Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dying of Consumption: Bookstores, Libraries, E-books, & Guilt

I used to think that libraries were virtuous.  When I was a kid, trips to the library were akin to trips to church.  Both environments were silent, hallowed, with soaring ceilings and an occasional homeless person.  Both felt like sanctuaries for a certain kind of knowledge, a knowledge yoked together with duty and obligation: the sanctity of the Word.  Both filled me with a strange, humbling sense of my own insignificance.  I was not the first to read these pages, be they Bible or hymnal or storybook, and I would not be the last.

The bookstore was nothing like either of these places.  Growing up, I did most of my book shopping at Chapter One, a strip mall storefront conveniently positioned just a few doors down from a Baskin Robbins.  They sold activity books with paint sets and Koosh balls attached to their covers, pop-up books whose complex origami had not yet been crushed by the mashing paws of other schoolchildren, Far Side collections like vast scrapbooks of hallucinations, chapter books bursting with educational mysteries whose answers were printed upside down at the end of the book, and later, lean bumpy-covered books printed on newsprint and published bi-monthly that told tales of man-eating hamsters, werewolf camp counselors, and brave young girls who faced burning at the stake when their proto-feminism was confused with witchcraft. 

I was an only child, and spoiled when it came to reading material.  I read a new book every few days, and these books were usually my own.  I burned through paperbacks the same way a Franklin stove devours wood shavings, entirely indiscriminate, and yet, even in the midst of this consuming passion, I saw and vaguely regretted my own decadence.  A nobler person than I wouldn't be tugging her mother's arm across the parking lot in the mad pursuit of more Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen.  She'd be going to the library.

It was only in college that I began to recognize a library's unique appeal.  It probably helped that our campus library was far closer than any decent bookstore; also it was free, allowing me to read as promiscuously as I always had and still have money left over for late night nachos, theme party costumes, ironic Walmart impulse buys ("Oh my God, a My Little Pony with an American flag tattooed to its ass!"), and bad blockbuster movies at the local cineplex.  But there was more to it than that.  In my growing up years, the library was overstocked, unnavigable, daunting, and once I found whatever I was looking for, I was eager to leave.  In college, the library was a place to linger.  I snuck in cups of coffee and wrote papers and stories in an armchair, snug between the stacks.  I went in for twenty minutes between classes to check my email or read a magazine.  I checked out videocassettes from their large, idiosyncratic collection (they had Weekend and Eating Raoul but not Jaws, which suited me fine) and watched them on my roommate's TV; I even figured out how to use interlibrary loan, which if anything was faster than Amazon.

All this prepared me for grad school, where I had a vastly superior library at my disposal, and which meant that for a total of six years, I bought very few books, beyond the ones required for my classes.  I was, finally, virtuous, unencumbered by the rampant consumerism that had for so long contaminated my reading life.  And then one day in workshop, while talking about giving readings on a book tour, my professor said as an aside, "And you know what just kills me.  When I give a reading, and someone comes up to me afterwards from the audience and says, 'I loved what you just read.  I'm going to go check it out from the library.'"

I am no economist, to be sure.  But still, it's surprising that, for so many years, the thought never truly struck me that authors might not be such big fans of libraries -- that they might, actually, like to receive royalty checks within their lifetimes.  "Maybe," I tentatively offered, "those people don't have that much money?"

"Oh please."  My professor batted away the question.  "I mean, sure, if someone really can't afford it, I understand.  But most of these people can.  I mean, I'm talking about readings in mall bookstores, where the person already has a shopping bag.  In coffee shops, where a cappucino's four dollars.  In bars, here in New York.  If you can buy a drink, you can buy a book."

I fell silent.  During the time I'd been in grad school, I had bought many drinks.  Many, many, many drinks.

I did not change my book buying habits overnight.  But after grad school, although I got an NYPL card, I didn't find myself using it much.  Instead, I found myself spending more time in the independent bookstores, even sometimes Borders or B&N, where glossy covers glistened, face out on the shelves, luring me with that old seduction.

I think physical books are on their way out, and I don't resist that change; I think it's inevitable, and fighting it will only make writers lose time and opportunities to connect with an audience that's still hungry for the same things literary fiction has alway provided: beauty, truth, intellectual challenge, humor, wisdom, sex scenes.  In some ways, physical books are themselves an obstacle to some of the most important core qualities of literature.  When I moved apartments over the summer, I did a major purge of my bookshelves, eliminating not just a lot of books for long-completed courses but also some novels that I'd bought for pleasure, read once with interest, and then doubted I'd ever read again.  With each title I eliminated, I literally weighed the book in my hand, thinking, "Is it worth it to haul this?  Is it worth the space on my shelf?"  It's strange that a book's thingness makes me evaluate it in these crass physical terms -- that the mode of transmitting ideas, scenes, language weightlessly from mind to mind is so goddamn heavy, a brick.  That is not, in my opinion, anyway, what makes books worthwhile.  That's an inconvenience.

Yet, it's an inconvenience that has been a part of my reading life for as long as I can remember, and as such it's linked inseparably to the thing I care most about in the world.  Maybe one of these days I'll get myself an e-reader.  But right now, I'm just shopping on my bookshelf, slowly working my way through all the fiction I bought the old-fashioned way.  Which is to say, guiltily.


