First of all, for what it’s worth, a full acknowledgement that none of what follows breaks new ground; I’m certain this topic has been discussed and re-discussed, particularly among the blogging community I find myself a part of, ad nauseum (a term which herein means “considered to the point that any further talk of said subject will likely lead to actual loss of digestive fortitude taking the form of, among other events, the loss of one’s lunch, or at very least the upsetting of one’s tummy”.).
But, should we not share our experiences even if said experiences are common to the point of banality? (NOTE: I have no idea the answer to that question, or if it even is a question worth considering; I just like the word “banality” very much.)
My wife and I visited an actual brick-and-mortar (the cement type, not the explosive-launching kind) bookstore this week while on a trip to a locale that I won’t name for fear of being seen as “irresponsible” or, worse yet, being viewed as “likely contagious” (When we planned and even left for our trip, The COVID was “under control,” and we were careful and rule-following. We now, of course, know that “under control” should have been interpreted as “not going anywhere until 2025.” But that’s a different post, I guess.)
The bookstore. It’s a large national chain (I can hear the objections rising now, the ones that go something along the lines of “You should support independent shops!”, to which I say, “You’re probably right!”); it’s a chain that I happen to love, one whose stores I have visited frequently over the past 25+ years, one that helped introduce me to not only the joy of reading, but to the whole experience of literature and the written word (albeit one expertly peddled in all its wood-lined, mocha-latte-scented glory.)
But things have changed recently. Whereas I used to spend hours in similar establishments in “my youth”, absorbing the never-to-be-topped New-Book smell and taking in the absolute magic that is contained in the tapestry of thousands of book fronts and spines ready to be discovered, I can count on one e-ink stained hand the number of significant trips I’ve made to stores like these in the past decade. Part of this is “phase of life” (read: “Responsibilities”); part is the changing world.
On the point of “significance”, I should say that one of the things that made this bookstore trip memorable was the significant amount of time we spent there. We were sans-children, and my wife, who is not normally one to “dawdle” (another word I love with an irrationality I don’t care to self-analyze), had a gift card to spend, and she was taking her time. It gave me time to browse in a way that I hadn’t in years.
And I loved it.
It re-enforced in me the absolute joy of reading, or more to the point, of discovering what I hadn’t read (a lot), or even heard of (also a lot), and in a way that required strolling past actual displays of books as opposed to flipping through an endless page of book-ish icons.
It re-invigorated in me a desire to write, not so much so that my words would end up in a bookstore one day, but to join the brother- and sister-hood of those who have picked up pen and jotted down something about the human experience.
It surprised me, in a strange way, as I saw physical copies of books that I had read on my Kindle. It was a bit disjointing to see their actual physical dimensions and their colorful, glossy, reach-out-and-poke-them covers. I knew these books heretofore as digital files sporting, at most, low res “covers”, ones that my device usually skipped right past anyway.
But the trip also evoked something akin to sadness. I don’t necessarily think paper books are dying, so I don’t believe that I was/am mourning the slow demise of the form factor (although, COVID or not, it was impossible not to wonder what kind of mob activities were going on in the backroom to justify keeping the lights on for me, my wife and the approximately 12 other people in the 50,000 square feet of space).
No, I think the “sadness” for me was in the double-edged nature of my reaction to being there. As much as it re-ignited a pure love for the written word, as vehemently as I vowed to read many of the books I laid my eyes, and hands, upon, I also found myself not really even considering buying anything. And that realization was jarring. How can one be inspired and joyful to the point of it being a near-holy experience, and yet find himself saying, “$29.95, huh? No, don’t think so.”?
How can one who would love to find his own work one day cradled on similar beautiful wooden shelve in similar aisles, look at the life’s work of others, many of whom have changed his own life with their words, and wonder, in theory and then, as he grabs his phone to open his browser, in practice, how cheap he can find the work somewhere else?
How can one literally pick up a book that he is almost certain would inform his own writing in life-changing ways, decide the $20 cost is too steep, open his library app, and reserve the e-version?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, at least not fully. I admit that they are a bit grace-less and borderline ridiculously self-effacing, ignoring the reality that very few of us can afford to own all of the books we want to own. I’m in that category. They also ignore the amazing blessing of public libraries, and the nearly-as-amazing blessing of the used books sub-cultures.
But it does make me ponder a bit how much is too much for an author to expect to be paid for his or her work? There are books that have changed my life in profound ways. In all likelihood, their authors took at least months, if not years (or in some cases a lifetime) to pen them. How much is that worth? Is there any price that should be put on that?
Maybe more to the point, regardless of how much time and effort it took the author, how much is too much to pay for words that change the trajectory of one’s life? I’ve paid much more than the cost of most books for meals that were only memorable for the number of Rolaids I had to take to forget them.
Maybe it also reflects the bigger issue of “writing for a living”? Should storytelling be about money? I don’t know. Most writers have bills to pay, and so either have to work full-time/write part-time, or find a way to make their writing pay the bills. And when that happens, does it take something away from the art? Perhaps we should pay only AFTER we read something, as a token of how much the writing affected us?
I suspect these are largely academic questions. The “business” of writing is what it is, and there is a limit to most people’s “disposable” income. (A concept that I find cringe-worthy, but that, too, is for another post.)
Plus, I’ve likely digressed several paragraphs back. In any case, here’s to the writers whose words have changed my life, or at least gotten me through the day. You deserve much more than I’ve ever given you, I’m sure.
Here’s to the bookstores, large and small. I’m a sucker for your well-appointed endcaps and your splashy seasonal thematic book tables, and I won’t apologize for it. (I see you there, “Red-Hot Beach Reads”)
And here’s to my fellow writers who write to pay the bills, write to pay it forward, write to make sense of the world, don’t know why you write, or fall somewhere in the mix. Thanks for what you do. Among other things, you deserve an audience, and if you keep at it, I think the right one will come.