Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why I Give a Damn If People Read and/or Buy Books

Christmas comes early in the form of books.  Yeah, predictable gifts but quite appreciated. (Gracias, Niña).

Oh, books...

I am a diseased man.  My disease is bibliophilia.  It has manifested in an admittedly strange way: I have for some time been building a personal library that consists of many books I am quite sure I will never read.  I try to read every day and feel pretty bummed when I don’t get around to it (blame papers to grade, the allure of Facebook, cable TV, which has some pretty compelling programs, and general malaise.  Oh, and there are times I try to actually write, which eats into my reading schedule).  So if I waste a day and forgo whatever book I am supposed to be reading for The Walking Dead and a Chopped marathon, I feel a wee bit of shame akin to the early feelings of guilt I experienced while transgressing the rules of Catholicism.  Of course, just as sinning gets easier with practice, straying from literary roads to the seedy back alleys of cable TV begins to feel like less of a big deal after a while.

I know an English teacher who admitted to me that she doesn’t read unless she has to.  A former book lover, the idea of reading for pleasure is now foreign to her.  When she told me this, it was in the form of confession.  I, her de facto confessor, was not about to absolve her.  My instinct was to sway her back to the joy of the printed page with the same speech I’d used (in vain) on my students.  But then I realized that it doesn’t fucking matter to me what people do in their spare time, so long as I am not adversely affected. 

But maybe I ought to care.

Let’s shift gears for a sec.  Confession: I spend a surprising amount of time driving at night and listening to right wing talk radio.  Mostly Mark Levin, that giant asshole.  I do not agree with a thing he says, but I listen anyway.  People have asked me why I would inflict the slow torture of his irritating voice and partisan revisionism upon myself.  I suppose I just like getting riled up.  Really, there are few things duller than a talk show host with whom I agree.  Aside from Rachel Maddow and, sometimes, Norman Goldman, I think the MSNBC/WCPT folk are just as obnoxious as their Fox News counterparts.  So I drive at night, static ridden AM signals struggling to broadcast effectively, head full of rage.  Recently, one thing Levin said struck me as a point to consider: no one lives in a vacuum, thus what we do, regardless of how innocent it may seem, affects the collective.  Not an exact quote, trust me.  His point had to do with the responsibility all good conservatives had to vote out the RINOs, “re-pube-icans,” and, of course, the democrats.  He predicted a glorious replay of the 1980 election.  He preached collective responsibility and reminded people that not showing up to the ballots would affect the outcome and the country. 

Of course, Levin assumed all listening were right-wingnuts like himself (no one that deeply conservative really wanted strong voter turnout, as it might, and did, mean the re-election of Obama).  Still, I had to agree with the asshole.  No one lives in a vacuum.  Collective responsibility is part and parcel of living in a society.  (Funny how communist that sounds coming from a free market ideologue like Levin.) 

So, back to books.

It is actually more important that my colleague read than I first thought.  By her not reading, and opting to watch more TV, her stated preference, she is affecting book sales and contributing to the decline of book culture.  I cannot force her to read, and I never would, but this is a person who became an English teacher for, I assume, a reason.  I can also assume the reason had something to do with an interest in reading (or composition, which does involve looking at a book once in a while).   So what changed?  Some prying revealed a little more: she used to be a voracious reader, but grad school killed that joy.  Now she confines her reading to the comp theory texts she feels professionally obligated to review and the often cumbersome, not always fun papers she gets paid to slog through.  When all that has been read, she’s content to let the brain rest and enjoy some Gossip Girl.

She is not alone.  Most people I speak with about this— casual readers who confess to me that they would love to read more though rarely make an effort to do so—tell similar stories.  They used to read as children, then as teens, then plowed through the usual texts of the 20-somethings (The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Slaughterhouse 5), and then tuned out, so to speak.  The reason?  College.  Required lit classes can really fuck up an otherwise blossoming interest in books.  I get it—not everyone is down with Chaucer (never my favorite; Boccaccio kicks his ass), but still, there are books being written, and even published, that should rekindle that initial joy.  The problem is not a lack of good books to read (there's fucking tons of them) but a lack of knowledge of where to find them.

Bookstores were the place to go once upon a glorious time.  God knows I discovered many of my favorite books at the Aspidistra Bookshop, my former place of employment.  And for all the time I have spent reading, I have probably spent more time inside the bookstores of Chicago hunting for new authors.  But all that is fading, sadly, in favor of online book buying.  Okay. So be it.  But hell, the internet is bigger than any store, so, in theory, a person ought to have no end of great literature to explore.  There’s certainly no shortage of book blogs, reviews, rants, and ratings to be read online.  So what’s the problem?  I assume, and I am speaking from experience, that even the most literary curious is easily distracted by social networks and adorable cat videos.  Who wouldn’t be?

Regardless, if anyone feels that they don’t read as much as they should (or, more importantly, as much as they would like to), then they have no one but themselves to blame.  And they are fucking up book culture in small but significant ways.  They are allowing the ooze of cyberspace’s pop culture and ceaseless sniping to slowly erode what remains one of the most stimulating, pleasurable, rewarding, and life-affirming experiences: reading.  Hell, I am happy that people are reading anything other than The Drudge Report or celebrity gossip.  Fucking read Twilight for all I care.  At least that book, and Fifty Shades of Horny, proved that books still have relevance in the 21st century. 

Now to the other thing about books: they’re beautiful.  Not just their content, but their form.  I will not go into the Kindle v. book thing, as I have ranted about that before and, really, what’s the point?  But I will mention one other function of books and, in my case, the personal library: aesthetically, there may be no finer way to give character to a room than by filling it with books.  The spines, which can be endlessly rearranged, create a visual effect similar to those paintings with the tiny dots that form, from a distance, a complete picture.  I know, I know… books are meant to read, right?  Sure they are, but who’s to say they can’t provide other joys as well?  As I stated above, I’ll never finish reading every book in my library.  I simply can’t.  But I will hold onto most of those books, as they do supply me with a certain pleasure aside from the words on their pages.  It’s sick, I know, to collect books solely for this reason, but I am sick.  I have, as I said previously on this here bloggy, 20-some copies of The Master and Margarita.  I also have multiple copies of The Sound and the Fury, 2666, and Crime and Punishment, just to name a few.  I buy them for their covers, I admit, which, again, is silly, but fuck it.  I’m silly.  Anyway, consider it my contribution to book culture.  I read ‘em and I buy ‘em, even when I clearly don’t need ‘em.