What if you lived in a place where there were no independent booksellers?
What if the biggest superstore carried a laughably small stock of books?
What if there were literally no such things as neighborhood libraries in the country where you live?
What if a mass-market paperback cost the equivalent of a very good meal and a hardcover book could cost up to 5% of your entry-level cube-farm paycheck?
Would you still read?
My guess is no.
The book industry has been buzzing recently with the bankruptcy of Borders and the ever expanding behemoth that is Amazon.com and more recently, the absolutely douchebag move it pulled. The general feeling is one of indignation, smugness and a certain sense of elitism that I can’t quite put my finger on.
There’s a whiff of something snobbish about all this, about readers and authors declaring that they ‘always buy their books full-price and from independent booksellers‘ or that they refuse to ‘be Amazon’s bitch‘. It’s all very well and good if you can afford to buy books full-price and if you have independent booksellers around. But its also akin to saying that people who can’t afford to pay full-price really shouldn’t read at all because they’re not supporting the industry or their favorite writers. Sure it’s good for the industry and it’s good for the authors but is it good for the readers?
I feel a little sad at this. I understand that for many bibliophiles, a chain store like Borders or an online purveyor like Amazon could never hold a candle to their neighborhood indie bookstore. They wax lyrical about the slightly eccentric owners who know them by name and the charming handwritten book recommendations supplied by staff who I have no doubt have worked there for years in varying states of impoverished but happy servitude.
If that sentence seemed a little uncharitable, let it here be known that I am the first worshipper at the altar of the independent and second hand bookstore. I should know. I spent my college years splitting time equally between my favorite library and a place that was touted as the state’s largest second hand bookstore, a two story rabbit warren of room after room crammed with dusty and obscure books, some of which opened me up to new and splendid fields of literary pleasure that I would not otherwise have indulged in should I have had to pay the full retail price for them. Cozy bookstores filled with secondhand books that make you sneeze with dust and the scent of old glue? They are my kryptonite.
But I also distinctly remember spending hours at the local Borders. It had a Gloria Jeans cafe in it (this was in Australia) where I would step up and order a skinny flat white* and leaf through the art section while waiting for my order. On predetermined week nights, my friend and I would meet after dinner, browse the bookshelves and load up. Me, with armfuls of the latest fiction and travelogues, him with the latest, well, comic books. We would settle into the squashy faux leather sofas in the cafe and read until closing time. It was one of my favorite parts of my college life. Everything felt so safe, so perfect in that Borders. The memory of those quiet nights will forever be emblematic of my college days, as will the smell of Bacardi rum, the taste of real pain and my discovery of the wonderful world of lifestyle blogs.
Which is all to say that I mourn the death of Borders. Personal allegiances aside, I’m beginning to have a growing problem with the holier-than-thou attitude of a lot of bibliophiles. Let me get this straight: I love books. I always have. But I don’t hold to the view that all books should be treated as precious artifacts. I can certainly appreciate the value of a rare manuscript or the beauty of a particularly well-produced edition and I fully understand that some books really are precious as objects. But in my mind, those books stand separate as a class of their own. They are objects of value.
In my ideal world, books would be so common and so plentiful and so easily accessible that they would be treated as completely ordinary, the way you treat the air you breathe as completely ordinary. Something necessary but not necessarily rare. In the world I would like to live in, everyone would read the same way everyone would breathe. Reading would be a bountiful and promiscuous affair. Books would be everywhere and easily accessible, instead of beckoning behind glass doors and high price tags.
As much as I love books, as much as I would like the book publishing industry to survive and thrive so that I can one day work in it, I would just like to point out that books are expensive. In many families, books are a luxury and I would really like them not to be. Books are meant to be read by the masses. I grew up with friends who by and large, simply did not read–something that continues to baffle me to this day. I have a male friend who once told me, with no small amount of pride, that he had never read a book in his life. And when I expressed my shock, he reconsidered and then finally said, “Well, except for The Da Vinci Code.”
The thing is this: I don’t much care how people get their books. I don’t care if they buy it from superstores like Borders or Amazon. I don’t care if they choose them carefully on the recommendations of their favorite independent bookseller, if they are lucky enough to have one. I don’t. With an exception or two, independent booksellers don’t exist in Malaysia, and books are prohibitively expensive there in the truest sense of the word–the price prohibits you from reading the way that you should read, prodigiously and widely.
I don’t care if people read on their Kindles or iPads or Nooks. I don’t care if you download your books or buy first editions from your favorite rare manuscript bookseller. I don’t care if you buy bootleg copies off the streets in Beijing. I survived an entire year on bootleg copies and that was one of the best reading years of my life.
I get the whole debate around print books vs e-books and are e-books really books at all. I get that indie bookstores need our support and if you happen to have one nearby, by all means support them by buying your books from indies if you can afford to. But don’t forget that a lot of people in a lot of parts of the world don’t have the luxury of having money leftover to buy books. Many of them live in places where bookstores and libraries are few and far between and the ones that are available are poorly stocked.
At the end of the day, I really don’t care how people get their books or what form those books take the shape of. I don’t even care if in the future, people read books by squinting at sentences projected in the air space in front of their eyes, because deep down inside, I don’t actually believe that print books will ever die. Maybe it’s naive, but at this point, I don’t care. At this point, I just want people to read. Because a community that buys its books from superstores or downloads them online is still infinitely preferable to a community that doesn’t read at all.
*Note: Why does no one outside Australia and New Zealand know what a flat white coffee is? Can someone please explain to me.