Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime. It’s an opportunity to learn. I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism. Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park. Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child. Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town. I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing. If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.
The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale. Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness. Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel. Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value. All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC? And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.
I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel. I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop. At first. There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel. Its draw is in the lessons it teaches. A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people. Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money. But there are more important things. As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer. The signs posted with books. While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis. You must read your way through.
My wife often works weekends. Generally this involves trips to New Jersey, and since my unconventional schedule means we see each other awake only a brief time during the week, I often tag along. The colder months of the year, and general economic caution, mean things to be done around the house can wait. Most of the locations where she works have nearby bookstores, but even a guy with proclivities like mine finds it hard to spend more three or four hours in one place, even in such a welcome environment. It finally occurred to me that one need not be a resident to find shelter, and free wifi, in the public library. I’ll pack my laptop, and if it’s going to be a full day, a sack lunch, and head to the library for a change of scenery. It has led to a kind of renaissance for my spirits.
Public libraries generally do not house the books I read. The source of my jouissance has rather been discovering how well used the libraries are. In both affluent and more modest neighborhoods, people willingly spend part of their Saturdays in buildings dedicated to learning. Not all are there for the books, but they seem comfortable surrounded by them. We gather in a temple to the human mind. And everyone’s generally quiet. Mentors coach young people who want to learn. Some even dress well, as if the library might be a place to be seen. In a nation where education is under attack, I always leave refreshed without spending a penny.
Such opportunities are a rarity. Before the library opens, if we happen to be at her venue early, I may need to find a Starbucks. They more or less assume you’ll consume to utilize their free wifi, but beyond that a day at the library comes without cost and considerable gain. A variety of ethnicities are always present, and nobody’s right to be here is questioned. It’s a microcosm of what we could be as a nation, had we the will, the desire to learn and let learn. People generally have a difficult time with silence—just ask any introvert. I suspect this is one reason not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a cloistered experience of a Saturday. Libraries are where we’re forced to be relatively quiet to respect the needs of those actually there to read. Hoi polloi prefer to be loud, as any bar on a weekend afternoon will reveal. But the libraries remain, and even in their own way, are buzzing hives of the life of the mind.
The costs for academic books can seem criminal. Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing. Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche. At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe. Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value? Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other. In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet. Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.
These days books are the handmaidens to the internet. The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted. Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it. Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean. Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up. This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business. You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff. Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell. It’s like an entire business model run on consignment. And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies. That means that the per unit cost has to go up. Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.
I keep a running list of books I’d like. Some are for research and some are for other pleasures. The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published. I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way. If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs? I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45. Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing. Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much. Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent? Or is all of this just criminal?