The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Endings

It’s hard not to feel sorry for survivors. In a hostile world, the ability to resist the entropy lapping at your toes is a feat that inspires admiration. Although independent bookstores are making a comeback, there aren’t many around. An evening spent at Barnes and Noble, if allocated well, can evoke some sympathy even for a dying giant. While my wife had an appointment next door, I spent a good while in the fiction section—really the only part of our local B&N that is well stocked. My time among books, excessive to some, is my solace. It’s not a bad vice to have. Seeing others out shopping for books also delivers a message of hope to a world disinclined to read.

In the B section I saw an edition of A Clockwork Orange. If you read my post on Anthony Burgess’s book in the last few weeks, you’ll know that the American edition has always lacked the last chapter. I wondered if maybe, just perhaps, if this edition might contain the missing ending. It has been several decades since the original embargo. I picked it up and, indeed, the last chapter was intact. I stood in the aisle and read it. Say what you will about Barnes and Noble, but nobody thinks this kind of behavior odd. Once again I was transferred back to Alex and the world of his droogs, only to discover that the ending was something like I had anticipated. If you’ve read the standard American edition you know that it ends abruptly. Writers know how to draw a story to a close. Herewith I offer a spoiler alert.

Alex, now 18, has a new band of droogs. They sound quite a bit like his previous gang. Then he notices he doesn’t feel like the old ultra-violence one night. He goes to a coffee shop where he finds Pete, his old gang-mate, now married and holding a respectable job. He realizes with a kind of horror that having a child and wife appeals to him. He’s growing up. Critics often said Burgess was a moralist with Christian sensibilities. The original ending to A Clockwork Orange might suggest that’s true. Alex may be converted, but he’s unrepentant. Indeed, as he thinks of being a father he envisions his son being just like he was, and the cycle of violence and reform spinning on and on into the future. Shortly after I closed the cover, my wife met me in the store. I was amazed at how 15 or 20 minutes immersed in reading had shifted the mental world I inhabited. New information had changed me. This is the power of books, even when they’re found in Barnes and Noble.

Banned Books

I feel short-changed. Cheated, if you will. This is Banned Book Week, and a story in Publishers Weekly over the summer touted the benefits of the local independent bookstore. Owners of indies know that these stores are centers of community. Gathering places for those who love literature. I feel cheated because my local town has no independent bookstore. Neither did any of the towns where I grew up. For a year when money was almost as scarce as it is now, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were bookstores there. For a couple happy years before that I dwelt in Boston—a city in which books are never difficult to locate. Edinburgh is known as one of the literary capitals of Europe and my days in that magical city were inundated with books. Even Nashotah House, with its somewhat backward facing eyes, had a little bookstore. And there was another indie over in nearby Oconomowoc. I now live in the desert.

Oh, there are bookstores nearby. Independent ones, I mean. When’s the last time you saw a chummy conversation among locals at Barnes and Noble? Princeton has the Labyrinth. Bernardsville has the Bookworm. New Hope (while across the river in Pennsylvania) has Farley’s. There’s an indie in New Brunswick and I discovered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair just a couple of weekends ago. Clinton has a tiny little shop where my daughter once met a children’s author doing a book signing and I picked up some Ray Bradbury. These are my happy places. All of them require a drive of at least half-an-hour. I’m not a local. I don’t see anyone I know, except some of the clerks.

Analysts have been saying for decades now that we live in unhealthy isolation from our neighbors. I get up and jump on a bus before most houses show any lights in the morning. I stumble off and fall into bed after eating supper following the return trip. I’m not alone in my attempt to survive in this late capitalist purgatory. One thing that would help, I believe, is a local bookshop. There used to be a used bookstore in my town, called Chapter Two. I used to walk there of a Saturday morning, just to browse. Rent grew too high and it moved to the next town over and its name changed to chapter eleven. My local town is affluent. There are signs for Trump everywhere. What’s obviously missing is a local independent bookstore. I, for one, would be a regular patron.

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Big Boxification

When was the last time I purchased an actual book at Barnes and Noble? In a vain hope that they might have something intellectual and edgy, I stop in once in a while. If I were a faster learner I might have known that I’d leave disappointed. You see, it’s been rainy a lot around here and rainy Saturdays are perfect for book stores. But where are the good books? I’m not just picking on B&N. I stopped in Bed, Bath, and Beyond (they don’t really use the Oxford comma, but then, who had time for commas?). This is not a frequent occurrence since we rent and it’s hard to gentrify bohemian decor, but we needed a practical household item. After wandering enough aisles that I thought it was time to hire a jungle guide, I found that the choices were actually rather limited. If I don’t like what they tell me to like, well, I’m out of luck. The local stores were driven out of business, you see, and you have to like what we have to offer because we are the BIG GUYS.

