If there were dreams to sell
Merry and sad to tell
And the crier rung the bell
What would you buy?
There is much talk about the disappearance of the physical book, and I began to think about that more when I read about a new video program called Bedtime 2.0 that is for grandparents to read to children before bed. It was reported on Galley Cat . And, judging from the response, grandparents--and even parents--who have to be far away love the idea. There's room for some interaction: The kid can say, "Grandpa read that page again" as many times as he or she wants. But they can't ask spontaneous questions that may lead to a conversation about something else.
In other words, there's not much room for conversation--which, in the case of my son, was what a lot of reading was about. All the other responses to this news were positive. Here is my minority response:
I'm sure this has its merits--as does Sesame Street--and I really mean that. It's also wonderful for grandparents and parents who absolutely have to be away.
But a parent, a child, and a book create a third physical space and a special kind of intimacy. How many times did my kid and I find the mouse in Goodnight Moon ? Or stop to talk about what the book reminded him of during the day? A wonderful quality about little kids is that they don't differentiate between the printed word and conversation. Sometimes they've memorized the book so completely they want to read it to you. Sometimes they want to pause and talk. To my mind, taking bedtime reading to video-except in circumstances where someone absolutely can't be there--is a gross commercialization. It not only makes convesation impossible. I think it also subverts the ability to internalize a conversation with a book---those amazing, silent, and unrecorded conversations with books we have as adults.
I think that in many cases bemoaning the loss of the book-as-object could be seen in the same light as monks being upset about the Gutenberg Bible because there would be fewer illuminated manuscripts. (The monks were right--the art of printing and a curious ecstacy that comes from contemplating the alphabet has been lost, except to calligraphers and Zen artists--who have always understood that individual letters have a poetry distinct from words.)
And yet change in writing and reading is ineviable isn't it? Language itself is fluid, elastic, which is why we don't speak Old English anymore and why phonetic systems are amazingly logical. And as certainly as language changes, the impulse to record language changes--and eventually this impulse collides with technology. We have gone from newspaper-rocks and cuneform scrolls to illuminated manuscripts to printed books. So is it logical to continue to electronic devices where a book is downloaded and words are illuminated by a screen?
The issue, I think is whether a book is more than a collection of words and whether the physical book-as-object is more than a container for those words. This flows to questions about venue--and whether a bookstore serves a larger purpose than a place where people can buy books, as opposed to appliances or clothes.
Let's start with the question about bookstores--which put people in the presence of hundreds of books. It is my impression when I enter a bookstore that books create their own geography. When book run in packs they collude to create their own country. We have no terms of venery for books--but they make such a statement en masse, I think we should. Could they be clouds? ambushes? parliaments?
With the demise of the bookstore, the chance to be in the presence of a lot of books--most of them unfamiliar--seems to be slipping into a luxury of the past as people think of ways just to preserve a single book-as-object for one person via the e-book.
In an article in The New York Review of Books, Jacob Epstein points out that the book-as-object has one feature that no Kindle-like device has: It belongs to you forever and can't be usurped (as happened with one book on Kindle that vanished from its readers.) Epstein is involved in an e-book enterprise that would eventually promise publication of any book as an aesthetically pleasing object. It appears to preserve the book, the writer, and even (with vast rearrangements) the publishing industry. In the case of vanishing books this is essential.
E-books then, can save the book-as-object in one sense. But they can't allow readers to meet the world of books as one does when one goes to a bookstore or enters an extraordinary library. (Think of the library in The Sleeping Beauty.) Indeed, the impetus for E-books comes from the loss of bookstores, and the etheric online shopping one must do on Amazon, Alibris, Abe's Books--and any number of other sites. This is shopping that doesn't give you the chance to do the kind of browsing that brings you close to a book--or to large numbers of books. It doesn't allow the intimate interactive space that books have the power to invoke--whether you meet only one book, or find yourself in the midst of hundreds. Which loops back to the powerful space created by a book, a person and a child.
