Thursday, June 18, 2009

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.

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