Chandra Johnson has a nice article at Deseret News under the title What do Americans Lose if Bookstores Disappear? More than you think. The author runs through lots of nice things we all love about books and bookstores. The piece seems to have been stimulated by Keith Houston’s The Book, recently published by Norton. Unsurprisingly that volume is a paean to the book, something all of us can agree that we love.
As I say it’s a nice atmospheric piece, but it’s based on false premises. Perhaps the key sentence in this regard is “If books are reflections of human history and development, the existence of bookstores arguably shows how a society prioritizes knowledge, personal growth and access to those virtues — quite a thing to lose given the shaky state of the publishing industry.” Wow! Are books “reflections of human history and development”? Not sure I really know what that’d mean. Maybe some are, but masses and masses of them have nothing to do with human history and development do they? Does the existence of bookstores show “how a society prioritizes knowledge”? “Arguably”, as she says, but I suspect it’s an argument you’d never win except in the trivial sense that if there’s any bookshop with a copy of a book on, say, fluid dynamics, that shows that fluid dynamics is a type of knowledge that we prioritize. This isn’t saying much, if anything. The rest of that clause is just there to add apparent weight to the weightlessness. I don’t think any bookshop can show me anything other than a tiny selection of what one person (the buyer) thinks people in that neighborhood might be interested in buying. In so far as they are prioritizing, they are prioritizing by salebility. This tells us something I dare say, but it’s not something about “human history and development” or those mysterious “virtues”.
Whatever all these things may actually be though, they are undoubtedly regarded by Ms. Johnson as good things. But they are apparently at risk as a result of “the shaky state of the publishing industry”. Come off it. The publishing industry can’t win! On the one hand we get told off for being fat cats lounging about in flashy New York offices defrauding starving authors out of the bread their bestselling works should be delivering to them, and on the other we are told we are part of an industry going through its death throes. Wake up world. The book publishing industry is not dying. It’s not even in a “shaky state”. It’s rudely healthy thank you. Just like any industry there are parts of the business facing problems, but overall we sell an amazingly large quantity of books, mostly printed, but also now digital.
In a much more positive, down-to-earth take on the subject, bookseller Jeremy Garber writes at Literary Hub a concrete, straight-forward description of why working in a bookstore is satisfying, and why the service a bookstore provides is likely to continue. This is the right way to help: reminding us what we need bookstores to do for us, not flooding us with overwrought sentimentality about what we risk losing.
We are all agreed that we don’t want to see the end of bookstores, but harping on about how much we love their smell will do absolutely nothing to help. It’s nice to tell how much we’d miss them if they were gone, but that’s not really doing any good. Mr Garber shows that bookstores will survive because the public wants bookstores. Let’s hope people want them enough to spend sufficient money there to allow them to cover their costs and make a bit of profit too.
I posted about all this a couple of months ago. Let’s stop the vaporing about the ineffable, and go out and buy a book, maybe The Book.