There are stories here, and science, poetry, travel guides, and recipes. But what's really accumulated on these shelves...are lives.

There are stories here, and science, poetry, travel guides, and recipes. But what's really accumulated on these shelves...are lives.

John Donne said,

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for thee.”

…and now it tolls for everyone else, too.

The well-reported demise of the book store has been a cultural cri de coeur for years. That it’s been largely relegated to a strangely narrow portion of the population—those who read ‘em and discuss ‘em and can’t live without ‘em—  is itself a lament worthy of TED talks and public outcry and deep cultural reflection.  That’s not this essay, at least not precisely, but a quick recap of key points is probably in order before my thesis.

The growing book scarcity provokes deep cultural atrophy and should not be rationalized blithely.

  • There IS a growing book scarcity.
  • Faster than the decline of book availability is the decline of books as a central part of the social fabric. Where non-hypertexted words were once the provocateurs of imagination and discovery, they are rapidly becoming an anachronistic option for diminishing leisure minutes or, alternatively, educational requirements.
  • The growing book scarcity has deep and lasting cultural implications even for people who were never avowed bibliophiles.  
  • Amazon makes book procurement seem easy, but that facilitation is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Every book Amazon sells pushes a spade into the dark soil of an undiscovered writer’s grave.
  • Mid-list, literary, and quirky or off-beat books will go first, initially relegated to niche positions in an increasingly Darwinian landscape of letters. After that comes the scorching drought.

Actually, the list above could keep going and ultimately overwhelm this week’s blog. Let’s simply stipulate that this is serious, folks. It’s serious, and as much as I hate to say it, if you don’t care about the demise of book culture, you’re part of the problem.   (Is that the sound of a hundred thousand “unsubscribe” keyclicks? Hang in with me, people!)

What compels me to write today, and thus requires my recap aforethought, is a brief, powerful feeling that always attends when I walk into a bookstore. Every time I do, I hear the soft, terraced tones of angels basking in the glow of humanity’s great collective potential.  I feel the way a bird must feel when it finds the perfect twig to bring home to a still unfinished nest, as if a new literary discovery might add momentum in favor of the future rather than decline into the past. In a bookstore I experience the hopeful potential for our noisy, garrulous, often violent culture to overcome our worst natures. In the shelves and stacks, I see the urgent outpouring of ideas, often crafted in silence by their authors. Once written, those ideas are usually shared in the bright color of the public marketplace, designed (conversely) to be consumed in introspective silence, and then available (ironically!) to be discussed in the wide open spaces and voices with others. The color!  The sound! Interior and exterior life mixes, fostering a cultural exchange that simultaneously encourages observation and reflection (that’s the heart of the writing process) with vicarious experience and dialogue (that’s the reading and discussion process).

Lined up on those shelves are lives upon lives, represented by words in lines, page after page—a condensation of hours and energies spent in urgent labor for no other purpose other than to communicate something. No matter how pulpy and disposable the tome (and, of course, there are many) it’s the effort to coalesce interior thoughts into language that connects our present days to the many days that came before. We, like the books we read and write, are synthetic accumulations of experience.

What this blog is really about is the sense of wonder I have every single time I walk though a bookstore. In every single aisle there are myriad and motley lives from all walks represented by the tomes on the shelves. Each book is a condensation of time and effort, a sense that human labor is worth the isolation and intensity of focus simply because the author has a line to contribute to the universe.

Thomas Jefferson famously said,

“I cannot live without books…”

Let’s agree. But the founding American continues,

“…but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object."

Smart guy (although I cannot even mention his name without reminding the world of a massive, inexcusable flaw.) It’s not enough to simply see books as an option, one of many choices among Netflix binges, Facebook surfing, video games, and such. When books are only for amusement, we’re happy to have the option but we may not actually read them, discuss them, allow them to penetrate us. The “use” he speaks of is not about their ability to be instruction manuals for building water wheels or tutorials for new software. The “use” in this case appears in the quiet interior spaces that books foster. They become engines for thought experiments about what might be, considerations about how we are who we are, and what the implications may be of our lives as they connect today with tomorrow.

When I walk into a bookstore I hear lives in chorus, humanity suggesting that it might have a redeemable essence, that we just might overcome the forces always trying to undo our best parts. The maddening, sad decline of civility in the outside world must wait when I enter a bookstore (or library for that matter), or, if that mad, sad declining outside must impose, it must (at least) put its thoughts into a written verse of its own.

When the bookstore and all of its implications decline, the choking vines of wild, untended jungle encroach more easily and more aggressively. When bookstores fade, we relegate the lives of their authors to a less relevant status. When the efforts of authors, and therefore all creators, becomes less vital to a culture, the cultures begins to forget what it means to seek out ideas, and I fear for an accelerating fall.

@michaelstarobin   or

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