Several years ago I wrote the following article that received as many comments as any article I’d written at the time. Given my thinking about books and the future of publishing, I decided to dust off the article and share it again with only minor revisions. Let me know what you think.
I’ve always believed that books could save me. No matter what problem or difficulty I faced, no matter what I wanted to learn, somewhere there was a book that could provide me with the help I needed. Of course, that isn’t exactly true. Ultimately, it’s what you and I do with the ideas that saves us.
This eternal optimism of mine about books may explain my love of loitering in bookstores. Sometimes I think I spend more time searching for books to read than I do reading them. This isn’t all bad, as it saves me from wasting time on books that aren’t worthy of it. Think of the exchange of life that is made to read a book. Consider the hours spent, and ask yourself after you finish a book if the exchange has been satisfying. I’ve quit reading a book after a hundred pages because it turned implausible, or lost credibility, or because it became clear that it was poorly written. Why would I want to waste any more of my life on it than I already had? (My friend Jimmy and I jointly formulated the 80-page theory, which assumes that since most people don’t read much further, authors and publishers put the most interesting material in the first 80 pages and often fill the balance of the book with pabulum. Test the theory for yourself on the next book you read.)
Another thing happens when you spend time browsing in a bookstore: you are reminded of things you need to know about. An unexpected book you encounter can expose you to knowledge that you didn’t even know existed. Once acquainted, this new knowledge often creates a desire to learn more. That is why I don’t just frequent my favorite sections, those being business, philosophy, religion and self-help. When time allows, I cover the entire store.
I do like spending time in public libraries, but not as much as bookstores. That’s because I can’t just read a book, I must own it. As someone once said, if a book is worth reading, it’s worth owning. I like marking my books up with a highlighter. Librarians frown upon this practice. Owning the book means I can refer to it at any time without making a trip back to the library and hoping against odds that it will still be there.
I have many friends who live in palatial homes that I would enjoy living in too, but I have never felt the pure unadulterated envy for another’s home as I have for my friend Don’s library. His house is wonderful, but it is his library that I lust for: dark paneling all the way up to the high ceilings, with yards and yards of shelves covered with contemporary as well as rare and out of print books. I get a reader’s rush every time I walk in. Public libraries just don’t have the same effect on me.
I’m tactile and visual, and how a book looks and feels is important to me. Bookbinding has historically produced some lovely volumes, but the competitiveness of the business in recent years has, in my opinion, resulted in the proliferation of “ugly” books. While books were once elegant, more often they are now gaudy. (While they may catch the reader’s attention with bright colors and bold typeface, to me they seem lacking in elegance and richness.)
While the outside of books have suffered, a renaissance has occurred on the inside. Typography is more interesting and formats have been vastly improved. (Magazines, on the other hand, seem to have gone the opposite direction. You can now gauge the hipness of a magazine by how difficult it is to read.) The aesthetics of a book make reading it either more or less pleasurable, and I think there have been advances made in this area.
Bookstores serve another, more subtle purpose: they tell us what our fellow human beings are currently interested in or concerned about. Bookstores are a billboard of our preoccupations. Consequently, I make it a point to read the bestsellers lists to identify the zeitgeist of our times. And it is often alarming to consider what people are spending their time reading about.
Bestselling books seldom make it to my personal reading list. Sometimes they do, but not often. The reason for this is rooted in a theory I formulated early in life: if you do what everybody else is doing, you’ll end up like everyone else, and that is, by definition, “average.” Much of what ends up on the bestseller list is popular but not profound, given that so many people appear to not welcome intellectual challenge and the need to think about what they read. Reading at the lowest level can be done very passively, and that is the preferred manner of our time.
Of course Amazon directs you to books similar to the ones you’ve shown interest in. The “what other people who have bought this book are buying” feature directs you to similar and/or complementary works.
Long before the advent of Amazon, I used a similar but superior technique. I asked the people I knew and admired what books they had read and recommended. The best reads of my life have often come from these folks. That is how I became interested in Wallace Stegner and his book Crossing to Safety, one of my all-time favorite novels.
So yes, I do also hang out in online bookstores. I feel a little guilty about it sometimes. I prefer to support my local bookseller, especially the Tattered Cover (in Denver) which holds a special place in my heart as the ideal of what a perfect bookstore should be. I’ve spent more money at the Tattered Cover than any other retailer of any kind and never regretted it for a moment. That’s why it presents a bit of a moral dilemma to me to shop online. I don’t get the tactile pleasure of book browsing online, but the convenience and additional information gleaned from virtual browsing somewhat compensates. I now spend my money in both physical and virtual bookstores.
And what of those evil chains as demonized by Meg Ryan in the movie “You’ve Got Mail”? (Remember that movie from so long ago?) I believe that organizations are rarely evil unless the people who run them are. An evil organization is generally the result of an evil individual or group. Which is to say book chains are no more evil than fast food chains. The chains have a lot to teach the independent bookseller and the independents have already taught the chains much. The challenge, should you choose your livelihood selling books, is to find a business model that works. Nobody has a right to be a bookseller any more than someone has a right to be a farmer or a brain surgeon. You earn the opportunity through study, hard work and meeting the challenges of a competitive marketplace.
What may be bad news for traditional booksellers is good news for readers. For readers, choice proliferates. There are more ways to peruse and purchase books than ever before. I would hope that technological advances like online shopping encourage more people to read.
I believe that the cumulative IQ of our society will increase as more people exercise their right to read. Reading is central to self-education and lifelong learning and if books have the power to save an individual, maybe they have the power to save a society as well.