Our city’s book culture is terminally ill, and there is no chance for its revival. Real book culture isn’t about glossy new $30 hard cover books about a woman contractually obliged to put out in sordid ways she never imagined, it’s about the books that are enriching as they are inexpensive. They generate rapture because they are written beautifully. I made a joke months ago after buying toilet paper and paper towel, “paper is only cheap if there’s literature on it,” but after learning yesterday that Frantic City is closing, perhaps my favourite second-hand book store, this joke now contains a very tragic note. Let’s not mince words: if we ever had a literary culture, it is dying slowly, emitting only a thoroughly ignored whimper.
The hardest thing for an individual to bring himself to do now is spend dozens of hours on a book nobody in their inner-circle is reading or talking about. It will in no way boost their status among friends or peers or society at large, and investing so much time given the esoteric pay off is uncommon, or eccentric. There are active forces against reading real books, great literature: we are inundated with friends telling us “you have to watch this TV series,” or we are glued to our various screens, or we read the lofty magazines urging us to try a series of gastronomic hamburgers.
Books are anathema to the marketplace and our consumer culture, and that will never change, and it’s getting worse. Any advertiser’s worst nightmare is the consumer who can cheaply think and entertain himself for great lengths of time. A copy of Anna Karenin can be purchased for $3, and you can spend incalculable hours (YEARS!) reading and rereading it. But this keeps you away from pop-up ads, away from commercials, away from stores, away from restaurants, away from spending money, and so all these things (their presence increasingly ubiquitous) pushes people away from lengthy reading. You earn funny looks if you tell someone you read this stuff. Perhaps they doubt your intention, high-brow scorn, like you can’t genuinely love literature the way people do Game of Thrones, that you’re putting on airs to appear intelligent.
The post-literate generation needs things fast, and the great tomes take time. “Caress the detail, the divine detail!” Nabokov urges us, but he is dead and nobody listens any more. So what we have is dying second-hand stores, and mainstream book merchants stocking t-shirts, various bookish looking kitsch, board games, and somewhere, if space graciously permits, books.
The decrease in real reading coincides with an increase in public bookish proclamations. The book as symbol. There are tote bags with pictures of books on them, people volunteering a love for books in neon letters all over social media, and there was a respectable hullabaloo when Ford, the philistine Goliath, tried to strip the library of funds. Yes, but people aren’t loud when they read, they are silent. Though the above is well and good, none of it convinces me in-depth reading is broadly taking place.
This is not an argument for reading the Western Canon exclusively. I believe reading should be done widely, according to one’s taste, and that there are only two schools of literature: the talented and the untalented. Ragging on a book because it’s popular is as wildly ignorant as loving a book because it’s in the canon. But for stores to be going out business because they choose to stock great but not in vogue authors’ entire catalogues instead of their number one seller, rather than schlock, is a bad sign, and I am lashing out at the risk of appearing like a snob. (Perhaps I am a snob: suck it.)
Think hard what I’m about to say, or it’ll sound perfectly deranged or offensive. Zizec describes Gandhi as being more violent than Hitler, in that Hitler’s unimaginable atrocity was actually much more within historical context than Gandhi’s unprecedented determination towards non-violence. In this sense, the real revolutionaries aren’t in the streets demanding change with thousands of other people just like them. The biggest act of protest now is to shut yourself off from everyone and read a book in silence without sharing it on social media. This private act is violent!
That my area is sooo hip and cool because of the glossy restaurants and the multitude of watering holes offering extremely local or extremely exotic beer is a sham. Shellacked culture, no rapture. It’s not just condo culture, but the so-called counter culture that’s inane, and I feel let down by it.
Don’t get me wrong: people can indulge in whatever decadent drivel they like, but it stops being benignly amusing when their world, the physical one I share with them, can’t permit for me only a cheap book store that stocks according to taste, not predictable money makers. I want very little, and I can’t have it! At the very least, the current pretence towards a bookish culture during this insoluble literary assault is salt in my wound. I am insulted.
The tomes are entombed. So long, Solon! I am not looking forward to the day, soon approaching, where I have this conversation:
Me: “Hey, do you remember when great books cost a dollar, bought from an actual store?”
Average citizen: “No.”
E Warsh said:
I realize you are talking about a book reading culture, but there’s another reason book stores are closing. Sadly it’s because large corporations are able to offer products for lower prices due to massive buying power.
My love of supporting small shops is easily overcome with the desire to keep my hard earned money.
Next door to my office is a independent book store that I would love to support if the prices weren’t 30% more than the Indigo relatively close by. Let’s not even bring up Amazon….
Again, I realize you were talking about culture, but hopefully your book store closed because people are just buying books from other places. Just trying to be optimistic here….not really working.
It’s not a big market, small market thing. The used book store doesn’t sell very much for over $10. They sell a different kind of book altogether. They’re old, they’re better, and they’re cheap! That’s why it’s a shame they can’t stay open.
As for optimism, I am sadly immune.
Was just discussing the merits of books versus e-readers. For me, nothing can replace the sensory delight of cracking a spine (not unlike chiropractors), the smell of an old or new book and the feel of the book (tome or novel) in my hands. I guess it might come down to the environmental issue – trees versus electronic waste landfill. And sure, e-readers can have hundreds of titles on hand – but I prefer the hunt for titles too, the more obscure, the better.
Thank you for the thoughtful dialogue.