I spent a large part of this past weekend at the bookstore getting some last-minute Christmas shopping done. Although not as crammed as, say, Toys-r-Us (that was another nightmare entirely), it was relatively full of people, young, old, and every age in between. There were teens sprawled on the floor reading, several young kids, my daughter included, listening to an employee read to them, and hundreds of others browsing the shelves.
As I stood in line I started thinking about the state of reading in our culture. As a teacher, I sometimes get the sense that reading is becoming a lost art, but then I got to thinking about several books and essays that I had recently read, and things seemed just a little less grim.
A few weeks back, I wrote a post about Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and in that post I included a link to the New York Library’s talk with both Bayard and Eco (who is mentioned often in the book, and who, if you watched the exchange, had quite a lot to say).
Here is a short video excerpt (you should watch this, it’s very funny) about “how school helps us not to read books.” What an interesting way to look at the role that a formal education plays in our lives as readers. According to eco, school allows us to develop a context in which to understand books and their authors, whether or not we have even read said books.
Considering the number of books published in the world and the process of the evolution of mankind the lifespan of a single person is not enough read all of them. So we speak about a book we have not read. Okay. And at the school we study history of American literature, history of French literature, which means to be informed about books that we have not read and that we shall never, never, read!
But before the controversy begins, and before I stray too far from my intended point, Eco does not at all intend for us not to read, nor, for that matter, does he imply that reading is an endangered species. In fact, at the start of that same interview (not in the excerpt, but you can see it in the complete version), Paul Holdengräber quotes Eco,
“Every season,” he [Eco] told me, “there is an article on the end of the novel, the end of literature, the end of literacy. The fact of the matter is, there are thousands of stores full of books and full of young people all over the world, and never, in the history of mankind, have there been so many books, so many places selling books, so many young people visiting these places, and so many people buying the books.”
At least according to Eco, not only are books and reading not “endangered,” they are more prevalent than ever before.
On that note, last week, Farjad Manjoo over at Slate wrote quite a controversial article titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.” Manjoo’s basic argument is essentially that if our goal is to foster a society of readers, who better to do it than an entity like Amazon, who can efficiently, affordably, consistently, and quickly (instantly with Kindle) get people reading. Local independent booksellers, despite their “mythical” status in fomenting literary culture, actually do comparatively little in getting books into people’s hands. According to Manjoo,
As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. . . .But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him (Bezos) for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
I have to admit that I felt quite uncomfortable reading, and reluctantly and partially agreeing with the Slate article. I do love the idea of walking into a bookstore, with its smell of old books and coffee, plenty of invited authors, and book groups meeting regularly. But that’s exactly the myth of the independent bookseller that Manjoo warns us against. Yes, its difficult to let go of our romanticized notions of what exactly a “literary culture” is, but if we can all agree that at the core of its definition lies the basic fact that people must read, then its difficult to argue against him.
So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.
Like I said, I love my local bookstores (although I live in Miami, and they are few and far between), but when its time to buy books, more often than not, I buy through Amazon. I probably order on average two to three books a week, not including the kindle downloads, and I have been buying from them since they launched in 1995. Will I stop visiting my local, independent bookstores as a result? Absolutely not.
I’ve strayed far from my original point again. The thing is this, much like with the e-reader vs. “real book” debate, I find that this doesn’t have to be a question of mutual exclusivity. Both play an important role (in different ways for different individuals and communities, to be sure) in our literary lives, and will surely continue to do so. As Eco stated at the start of that interview, the important thing is that people are reading, and now more than ever before. Whatever way they prefer to access their books (library, kindle, independent bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc), seems almost trivial. Just as there’s room in a reader’s life for both the Kindle and the book, there is certainly not only space, but a distinct purpose, for both Amazon and the independent bookstore, and I don’t really see that changing any time soon.
- Do independent bookstores deserve to be saved? (bookblob.wordpress.com)
- FARHAD MANJOO SAYS INDIE BOOKSTORES ARE OVERRATED: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, be… (pjmedia.com)
- Is Amazon Killing Literary Culture? (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller (slate.com)