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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Truth Anonymous

SparkMany a student has been spared the reading of primary sources by study guides. This is not a new phenomenon. While still regularly teaching Hebrew Bible, I picked up a copy of Cliff Notes, The Bible, to show students how not to get the picture. To be fair, I was teaching future priests, and, despite my progressive outlook, I believe all Christian clergy ought to have read the Bible at least once. I know enough of Christian history to realize that the emphasis on sacred writ is not as ancient as many Protestants think—before the advent of modern literacy rates, scripture reading (and interpreting) was the business of the church. The laity were to receive it in the form of sermons, and so reading the Bible wasn’t really necessary. With the Reformation, however, the Bible became central and preaching became a matter of intelligent interpretation of the same. Today any Christian minister should have a pretty good grasp of holy writ, believe it or not.

With a touch of puckish optimism, my family gave me a copy of the Spark Notes Old and New Testaments at Christmas. Spark, according to the copyright page, is a division of Barnes and Noble, and, should the cover be believed, today’s most popular study guides. As an erstwhile author of biblical studies material, I was curious about who wrote the notes. Enough of the scholar remains for me to be critical, and one of the first questions always to arise is, who wrote this? The question ought to be even more poignant for Bible readers. One of the most looming of questions is that of authority to interpret. Different branches of Christianity still maintain the proprietary right to be the true guardians of the sole truth. Although perhaps softened somewhat from soaking in the broth of religious-political activism, the Fundamentalist would, in any natural world, distrust the interpretation of a Catholic. And vice-versa. Looking at my Spark Notes, I wonder who it is that is telling me the truth.

Abridgment is a kind of crime for literary connoisseurs. As a child I purchased my books from Goodwill or Salvation Army—the kinds of places to which poverty-level readers have access. Although occasionally drawn to Reader’s Digest editions on purely economical grounds, I studiously avoided abridged works. Who decides what single syllable of Melville should be left out of Moby Dick? All the degrees in the world don’t justify that! The interpreter is just as human as the reader, and this kind of power is too heady for mere mortals to handle. The abridger of the Bible must take heed of Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. There’s a lurking suspicion, nevertheless, that something might be learned from the stripped-down scriptures. It is with some anticipation that I look forward to receiving some anonymous instruction as I seek a Spark of truth.

Biggest Buy

It isn’t really that much of a specialty item. You see, we live in an older apartment and three-pronged outlets were mostly reserved for kitchens the last time the place received any kind of upgrade. I’m not sure which century that was, but here in the twenty-first, we have lots of electrical toys, and of course, they come with grounding plugs. We needed an outlet for a device, but the nearest plug was yards away. Well, it seems that extension cords are now fire hazards, so you need to use a power-strip. Your typical power strip, as I came to learn, has a six-foot cord. (Although I said “yards,” I meant more than a couple.) So I drove to Best Buy. I can’t remember the last time I was in one. These “buy it large,” “consume excessively” kinds of stores aren’t really my style. I never believed the consumer myth, but I figured these large appliances must require surge protectors or power strips, right? And surely not all houses have conveniently located plugs.

Photo credit: Myke 2020, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Myke 2020, Wikipedia Commons

I am neither a large man nor a fetching woman, but it became clear that I was practically invisible in the store. Trying to get the attention of anyone on the blue-shirted staff was impossible. Even walking right up to someone with purpose wasn’t enough. I did notice, however, that the blue shirts were fairly adept at helping the female clientele. Eventually I found the surge protectors, etc., in their aisle—up to eight feet in length. I tried for another 20 minutes to find help, but the kind of help I need, apparently, doesn’t come in bulk. Maybe on a couch. I went home and within minutes found what I needed on Amazon. I would have it in two days.

Bulk buying, in my humble opinion, is an ethical issue. I’ve stopped going to Home Depot, and even Staples and Barnes and Noble are final resorts. What I’m looking for can’t be found in such places. Besides, nobody wants to stop and direct a bearded, perpetually confused-looking guy. We live in a culture where worth is measured in comestibles and durable goods purchased in bulk. Those with the most buying power are the gods. I can’t even drive by Costco without a substantial delay on a Saturday morning. I don’t need very much to get by. Still, come to think of it, I could use a power source that is conveniently located. And perhaps, some day, a culture more interested in quality than quantity.

Bargain Basement

Signs, in my experience at least, lend themselves to being over-read. How often a heedless moment suggests something more than was intended—signs try to say too much in too few words. Indeed, poets rather than marketers ought to be sought. I found myself in Barnes and Noble recently, since Borders is gone. In all fairness, I attended two independent bookstores as penance afterward. Nevertheless, in the corporate atmosphere of the last major brick-and-mortar chain, I saw a sign. Several, actually. One of the most obvious is how many tchotchkes the store had, as opposed to wall-to-wall books. Barnes and Nobel has never been particularly imaginative in its selection of floor stock, but now it is a great place to buy toys, electronics, and coffee. Maybe pick up a book as an afterthought on your way out.

