Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

Ports of Call

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,” so began far too many evenings of my childhood. Well, although as an adult it may seem that the time was ill-spent, Gilligan’s Island was the induction to popular culture that I had to undergo some time. The series has aged well; we bought the DVDs (speaking of aging) as soon as they came out and watched them all, multiple times. But what must it really be like to be on a boat, and for more than a three-hour tour? Here’s where I’m lucky in my extended family. A cousin, who is much younger, has been working as a musician on a cruise ship for a couple of years, and has recently started a blog. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a singer on a vacation vessel, check out David Tarr’s take. He has a more realistic outlook than Ginger did, although seeing Tina Louise in person was still quite a thrill, back when she stopped into the local Borders. Back when there still was Borders.

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It seems to me that we don’t often enough take the time to wonder what other people’s lives are like. We are a myopic species. Apart from the occasional educational tour in school, we don’t have much opportunity to consider what it feels like to be someone else. I grew up in a working class family that lived at the poverty level. I didn’t get along with my step-father, but I have, in the years since he died, thought back on his perspective. He worked long hours, had little education, and was very patriarchal. When he was too old to do his duties as a laborer, he took a job running an elevator in one of the five-story buildings in a nearby town. I once went to visit him on duty. He was sitting in the tiny cube of a metal box, waiting for the very rare customer. I asked if I could bring him something to read, something to do, to pass the hours of tedium. No, he replied, he didn’t want to miss any calls from potential passengers. What must it be like in the head of such a man?

The internet has given us a chance to learn the lives of others. David is living a young man’s dream, with the good and bad. We have lost all hope when such things are no longer possible. Too soon we find ourselves chained to a desk, 9-to-5, working to make money for others. Dreams are strictly forbidden, at least on work time, which is the only time there is. Somewhere on an ocean, there is a ship. It may take a three hour tour, a three week cruise, or a three month voyage. It is more than a ship, regardless. It is the people on board, and their lives, and hopes. I’m not sure of the course charted for me. I suspect it has no cruises to exotic climes. It has, however, writing written all over it, and that is one thing I share with a talent cruise singer in my extended family.

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?

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)

Vampire Science

ScienceOfVampiresHow is one to take a book that combines science and vampires? That was the thought going through my head as I stood in Borders during the sad process of their going out of business sales, Katherine Ramstand’s The Science of Vampires in my hand. I knew already that I would buy the book—how could I not?—but I wasn’t sure whether it had been placed in non-fiction by accident or not. Ironically, I began reading the book on the day I was ultimately informed that my position had been made redundant. Vampires have been much on my mind since then. For several days I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, which is a kind of vampiristic encounter in its own right, in my case. Now that I’ve finished Ramstand’s study, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Holding a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Rutgers University, Ramstand knows the fields of forensics and the supernatural surprisingly well. The Science of Vampires does indeed address the mythic creatures from a forensic perspective. The lore of the vampire is thoroughly examined and subjected to scientific scrutiny. Surprising results sometime arise. The book also contains its share of very disturbing material, more along the forensics than the fictional vampire side. I put it down woozily more than once. Yet, I found considerable insight here. Ramstand, although not focusing on the religious element, readily acknowledges the deeply religious nature of the vampire concept. She tends to focus on the scientific, rather than the spiritual, but she does have a telling interview with a professional counselor with a theological background. She quotes him as stating that he vampire is the disenfranchised among us—the pariahs of society: the homeless, people of color, those of differing sexual orientations, the working poor, the unemployed. Okay, I’ll admit that I added that last one to the list. I do, however, understand the point.

While supernatural powers may not create vampires, our society does. There are those who drain others of their resources, and there are those who are cast out. Both, in this post-modern world, might be considered vampires. At times Ramstand almost had me believing that Dracula might be more than fiction. As I read accounts of the horrors some people remorselessly perpetrate against other human beings, it seems that a vampire might be the lesser of two evils sometimes. As a symbol, both religious and secular, the vampire has proven to be irreplaceable. Hopefully some day we may outlive our use for those who prey on others.

Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore

Ms. Found in an Email

The other day I received a distressed message from a friend that I met in college. Marvin’s career somewhat parallels mine; he went on to get a PhD, taught for a few years in New Hampshire until the economy claimed his job, tried to make it as a fiction writer and adjunct instructor for awhile before moving to Boston to work with a publishing company. He’s never made any money for his writing, but that may be for his own good because the money that authors make goes to support the CEO of whatever corporation owns the publishing house. Still, I wish him luck. Yesterday he emailed me about a book he’s reading, The Last Professors, by Frank Donoghue. He’s convinced me that I should read it, but I thought his message would be appropriate for this blog. In Marvin’s words:

“If a more bleak preface has ever been written, I’m an illiterate ape who never reads. The writing has been on the wall for years, but those of use who are able to see it have been hopelessly myopic. In the preface he tells how industrialists since the end of the Civil War have been dead-set against liberal arts education as useless. People like the two of us who studied ‘useless’ fields, they would have as the cogs in their efficient machines, suppressing our thoughts. The only useful education they can deign to approve is one that earns them more money. There’s only one value system in the world, it seems.

“Don’t you feel like a sell-out, working in New York City, that cathedral of capitalism? Is NYU on anybody’s list of tourist stops for people down there in New York? Who goes to visit a university when there’s so much of commercial interest to see?

“And yet, corporate types are the ones who can afford tickets to shows written and put on by people educated in their ‘useless’ craft, but who are in reality their unwitting chattels. And who wants to be seen with authors and intellectuals to enhance his personal prestige, so that he will appear smart? Who are the dogs in the manger who keep everything they can’t possible use for themselves, for fear that others might enjoy it?

“We all play along with their game—we wear jeans on casual Friday and declare how good we have it. We speak their demeaning language, using humiliating phrases like ‘best practice,’ ‘core competency’ and ‘corporate values.’ In this dehumanized state we all live in cages that we’ve helped build. Corporate moguls hold their power over us because we let them. We, the workers, have the power to change it. They make the rules and we obey because we all want to be in their place.

“Education is the way out—that’s why they hate it. There’s an entire support industry built around it; those of us in the book business rely on educated readers. What happened to Borders looks prophetic to me. Time to close—I’ve just arrived at work.

“Sent from my iPhone”

Just another useless lay-about