Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Real, Honest to God Books

As a couple of you may know or remember, I grew up into adulthood without a television. The first television I ever had in the same building where I slept at night was in college in the early 90s and it belonged to my roommate. I bought my first television in the mid 90's and still have it as a matter fact though it is relegated to living in a small apartment deep in the urban jungle with the full intention of never returning. It was a suicide mission of sorts that I sent it on but I'm okay with that. It was replaced with one of those new LCD flat screen models. But this post isn't about television. It is about books.

Most people ask the same question when they hear the above factoid, "What did you do with your spare time?" Besides living on a farm and working to sundown when not in school, I usually answer that I read. But that is really an understatement if you don't know the full scope. Beginning at age 8, I got an exception to the local library's policy of only checking out 7 books at any one time. Because they knew how much we read and how far we lived from the library, we were able to check out a paper grocery sack of books at a time which lasted us for around two weeks. As you can imagine, I eventually read the entire library and got a special library card to a larger library in a neighboring county. I worked on it diligently until I graduated and moved to college and probably read a good 50% of all its books.

In college, it felt wrong to read for pleasure instead of for class so I mostly just read the new releases of my favorite authors and kept to my class text books the rest of the time. When I graduated from college, I returned to my old ways but slowed down a bit. First, the libraries had gone from catering to people want to read books and switched over to movies, music and bytes as their preferred media to stock. Now I walk into a library and see shelves of books that I have read, reference type books and little else beyond the occasional new release that is never there because there is a waiting list a year long. I basically have given up going to libraries unless I am looking at reference books. Second, I started to find quality television programming that got my attention and filled my thirst for knowledge. Shows on the History Channel, Discovery and PBS started filling that craving I had that always attracted me to non-fiction books. I still get through books though now it takes me a month instead of an evening to finish one.

An unread book on my shelf feels the same to me as having money in the bank. It guarantees a future of entertainment and enlightenment. When I pick up a book and open that first page, it is like stepping onto an airplane destined for some exotic locale or sitting down with the author in a quiet restaurant and hearing about their experiences first hand. Although I am not a highlighter or a margin scribbler, I am constantly flipping back and forth through pages looking at the maps or pictures being referenced or on occasion, turning on the computer to fill in an area not addressed. When I finish the book, there is a moment of satisfaction followed by a longer moment of sadness that the book didn't continue in some never ending story. The most notable example of the latter was back in my fiction reading days when I read Alex Haley's 'Roots'. 

It should be no surprise then that perhaps one of my favorite places to go to are book stores where it was my four large built-in book shelves times 10 or 50 or even 100. So many books, so little time in life. When libraries began to fail me, I would hit auctions and garage sales where I could pick up used books for pennies on the dollar but for every one of those where I found books that I liked, there were ten others full of romance novels or westerns or other genres pumped out for the masses without a lot of thought put into the content. So I graduated to buying books at half priced bookstores where I could get that grocery sack of books for $20 or the small independent book store where the owner would order any book I would like or off the top of his head list five other books I would like knowing I liked the last one I bought. Sadly, those stores were driven out by behemoth box bookstores that were beginning to make an entrance.

I wasn't too sad at the time because those big box bookstores carried tens of thousands of books. I was happy and could walk out with lots of new reading material but the price went up by double and gone was the service. I was willing to make that trade and did but after I had made the switch, they did too only a lot more subtle. First is was the appearance of CD's being sold but more non-book related stuff ranging from games to even stuffed toys began to appear displacing shelves of books that once stood there. Then coffee shops began to open in corners and more shelves of books vanished. Magazines and computer software came along displacing more shelves. Now you can walk into a big box bookstore and perhaps only a third of the floor space is devoted to books and of that third, large portions are taken over by self help, cookbooks, [insert name here] for dummies, etc., what I call the soft side of literature. If you aren't into romance, westerns, serials, etc., you are left with perhaps a half dozen shelves of books that interest you and those are only the newest releases that fit on the shelf because you have to special order any book that is now considered 'classic' and worse, I find myself scanning those shelves for the books I HAVE NOT yet read and not finding many. 

The bookstores have deserted their core constituents and are ultimately paying the price. Borders is no longer at the end of this month. Those that remain, aggressively try to sell anything but books. If you have walked into a Barnes & Noble, you can see what I mean. Only a few independent bookstores remain and those are few and far between. Right now, the only option seems to join the electronic book reader club and "rent" those books in the form of bytes. Yes you technically can buy them and own them forever but you could also do that with Betamax, Laserdisc, cassette and VCR tapes. These have all been in my lifetime so I would bet lots of money that those of you with a collection of books on your Kindle or Nook won't be able to read them in another decade or so after having been replaced by the next big thing. I have a shelf of books that I re-read from time to time and have owned some of them several decades and I wasn't the original owner. Not to mention that a Kindle or Nook full of downloaded books doesn't have the same feel as a bookshelf of books. It is sterile, requires electricity or proximity too it at all times and is fragile. I would bet there hasn't been an e-reader on top of Mt. Everest but there has been many books and in fact, two of them are buried at the summit

I'm not sure where the future of books lies but I suspect they will always be around in the 'hardcopy' format. Media formats have come and gone by the dozens but books have been around for centuries. I suspect that the large box bookstores, that claim to sell books will sell less of them and more of other stuff that they now sell, a la Amazon dot com, and the hardcopy bookstores will come again in their original format, small shops well stocked with books and nary a coffee counter or music rack to be seen. I will be there waiting and hunting for that next book to take me on an enlightening adventure.


R. Sherman said...

I'm with you. Nothing beats a book to curl up with in the evening. A Kindle or Nook will never replace that.

BTW, when I was a teenager, my dad got frustrated with the quality of TV and disabled it. I hated it at first, but eventually I got used to it and read a lot too. Ultimately, I think it was beneficial for me in college because I had a ton of background information on various topics.


geri said...

It's funny because back in the Philippines I read all the time. And since we didn't have much choice I would be sort of forced to read books by authors that I even don't like. But here, when there are so many choices, from libraries, to books stores, to secondhand bookstores, yard sales - I can't seem to sit still and focus on a book, even if I have time in my hands.

Right now I am trying to read a non-fiction book that my husband absolutely loved The Big House by George Colt and I have a feeling that this might be for you too. It's about a family's vacation house for several generations.

Also, my husband finally got a Kindle for his birthday last month (finally!), yet we still have to purchase his first book. One big advantage of a Kindle is for people like my husband who commutes on a train and who can't seem to decide which of the 5-6 books he his reading he wants to bring with him to work, ends up taking all and complains of a backache =)

Bone said...

There's got to be some irony in bookstores selling Kindles -- one of the very things that is putting them out of business. I thought the same thing when I heard a radio ad the other day for some Pandora-like internet radio station.

Also, the library just called. Do you still have Tropic Of Cancer? Because they say it's twenty years overdue :)

Gidget said...

I like fiction but some of the authors I read can't be found in small town libraries. I have to go to a city library instead so a few years ago I started using paperback swap sites to obtain those books. They have hardback books too & it might be worth looking into.

I LOVE Pandora internet radio. I listed my favorite artist and it automatically selects other artists in the same genre for a playlist. I've significantly added to the artists I listen to because of it, some that I would normally never have known about.