The best birthday present I ever received was for my 8th birthday. It was The Audubon Book of Birds, an oversized volume full of colored plates with birds of every imaginable variety. I have no idea why my parents bought this for me; I had never shown an interest in birds. Regardless, the book was a source of intense joy. It wasn’t the birds — though I’ve since learned that the illustrations are greatly admired in ornithological circles. It was the fact of the book itself. It was so…substantial. Here I was, a mere 8 years old, suddenly possessed of this enormous tome. I knew nothing about birds, but with this book I would know a lot. It was thrilling.
And so began my romance with books. I became proud to be a bookworm. I knew I could take a book with me when I had nothing to do or wanted to forget where I was (waiting for the dentist or at the beach, insofar as I was allergic to the sun and stayed under an umbrella). I could be absorbed in a matter of a few minutes, and the dead weight of the hour or the day would lift.
I defined myself by the books I read or, at least, the books I owned. In high school there was a group of us: “the library crowd” (though we talked so much about books in the library that we were often thrown out). We ostentatiously carried paperbacks around an effort to impress each other: Ginsberg’s Howl, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Camus’s The Plague. We didn’t always read these books, but we carried them for effect. Our tastes were eclectic — one day it was Sartre, the next, Wordsworth — but always pretentious. That was part of the point of books: They could make us seem more interesting and important than we were.
From an early age I decided that I would someday write books. My friend and I decided that she would be an archeologist and dig for rare objects in exotic locales, and I would be the scribe, tagging along with a notebook. It never occurred to me that this was the secondary position. It would produce a book, and the book was the thing I valued most.
By the time I reached my 20s I had embarked on a graduate degree in English literature, where the whole point is to read as many books as possible and end the whole thing by writing an impenetrable book of your own. A dissertation is the sine qua non of the pretentious book: the book to end all books. Indeed, the saying goes that if you write a dissertation, you will be unfit to write anything else. I should note that I wanted to resist this edict. My love of books was such that even as I slogged through the dissertation, I was hoping to someday write books that would be read — the sort exhibited at the front of bookstores. Even then, I was sending out my writing to popular magazines and getting my first rejections.
One of my favorite pastimes during those years was going to bookstores and browsing. The Community Book Shop in the North Jersey town where I grew up was the Ur version of the independent book store (we didn’t call them “independent” then, since they were all independent). The Community Book Shop was in a well-maintained Victorian house on Main Street, and was presided over by two old ladies. The books were meticulously arranged, with little plaques marking the genre categories. The ladies always had recommendation. One of them was scholarly and correct in her choices, the other more daring and eccentric. I consulted one or the other, depending upon my mood. I soon discovered that most towns had such a store, though sometimes the old ladies were old men — or young men, or young women, or some sort of quirky individual of indeterminate gender and age. The people who used to run bookstores didn’t fit any profile except that they loved books.
Then the megastores started to appear. They weren’t threatening at first. Like many things that prove treacherous, they appeared at this early stage to be a wondrous boon. Here were bookstores like supermarkets, spacious and with a cornucopia of offerings. One could spend an entire afternoon or evening going to the bookstore. It was an outing similar to a night at the movies.
At first the stores were not without character. I recall that the first Borders in our area was in a Danish Modern style with low blond-wood bookcases. It reminded me of a child’s playroom. The early Barnes & Noble, too, was pleasant enough. It had a mock-colonialist feel, like being inside a Masterpiece Theater set. I don’t recall whether the café inside the bookstore was an immediate innovation, only that its appearance charmed me beyond belief. To read and eat have always been two of my greatest pleasures. Now the bookstore was selling brownies and good coffee in the midst of books that I didn’t even have to buy. It was a chance to regress — or rather to improve on that infantile state of perfect bliss (my parents liked to say that I was a bawling, unmanageable infant because I was bored and wanted to read).
I’m not sure when it all began to sour. Certainly the megastores began to change, to mushroom and consolidate. Their blueprint ceased to be original as serious market research kicked in. There were still a plethora of books in these stores, more than ever, but the displays became disturbingly similar — always the same bestsellers with their discount stickers, always the same collection of literary fiction that had been reviewed ad nauseam in all the major publications. Many stores tried to maintain a sense of the unexpected by leaving room for “staff favorites,” but the sheer weight of homogeneity — in the window displays, the food, the signage — began to squeeze out everything else. The whole packaged ambiance began to grate on my nerves.
At the same time, I also began to learn about books from the inside. I came to know what it takes to make a book, the sheer frustration and enervation involved in the writing followed by the greater enervation of getting the thing published — both the editorial process and, more depressing still, the marketing and distribution. I’ve seen the book sections at newspapers dwindle to nothing, and seen how the same books get reviewed again and again while the vast majority are never reviewed and disappear into remainder bins almost as soon as they’re published.
I’ve seen how talented authors get pigeon-holed to produce the same sort of work by publishers frightened of anything that may not be lucrative. I’ve seen fickle publishers jettison writers as soon as their sales figures dip. I’ve seen how access to computerized statistics makes it easy to call up the latest sales figures, and how writers become only as viable as their latest book sales, regardless of how well they may have done before that.
I’ve seen the independent publishing houses, like the independent bookstores, disappear, bought up by multinational corporations: consolidated, conglomerated. Those few that survive do so because their owners have an independent income that allows them to soldier on with low or non-existent profit margins. I know why certain books are in the front of the megastores — the publisher pays huge fees to the chains to put them there. How can an independent publisher compete with that?
And yet I sometimes wonder if these changes really are to blame for the end of my affair with books. It may be that this is just a convenient cover. For perhaps my disillusionment is less a function of economic and cultural trends than of a larger existential angst. Perhaps I’ve simply been with too many books in the course of my lifetime and am experiencing a kind of surfeit, the way some people do when they’ve had too many sexual partners. Perhaps I have become aware of the impossibility of reading all the books out there, whereas in the innocence of my youth I imagined I could.
And perhaps as a writer, I have grown resentful of the avalanche of books being produced. They are in some sense my competition. It’s wearisome to think about it.
Books are still central to my life. I still read them and try to write them. But alas, the love affair, launched with The Audubon Book of Birds, is over. • 4 March 2008