In a bookstore, one is in the presence of books and then a particular book. It may be one you came to find. It may be one that catches your eye. You pick it up, feel its weight, look at the cover. There's a moment of physical connection and anticipation--just as one feels when visiting a new house or an unfamiliar country. This is the moment when you meet the book as more than words or a story, but a container of something unknown. It may be fleeting--you may look at the cover or only the first page and put it down. Or it may result in the kind of enchantment where you sit against a bookshelf, shifting to make room for customers, because you can't stop reading. And you may decide to bring a book deeper into your life by buying it and taking it home.
However long this meeting lasts, it's a different kind of meeting than flipping through a few look insides on an etheric site because one has read a review or likes a certain kind of novel or follows a particular writer. Meeting a book is an event. Sometimes it's an instant with a stranger. Sometimes it's a relationship. You write in it. You lend it to other people.
Bookstores are also a chance for readers and writers to meet beyond the invisible, private meetings on the page. (In this sense writers and readers emerge from inside the book and become real to each other.) I have enjoyed going out for drinks with readers, learning about books they're writing and books they're reading. Sometimes a magic sense of connection happens between the writer and the audience. At these times passages I didn't know could be sad become sad and passages I didn't know could be funny become funny. It's almost as though the interaction between the reader and the listeners gives the book a special power to re-create itself. (Which is what happens when a parent and a child read a book together.)
Now and then a single book results in a happening (a host? a gaggle? an exaltation?) of buyers, like the Harry Potter book released at midnight on Halloween. If that book had been out in Kindle, kids wouldn't have lined up to get it but would have been waiting to download at midnight in separate houses.
The line-up for Harry Potter is a striking example of the way books--which in one sense are very private-- unite us with other people, and especially people who read. At bookstores--browsing in the aura of silence, smelling the aroma of paper--one is aware of other readers--people like us who engage in a special kind of intimacy with time, solitude, and the imagination. We notice books they pick up. Sometimes we get curious and pick up the same book. Sometimes we're aware that their tastes are very different from ours--and realize how diverse an activity reading is. How can someone like romance novels? or poetry? or accounts of the crusades? The list goes on until we run into the idiosyncratic nature of our own preferences. And the infinite nature of books themselves.
When one reads alone, a relationship with a book creates private, singular events. (I have a memory etched in my mind of reading Faulkner during an unhappy existence as a teenager--my legs stretched out in torn jeans, feeling reached by Darl in As I Lay Dying so deeply I was sure that Faulkner, a white supremisist male, knew my soul.) But in bookstores, when books run in packs (tribes? bales? charms? sounders?), they conspire to create a their own world and for a moment one relates to books as a whole Collectively, books point to the power and mystery of language. Each one links to places and times we can't see, and information we can't otherwise know. Books are a vehicle for information and a coduit to the life of the imagination.
It is clear there are so many ways to meet books. Sometimes we meet them alone. Sometimes with a child. Sometimes in a bookstore. Now and then we can meet them at a great celebration. And of course we meet them in the vast etheric world of online shopping.
But I worry about the proliferation of etheric bookstores, which preclude other opportunities to meet books and readers--and this worry comes from someone who's loved the net from its inception because I love the elasticity of language and the written word. Granted that the net has a lot of bad stuff on it. But there's also good writing, good information (don't laugh too much at Twitter) and the chorus of many voices. It allows writers to tell other people what they're doing. It even gives writers courage to have a public voice. (I saw this happen when I was host of the Well Writers Conference.) And, if you're lucky enough to have acess to a Facebook page of a bright teenager, or twenty-something, you will read language with voice, urgency and passion.
So I have no doubt that the net is a conduit for good writing--far more than the haikus on Twitter (although some of them pack a lot of information and punch.)
But what is the etheric bookstore going to do other ways of connecting with books--the chance meeting, the bonds with readers, the awe of chattering bookshelves?
Will the library emerge as the new bookstore?
Will the book-as-object evaporate with devices like Kindle?
Or will there be places where people can assemble to meet books and be in the presence of other people who are meeting them?
What is a good term of venery for books? I like to think of them running in packs. I also like "a mischief of books."
What would you choose?
If you want to learn more about Bedtime Story 2.0 it's at
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