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The front space just inside the door of a bookstore is prime real estate. Publishers have to pay extra to have their books displayed immediately inside the doors—something they reserve for sure-fire rapid sellers. The average customer will walk in, down the center aisle and there they will find promoted (and demoted) items, laid out on their own tables. So it was that I saw a sign reading “Religion & Spirituality Bargain Priced.” In fact, they’re free. Not the books, but religion and spirituality. Even in this secular world, people are not shy about buying books in these categories. Step into the religion aisle sometime. You may be surprised how much you find there. In fact, those who track the industry often include Christian books as a third major category besides fiction and non. We trust those who know enough to write books about such matters. The Bible, despite its detractors, is a bestseller by any measure.

Do we, however, value religion and spirituality? So often religion is portrayed as the root of all extremism while spirituality is relegated to the weak-minded. The science section generally takes up only half the shelf space of religion. People want to know what it’s all about. The rates are anything but bargain priced. Some religion may indeed be simple, but most religions are unexpectedly complex. Those who engage them seriously know there is more to life than just fact and fiction. There are middle grounds and outer limits. There are places that have yet to be discovered, let alone explored. We are in the infancy of intellectual awakening. Of course that shows in how quickly we’ve abandoned our bookstores and gone off after less weighty things. If you have a moment, though, on your way to the coffee bar, you might pick up some religion cheap, and who knows where it might lead?

The Varieties of Biblical Experience

Working with Bibles can be a heady experience. I mean, the sheer numbers are staggering. A whole herd of cattle must be slain annually just to manufacture the covers for all the Scofield Bibles in the world. What is it about literalists that demands animal sacrifice to read the words of the Prince of Peace? Bibles, Bibles everywhere, and not a word to read! According to statisticbrain.com, there are over 6,001,500,000 Bibles in print. That’s closing in on a parity with the world population, only one billion to go. There are websites dedicated to selling only Bibles. Nearly any bookstore will have at least a shelf full of them. I even ran across the website of an enterprising individual who seems to have figured out that there’s a market for taking Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and selling them online. The Bible business, in the words of Big Dan Teague, “is not a complicated one.” And every year more are printed. Full-text versions are freely available online at any number of sites, and still more can be sold.

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I often ponder the western love affair with the Bible. My entire career, with all its ups and downs, has been fashioned from an early intrigue with holy writ. In the beginning was the Bible. And culture followed in the footsteps of holy scripture. It’s not difficult to see why. Even further back than ancient Palestine, people worried about dying. Consciousness is funny that way—it has trouble conceiving of the world without itself. The Bible, for many centuries, offered the accepted solution to the death equation. You may have to die, but you don’t have to stay dead. Today we think of zombies as those refusing to remain lifeless. The Bible begs to differ, unless, of course, you’re reading the Zombie Bible. And still the presses roll on.

Considering the profit to be turned by selling Bibles, I wonder that more don’t show the cynicism of Big Dan. Is no one suspicious that printing the Good Book is called an industry? What other book, so freely given away, can sustain such a massive global market? I have to plead guilty myself to having a least a dozen different Bibles within easy reach every day. They even have their own separate labels at Barnes and Noble. So as I sit down planning on how to grow this ever-expanding market even more, I think of the many other industries that rely on mine. We have spun off worlds that orbit around the Bible. It is, despite the many nay-sayers, the cornerstone of modern Western civilization. If a tree falls in the woods, a Bible may be printed from it. Which of the 57 varieties do you take with your daily bread?

Best Nowledge

Back in the day when paper books ruled, New York City used to be known as the publishing capital of the country. Even though many publishers still call New York home, a depressing lack of interest pervades the city that never sleeps (sounds like it could use a good book). Although I’m no fan of Barnes and Noble, it is just about the last presence left of the brick-and-mortar-style bookstore. When news arrived this week that one of the large New York branches of B&N was closing, a sense of despair settled in. I love my indie bookshops. I literally went into mourning when Borders shut down, even now the sight of a vacant Borders can make me weep. A walk though any trendy mall will reveal no books to be found, and I go home perhaps fashionably dressed and smelling vaguely of perfume but sad nonetheless. Perhaps it is because the book is/was the culmination of one of the most important technologies of all time: writing.

Technology, as we think of it today, is largely electronic. Circuit-boards, nano-chips, embedded in sealed cases constructed in sterile rooms where the humans are more protectively suited than a surgeon. Isaac Newton once famously noted that if he’d seen further than others it was because he’d stood on the shoulders of giants. One of those unnamed giants invented writing. Dragging a stick through clay would probably be considered decidedly low tech these days, but the person who realized that a crude scribble of an ox-head with dots next to it might indicate how many cattle you were selling was a giant. We have no idea who the scribes were who wrote down the first narrative stories of gods and heroes, but the process resulted in a still largely anonymous Bible that is used to decide public policy even today.

There’s no doubt that books take up space that electronic gizmos don’t. Storage has been an issue for libraries constructed before publishing became a major, competitive industry. But electronic books have their problems too. With the ease of self-publishing, you never know who is really an expert without researching the author. Often on Amazon I find an intriguing title only to see that it has been produced by any number of self-publishing software platforms that indicate only the author’s own word for his or her expertise. I wonder what happens when people who don’t know to assess information in that way take anecdote for fact. Where are the shoulders of giants? Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but the world without bookstores looks a lot like the stone age to me.

