February 02, 2011
Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).
Of course, I make all these observations, acknowledging that I, too, am part of these particularly curious communities of people who fetishize books- not ideas, not language itself, but the actual physical books. My apartment is covered in them. Every place I’ve lived always seems to be in need of an additional bookshelf. Growing up, the members of my family were always book collectors. It was normal for stacks of books to be littered throughout the house, loading up on the coffee and kitchen tables. We were never wealthy people, or people who coveted a lot of material things, but books seemed to define us as people in some strange way. My family history was taught to me through books–Cuban cookbooks littered about the kitchen table, books of Jewish thought and history lay out on the coffee table. We never went to services regularly, and felt somewhat isolated in many of the rural places we lived where we were the only Jewish Cubans around. Nonetheless, these books were constant reminders of our experience and identity as people. Some may say that books are heady, airy, philosophical creations, but to me they were always parts of the natural landscape, as earthy and natural as a home cooked meal or digging in the garden. They were tangible reminders that our memories could preserve us, even long after the familial diasporas were over.
There were lots of people like me who populate the local bookstores and keep them alive. Of course, I think this is valuable, but since becoming a writer and coming to define myself more and more by my craft I feel that my relationship with books has actually changed. One of my ex-boyfriends was an excellent guitarist and he said his appreciation for music shifted in a way, as he began to write his own songs, rather than just admire those of others.He said when he was younger he used to just respond emotionally to every piece of music he heard and that he could no longer do that, after he started to play guitar. Not that the music did not move him, but he automatically began to think about things beyond the spiritual experience of listening to a good song–the technique it took to play. Today, I realize I feel the same way about books. I don’t fall in love as easily and I don’t read in the same immersive way I used to. I distance myself more from my material. I realize that art, even at its most honest, is a somewhat manipulative act, urging readers to feel a certain way about a given topic. When I say this, I don’t mean to criticize all writing, or the act of writing itself.As I grow older I simply realize I am more skeptical, more choosy about which books I love, and which I don’t.
When I first started working at my large chain bookstore, I thought I would be surrounded by people who felt the same way about books that I did. But, in reality, the kind of elitist attitude I held for books was just that–a kind of elitist attitude. I learned to stop giving recommendations for books of poetry, because people didn’t want to read poetry. I would point them instead to the tables that had discount books. I would marvel as they would stack up piles of cheap paperbacks, romance novels and copies of Time magazine and gloat about how proud they were that they were such avid readers when they came to the register.Big chain bookstores in America are dying out, and people are rushing to the kindle and other reader devices, not because people don’t read in America, but because most people don’t fetishize the book and bookstore experience the way that certain readers do.They read for content which is fun and easy and interesting to them and care less about the attitude about books themselves and what they mean and how they fit into a kind of cultural identity.
I don’t believe that the transition from physical book to newer technologies will ultimately change the way that people read. The romantic notion that the bookstore is a kind of home for writers and readers dissipated when I worked long hours at a register where all the employees were expected to push product- stuffed animals, chocolates, book lights. I made the choice to work at a book store because I felt it represented something about my identity. This is how we make consumer choices in America too, yearning for items which represent the kind of people we are or aim to be. These are aesthetic choices that are no more lofty or humble than a person deciding to invest in a technological device that can be easily carried and customized and doesn’t even kill any trees in the process. In truth, I think that holding onto books is somewhat silly. Ebook Readers allow for more private reading in a way- no flashy covers and showing off you are reading a weighty classic or the latest paperback bestseller.
Nonetheless, the fact that books as a medium are dying out makes me more than a little sad. This is true even though I honestly read more online today than in print, and I appreciate the great things that technology brings in terms of writing creatively. Places like The Nervous Breakdown provide a kind of artistic and writing community that is in many ways greater than the sense of connection found in the old fashioned coffee houses and bookstores of the past. I feel slightly ashamed of my love for books, themselves because I know they clutter my home and that I always pack too many when I travel and then don’t end up reading more than one anyway.But this lingering sense of sadness persists because I still feel there is something very valuable about the weight of books themselves. And I realize that some of my trepidation about falling in love too quickly with an idea or feeling I read, reflects the power that books have over me. I read novels half way through and stop when the feelings become too strong, when the emotion is overpowering, when I worry I wont be able to stop, when my soul and skin tenses up and I lose myself to the sensations of words themselves, the patterns of language that wake us up in the middle of the night longing and the tender knowledge that just like we are merely blood and bone, a book is merely ink and pulp, and the fear that the weight of both is easily forgotten.