Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chapter 18: There Will Never Be A World Without Books


Apparently Barnes & Noble is going out of business. From what I've seen, Borders isn't doing too hot, either. Am I going to lament the loss of a company that rose to the top through market saturation and ruthlessly attacking smaller competitors? No. Is this some sign of the end of literature? No.

I've been in a few college writing programs, and the "death of writing" is something often discussed, mostly in lieu of the fading job prospects for English grads. We talk about how nobody reads anymore, or if they do its garbage like "Twilight."

Fact is, populist entertainment will always be at the top of the charts. At the turn of last century, children annually gobbled up L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, long after the author himself stopped caring about the series. Year after year, he gave them what they wanted. Stuff like "Twilight" and "The Da Vinci" code will always be popular, because its designed to be popular. Popularity is the point.

They say Americans don't read. We read. We may not read what academics prescribe, or we may prioritize other entertainments, but the book will always be there. Books are part of the planet Earth's culture. Period.

Back to the death of the chain bookstore.

I worked at a Borders for about a year and a half. Its the same as working at a grocery store. There is no feeling that you're promoting reading, that you're contributing to a dialogue. Corporate gives you a list of bestsellers to push. Maybe once in awhile somebody gets to do a storytime with kids. And actually reading a book during your massive amounts of downtime at the cash register will get you fired. All this, combined with the low pay, made me a veritable master of "I don't give a shit." I have never felt so alienated from an artform I loved so much.

If giant chains that overextended themselves, stupidly thinking they could compete with straight-up retailers like Wal-mart, all go out of business, bookstores will still exist. The mom and pop stores they drove under in the 90s will still exist. Quimby's in Chicago will still have its market. Caliban in Pittsburgh will still have its market. Borderlands in San Francisco isn't going anywhere. These are stores that have secured their spot through investing in the community around them and building a reliable niche. The stock might get smaller, they may have to rely more on ordering from retailers, but they will survive because the much-maligned Americans will always read. There will always be somebody out there who wants a book. So books must be printed.

Since the beginning of civilization, the written word has been how we pass along our history. Its in our blood. Its in our subconscious. We cannot envision a world without this construct. And history is not just the affair of scholars. It belongs to all people.

As for the market, who knows? In these economic times, you have to budget wisely. I certainly don't buy as many books as I used to. There are people who are figuring out how to make the online thing work. Catherynne Valente wrote a novella that she put online, with people contributing what they wanted through Paypal. Today I was thinking; what if we found a way to print books without cutting down swaths of trees? Maybe a new material is out there. Or maybe the Kindle is the wave of the future. When I started hearing about online books as a child, I thought that was amazing. Now its both amazing and easy to carry. There are all sorts of new ways to look at publishing.

All this doom and gloom gets us nowhere. I was told freshman year of college that I would not be able to make a living as a novelist. So I don't anticipate making a living as one. As long as I get to write and publish, I'm happy. And there will be somebody out there to read my books, too. If I end up as a ditch-digger, as long as I'm a ditch-digger who writes books on the side (maybe winning a Nebula to put on my mantle to my digging trophy), I'll be fine. Because books are here to stay.

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