Alas, Babylon!  (Photo credit: Lovelac7, Wiki Commons)

Alas, Babylon! (Photo credit: Lovelac7, Wiki Commons)

All Booked Up

I remember places by books. Perhaps it is a sickness, but it is a wonderful illness—I love being surrounded by books. When I travel to a new place, a book often serves as a souvenir, as I recall where I discovered a certain title and decided that I want to own it. Of course, independent bookstores are rare and becoming rarer. Who can remember which Barnes and Noble was which? The loss of independent bookstores is a sign of culture collapsing, at least ideologically. Being surrounded by LED screens is just not the same. The viewing goes both ways. Some towns I associate primarily with their bookstores. Over a recent weekend I visited Cranbury, New Jersey for the first time in many months. Apart from its utterly charming, historic downtown, Cranbury is the home of The Cranbury Bookworm, one of my favorite used book stores. My optimism fell under a cloud when I saw the storefront empty. Suddenly, the compelling draw of this quaint town was somehow diminished. My wife and I walked down another block, and I was somewhat revived to see that the Bookworm had merely moved.

Of course, the new location was much smaller. I heard the cashier telling another customer that they had been forced to move and had kept only twenty percent of their stock. So much was clear from my own browsing. My past visits had been perhaps a little too imprudent, but I often walked out with an armload of happiness. This time I purchased a couple of inexpensive paperbacks out of a sense of duty. I support used bookstores in principle. I have had people tell me that we have too many books for the amount of space we can afford to rent. Some people regularly recommend a purge. In a world where finding a comfortable place to be encased by books is increasingly difficult, I have come to regret some of the treasures I’ve given away, or sold, over the years. If I can’t find a sanctuary for books, I shall have to make one. For those who never learned the rapture of reading, it is difficult to explain. I have a phobia of booklessness.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Even this thing we call religion began, fairly early, as an expression in writing. After people invented writing as a way of keeping receipts, they began recording religious texts. Eventually a Bible. Religious books proliferated. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even today Christian books make up a huge market, no matter how much head-shaking goes on by those who seek only secular lucre. Religion and books often go together, but even when our published parcels take a profane track, they remain lovable. They are more than texts—they are memories. One of my advisors along my academic path inscribed each book with his name, the place he bought it, and the date. Perhaps he infected me with the books-as-souvenirs idea. If he did, I thank him. And I will continue the elusive quest for the bookstore where I might pass a happy hour or two on an autumn weekend.

Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.

Bookless in Manhattan

I suppose the fact that I still harbor an inordinate love of dinosaurs, geology, ancient civilizations, and liberal politics should prepare me for the demise of books. The short road to extinction lies along the path of my interests. Except, of course, Bible. There must be a portrait of a very old, decrepit scroll somewhere in someone’s attic. The culture of books, apart from the library, is a fairly recent one in human history. Even the concept of stores dedicated to books is one that has had a very tenuous lifespan. Now that Borders is gone, I’m sometimes reduced to skulking about Barnes and Noble to find my quarry. So on my lunchtime yesterday I decided to visit the Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue and then swing by the Gotham Book Mart. I had heard of the Book Mart before—the store that hosted visits by Truman Capote, James Joyce, Arthur Miller and many, many more luminaries. I thought it would be a good antidote to B&N, and besides, the address is just blocks from my office.

Barnes and Noble is the last resort of a reading man. I don’t have much time for holiday shopping these days, so I figured I’d nip in with my list (nothing too obscure; in fact, I’d seen the titles in an indie bookstore over the weekend, but my family was with me) and be back out in a jiff. Fifth Avenue. Midtown Manhattan. The choice of books was atrocious. Purely lowest common denominator selection. It is symptomatic of America’s love affair with the ordinary, the lower-quality-if-higher-quantity mentality. Cosco of the intellect. Barnes and Noble is the only show in town and they don’t have the selection or panache of many a much smaller Borders. I had to walk out empty handed. Well, at least there was the Gotham Book Mart to look forward to!

I suppose my first clue should’ve been the fact that the photo on Google maps showed a storefront reading “Food World” at the address which still maintained the bookstore name. I thought maybe the Book Mart was behind it or something. No Gotham Book Mart. Back at the office, chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich, I stared crestfallen at the computer screen. Wikipedia informed me that the famed Gotham Book Mart closed four years ago. Rising rents in Manhattan and the very Barnes and Noble I’d just visited drove it out of business. e e cummings, George Gerschwin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and J. D. Salinger passed their hours here. Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, and Charlie Chaplin were no strangers here. When the remaining stock—valued at 3 million dollars—came up for auction, it was purchased for $400,000. By the landlords. So ended an era.

From monks hunched over their vellum by the sallow light of candles to the modern dreamer in the glow of her or his laptop screen, we have brought writing an unimaginable distance. Unfortunately, many of the landmarks along the way have vanished without the blink of an entrepreneurial eye.