Anonymous said...

Oh so interesting. I have to admit: I haven't paid for books (beyond impulse purchases in airports when I got caught with nothing good to read), in oh, 12 years.

First I worked in a bookstore all through high school and college, and was surrounded by free books galore. Then I went to work in magazines, where we get sent free books all the time. Now I have less of those as a freelancer, but I still pilfer from my editor friends (or my mother, who may be single-handedly keeping publishing in business because she buys TONS of books).

And, I just joined the library. And I LOVE IT. Because they can get me all sorts of books and I can have three weeks to read them, and then I can take them back and get new ones. (Hi, that's how a library works.) But what I love about it is exactly how much it appeals to the rampant consumer in me — but in a guilt-free way, since I don't have to spend the money or accumulate clutter or kill more trees.

BUT. You make such a good point about the royalties. And the fact that the money I'm not spending on books surely gets frittered away on other, less noble things.

I'm still going to the library...but if I really love a book, maybe I try to buy a copy to give to a friend? HMM.

The Chawmonger said...

Yeah -- I mean, if you're reading books by dead people or ones that are already mega-bestsellers, it's not really such a big deal... but especially with literary fiction, poetry, or niche nonfiction, selling even a hundred more copies can actually make a difference.

Obviously, there's no way to predict the future, but I do suspect that the e-book phenomenon may have some unexpectedly positive consequences for the book industry. One thing I think might happen is that the secondary market for books -- in used bookstores and reselling online -- will decline (just as we don't see as many used record stores in the age of iTunes). That means that more of the books that are purchased will be bought new, which is a positive for authors and publishers, if not for the charming used bookstores I've always loved to browse in...

Another thing that I suspect is that, when owning a book no longer takes up any space in the home and when it's far more convenient to buy a book (which won't require even leaving your chair) than it is to borrow one from a library or another person, more people will be likely to shell out the money than go to extra trouble.

But as positive as these changes sound, I wonder what the effect will be on our national reading culture. Reading has always been a solitary act, but physical books bring people together, necessitating interaction between readers and creating a culture of local curatorship where professionals (like librarians and bookstore salespeople) find themselves in a position to make recommendations or promote new authors, even ones without the biggest book deals or best PR campaigns. I wonder what, if anything, is going to replace that -- but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Emily Sue said...

This is a good one! I was always a library devotee until I moved to NYC, then it was used books at the Strand. What's worse?

I understand, but don't see eye to eye with your professor, probably b/c I'm not a writer. To me, libraries are a form of free PR, getting your name and your work out there for a wider audience. I know a paycheck is important, but isn't getting read more important? Cheapskates are obnoxious, but it's sometimes hard to justify spending $15+ on a paperback book you might hate and not even finish versus spending that money on a drink that will at least give you some temporary joy.

I agree - I can see the library offender of your professor's anecdote shelling out $5 for an e-book, no problem. I can't see myself doing that, but to each their own. Call me a luddite, but I can't embrace that technology yet. I need a physical book made out of paper in my hands to truly enjoy it.

Sherlock said...

I think the hours spent in my family discussing what books we would never part with and which we can dispose of (few) must equal the reading time of many books!

I started out in a GREAT childrens' library, and weekly, I left with a pile of books as big as myself. My parents did the same: back then, there was no place but New York City in the vicinity for browsing book stores. Brentano's was the best followed by Scribners.

Paperbacks were all the rage by college. We have a lot of 95 cent classics, Ms. Chaw! Yes, book stores had arrived, but not great ones. Still, lots of texbooks were paperback novels that are STILL IN MY ATTIC, dying of dust and erosion! My husband and I were certain we'd re-read these books, or worse, NEED them to survive someday!

When we had two compulsive reader children, we spent much time in the library, but also in the great Barnes and Noble. So now we have a collection of classics we cannot part with, come hell or high water. And some are actually valuable first editions Sendak, Lobel, Rosemary Wells, Munch. Some are SIGNED by the author!

But I haven't used a library since Amazon took over my fingers. Ok, there are other great on-line stores, and great bookstores for browsing. There is something about the feel and smell of a new book, that is as intoxicating as, well...a good bottle of wine. The association of the UPS truck and a book you ordered is like baked alaska to the imagination!

This love of the physical book is crippling us as we have to move soon. ALL the college books are a wreck, ALL the childrens books demand they are our children too (And wouldn't you know the two compulsive readers agree with their books?)

We are even building bookshelves in the new house! Why are we so insane when we know that sooner or later we too will cave in and buy electronic literature?

You don't give me much comfort, Ms. Chaw! You say you are trying to be realistic. Is there a Book Collector's Anonymous near you? You may need it, or wind up like us old folks, buried in books at the end.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for the comments, Sherlock and Emily Sue! Like you, I clearly have a strong attachment to physical books, and I don't plan to buy an e-reader anytime soon. But it is a brave new world, and I'm curious to see what the future will bring...

Meredith said...

This brought back a memory of my brother as a child smelling new books. He'd flip through their pages, his nose being brushed slightly by each passing page, breathing in their aroma.