were doing things along the same lines as I dreamed of doing."
Books are also coming to an end. They will still be published for a period of time in order to hold down newspapers in summer houses and to use as door stops.
But for an author whose most recent book came out just this week on a Penguin imprint, it's perhaps a bit early yet to declare the traditional publishing industry dead. I shift the conversation abruptly from the end times predictions of "That is All" to the end of book publishing as we know it. "You mean the publishing apocalypse?" he asks. "that's true. Books are also coming to an end. They will still be published for a period of time in order to hold down newspapers in summer houses, and to use as door stops, obviously, in bathrooms, and to impress people that you want to impress on the subway, or on a date in the park, where dating vagrants go.
"But for the most part, yes, as someone who used to work in book publishing, the whole landscape has been transformed. And I will say exactly why this is so: electronic books offer two major advantages: one, a lot of people would like to read books that they don't want to be seen reading, and don't want to have to move from apartment to apartment every time they get a new job in another city or graduate from college, or what have you. A lot of media that that I want to consume, I don't want to have to own forever and ever. It's not like real estate. And so, the disposability of electronic media is actually something that makes book people sad, but book readers happy. And then of course, there is the fact that if you buy a book in the real world, it's going to sit around making you feel guilty all the time, but now I can buy as many books as I want, and they go on my device, and I never have to think about them again."
When he entered publishing in the mid-'90s, it was a sort of "wonderful twilight-drawn room that we've decided to spend out lives in and soon dusk will come," Hodgman explains, with a bit of critically nostalgic poesy. There was no shortage of warning before the internet and electronic devices came for books, having already done a number on the music and film industries before it. I reach deep for an analogy on that one, hitting on Grey Gardens, the mid-'70s documentary chronicling mother and daughter socialites trapped in the past by way of a rundown mansion in the Hamptons.
"Exactly," Hodgman responds. "It was a once grand and talented older class, Big Edie, a generation of Big Edies who use to sing so beautifully and now are just tired and deranged. And then a younger class of Little Edies who still yearn for what Big Edie had but can never have it, can't for whatever reason leave that house, and are wrapping themselves in drapes and afghans and calling them dresses. It was a house of delusion, but you know, sort of a, how do I put it, kind of a grand and poetic self-delusion."
More children have read "Harry Potter" than there are children in the world. Do the math.
Such poetry aside, there was still a sense of doom permeating the industry, even if it wasn't directly linked to the devices that would eclipse more traditional reading vectors in the not-so-distant future. "Even then, it was simply appreciated that the book industry was on the wane," Hodgman tells me. "At the time, it was people don't read anymore. Novels are done because people don't read anymore. Kids don't read, there's no new generation of readers. It's been disproved time and time again. Within five years, more children have read "Harry Potter" than there are children in the world. Do the math."
But even as the adventures of a bespectacled boy wizard have proven that the world still has an appetite for the written word, one wonders if Hodgman still sees a place for the publishing world he abandoned a decade or so ago to great success. "Publishers, editors, agents all have one thing in common, aside from their love of cocktail parties," Hodgman explains. "It's an incredible taste and an ability to find and nurture authors. And so there's no reason to my mind, that this shouldn't be an enormous boon because authors don't want to have to go out there and publish it themselves. If they can get someone who will edit them, market them and send them out into the world and connect them with readers. And I think publishers should be able to do that. The ones who survive will be the ones who are able to do that."
For more Hodgman, check out the latest episode of The Engadget Show.