Skip to main content

On Books

At breakfast I read Paul Constant’s report of this year’s Book-Expo America (BEA) in the the Stranger, and this has prompted some Thoughts.

I have the very real privilege of being a part (a very small part) of an industry which many consider to be on its last legs. The game of publishing is changing, book sales are decreasing, independent bookstores are closing. Many liken the future of bookshops to vinyl-selling record stores, vinyls being a collector’s hobby. The difference is, I feel, that records and CDs and tapes all need accompanying technology to play the records and CDs and tapes. The book is accessible to those who can physically open the pages. It is for this reason that Sherman Alexie has recently denounced e-readers and Kindles as “elitist.” Once upon a time, books were difficult to come by and extremely valuable; this is no longer the case and books are by and large affordable to many, especially with the plethora of used bookstores.

The late John Updike wrote a meaningful and concise essay called A Case for Books (it can be found in his latest collection of essays, Due Considerations) in which he outlines the advantages the physical book has over its mechanical counterparts:

1)The Book as Furniture – aesthetic companions which make a room cozy and accessible

2)The Book as Sensual Pleasure – the fit into one’s hand, the smell of the pages and ink, the sounds of the pages turning

3)The Book as Souvenir – remembering the travels and trips with the books one buys. I fully believe in this method of traveling (though it is physically taxing to support): bought a book about the Hapsburgs in Austria, a book on the Tudor Queens at Hampton Court Palace, etc.

4) Books as Ballast – though we complain that books are heavy and impractical to move, Updike mentions why this is important. In our world we can pack up too easily and move around at leisure. Books (like pets, I suppose, though the metaphor doesn’t go too far) remind us of the importance of being rooted, of having commitment to a physical location. “Books hold our beams down; they act as counterweight to our fickle and flighty natures.”

The advantage of books, as many have noted, is that you can walk into a room and see what the people around you are reading. One can tell something about the person reading it, can feel a sense of attraction to the person with secretly similar tastes. I remember being on the train to Wales, knowing that I couldn’t rush out and buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on my week-long trip because there was a copy being held for me in Oxford. I was in agony that someone would spoil the end for me, and I looked around at the carriage to see that at least a fifth of the room had their noses buried in it. At the train station, at the side of the road, on the bus, at coffee shops, people had their copies and were flying through it. There was a sense of desperate kinship; wry smiles being passed from reader to reader.

This faltering industry has its bloated aspects – authors who are paid $7 million advances, celebrity memoirs, diet books, relationship advice books (my favorite title being Steve Harvey's Act like a Lady, Think like a Man), thousands of mass market genre books that are churned out en masse and discarded soon after. I would not be sorry to see any of this go. But the thought that the absence of these will also affect the future of literary fiction, of newly discovered presses like Persephone Press and the NYRB series, of secret nooks in independent bookstores that have to shut their doors – makes me sad. Maybe it’s because I’m sentimental, or a Luddite, or have watched “You’ve Got Mail” one too many times (this is true), but I have to go do my part and buy More Books. I think you should do the same.


Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.

Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who act…