Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Blogs, Books, and Bookstores

It's been a popular trend in literature to follow mankind's steady acceleration. Science fiction traces our technical advances, historical novels remind us of the slower times of long ago, and socially critical novels often point directly to the tragic effects of our newfound speed its resulting isolation, insensitivity, and creativity.

An older, wiser, Fahrenheit-titled critique, for example, paints a ridiculous picture of cars so speedy that roadside signs must be hundreds of yards long with enormously wide letters, so that we can read them as we fly by at speeds which deny any attention to any surroundings not similarly augmented. For Bradbury, the acceleration of travel came hand in hand with the acceleration of life - the result being a world entirely too fast (among other things), for books.

Well, here we are in 2004, and though we still have books, they too, like our cars and our modems, have sped up. We devoured the Dan Brown books, with their 2-page chapters and constant cliffhangers. We make more and more books into movies; condensing, changing, and often castrating. Blogs themselves are a sign of our new speed. They are written without a great deal of time and care, and read much the same way. We want immediacy. I stop writing for a few days to climb mountains with JZ and you all stop reading. I don't blame you; it's a fierce world with fierce competition. If I don't provide that immediate fix, someone else will.

I wonder if even John Grisham will be able to keep up with the rapid-fire output of the blogging community. Will a new book every 6 months be enough? What if other authors just decide to blog their books, for a subscription, or worse yet, for free. That way, we can read it mere minutes after they write it. What an adventure, for both author and reader - neither knowing exactly where the story will go, both waiting with baited breath. Victorians would wait each month for the new chapter in the latest Dickens novel, relishing each word, even though each chapter had what would now be considered an action-to-word ratio entirely too small. Dan Brown writes a page and the main character has traveled hal-way around the world, cracked a code, been shot at, and flirted with a beautiful woman. A page of Great Expectations gets you half-way into the simple fears of a boy named Pip. I'll let you decide which you'd rather read.

With the speed of the books, so increases the speed of our choosing them. Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble. Buy books online. No need to sit down and feel it, to read the first chapter, to smell it - we have reviews! And stars! 5 stars. Good review. 76 positive reviews and only 13 negative. It's a buy. Oprah's book club. Buy. People who bought this book also bought that book. Buy. One more book to get free shipping. Buy. Wait, why am I getting all these books that I will have to read. DVDs. Buy. Buy. Buy. Is this good? It's cheaper, certainly. I bought a whole list of books online. Shipped for Free. I needed them, no choice - saved a lot of money. Was that good?

I went to a bookstore today - a real bookstore. It was old, a little messy, and it had a funny smell. Strange people worked in the bookstore, and strange people sat in its chair reading strange books. The people were like the chairs which were like the building which were like the books - old, new, unmatched, individual, quirky, all different, each looking for something or someone different. I was able to pick up a book, sit down for a while, and really read it. Read the cover, the back, the preface, the introduction, the first chapter, the dedication. Then, I picked up a new one and did the same. I could just walk around, waiting for a book to catch me, to call me over, to say pick me up. I didn't need to know what I was looking for - I didn't want to know. I was free - and it was good.

In the end though, I didn't buy a book. I had one. I liked it. I wanted to read it. But I didn't by it. Was it because I have so much else to read already in the coming months? Was it because I could just try to check it out at my local library? Or, was it because I knew that if I wanted, I could go home, hop online, and order the very same book for less money? I don't know exactly why I didn't buy it. I hope it wasn't the last reason. I don't intend to order it online; I would hope that I would be willing to spend a couple extra bucks to thank my local bookstore for the wonderful opportunity it affords me and the chance to find books the way books are meant to be found. I regret not buying the book, but there will be other days, and other bookstores, and other books.

In the end, however, I believe that it's important to remember that often times, the best thing about speeding everything up is being able to slow it back down. Thoreau understood this best, and the things he learned by just slowing down are available to all of us. They are not difficult to see, or to understand, but to the distracted, the busy, and the overly-focused, they are all but invisible. Go to a bookstore, a real one, walk around, take the books off the shelf, sit down and read them, feel them out and let them feel you out, and if you find one that fits, buy it. That amount of money will likely be easy to save, and in doing so, you will probably free up some time for reading or some other healthier activity than whatever it was that would have cost you that money. Now, if I could just follow my own damn advice...

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