It’s not just housewares. It’s everywares. We’re a big box society. Costco and Sam’s Club and SUVs to haul it all home. Once, back when paper was still a thing, I had to find some file folders. I tend to like color coding—my non-Harvard-educated mind just rolls that way. So I went to the local stationary store and found a virtual reading rainbow of options. A year or so later, strangely, more papers had accumulated. I went back and the store was out of business. A Staples had opened nearby. Everyone was going there. They offered a superfluous loyalty card—where else would you go? They had four colors of folders. Just four. In industrial cardboard boxes that mean business. I mean BUSINESS. You want choices? There’s a clinic down the road. Unless you’re female, of course.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a genius, but I can recognize repeating patterns. Big box settles outside your town then limits your choices. I consume, therefore I am. To buy, or not to buy? I am not a number, I am a—what? What am I if I’m not a consumer? A communist, I guess. And everyone knows the Bible says communism is evil. And if you need a Bible you can purchase one from Sam’s Club. To be part of the resistance, you need to buy from Amazon. What a radical I’ve become! At least at Amazon they still have books.

Durable Goods

CharingCrossThose who love books share a soul. A weekend never feels complete to me without at least an hour spent in a bookstore. On one such weekend a clerk in our local indie recommended Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. The recommendation was actually for my wife, but knowing me, she said I’d like it. What’s not to like about a set of revealing letters between a struggling, New York-based writer and a London used bookstore clerk? Books tell the story of a person’s life. If I’m invited to someone’s house, I look at their books. I would expect the same if they ever came to see me. Kind of like dogs sniffing each other out. Books reveal the inner person. They also give me ideas of more things to read.

I can’t help but think we’ve lost something intangible in the world of ordering books online. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Amazon maybe more than is proper, but how many treasures have I found simply by browsing? The days are well past when a single person could claim to have read every book (and really, who would want to?) so there’s always something undiscovered lurking at the bookstore. And these days used bookstores have the most character. In Milwaukee I used to frequent a used bookstore that could have passed the building inspectors’ visit only by bribery. I spent happy hours there. You see, books are durable goods that can outlast their owners. Can anyone really ever own a book?

84, Charing Cross Road was an unexpected delight. A quick web search reveals that Marks & Co. Is no longer with us. It is now a McDonald’s. Helene Hanff is gone too. And she thought she was born a century too late! Yet here we are in the twenty-first century and books are still with us, despite our losses. They have something of eternity to teach us. The ebook has not yet managed to kill off print. Our local used bookstore closed some years back. I confess to visiting a Barnes and Noble in a state of desperation. There a guy, older than me, was talking to a clerk. I couldn’t help but overhear when they mentioned the used bookstore, now long gone. Even the clerk sighed that they were the only show left in town. Although they were strangers I knew that we somehow share a soul. So it is with those who love books.

Rumors of Books

An off-the-cuff remark by Sandeep Mathrani, some CEO of something or other, had the publishing world buzzing a couple weeks back. The rumor began that Amazon.com was about to open hundreds of brick-and-mortar bookstores. After the opening of a store in Seattle, the idea—neither confirmed nor denied by Amazon—has made the book industry reassess its future yet again. Stock in Barnes and Noble immediately fell, but soon recovered. As someone whose entire life has revolved around books, I was glad to read the story. I have no idea of the business implications—I just don’t think that way—but the fact that book news was deemed newsworthy at all was heartening. Of course, it would be even better news if this signaled a growing interest in books.

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The book industry has been a steady one, despite worries and shifts of format, but it has never been as robust in America as it has been even in the small nation of Iceland. There are too many distractions for people to dedicate the quiet hours required to open a book and learn from it. When I sit on the bus and the driver has forgotten to turn on the overhead reading lights, almost nobody complains. Although I see some Kindles in the dark, it is often social media or movies that the person next to me is viewing. A longish bus ride, it seems to me, is the place for a book. Portable knowledge. Do we ever stop to consider the wonder of this anymore? All it takes is a rumor and the industry quivers.

Books, like monsters, are one of those topics that has an inherent connection to religion. No matter how secular a writing may be today, books have close ties to religion, and they always have. The great secrets of religious explorers and inventors are kept between the covers for any awaiting enlightenment. We have become a more secular people, but the religion of secularism is intellectual. The basis for such thinking comes in book form. For me, there’s always a sense of accomplishment with finishing a book. A gold star on the sticker chart. And I worry about books following the thylacine into extinction. And if the thylacine is something you don’t recognize, I have a book that I could recommend.

British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

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