The art of reading

There could be more to the closure of bookstores than just the online revolution, as quality novels join the endangered list.

 

In his story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges describes a vast library full of books which are mostly gibberish. Among these books, though, is all the useful information that exists in the universe. The problem, of course, is finding that information. In the process of attempting to do so, the librarians are sent mad.

Perhaps Borges saw it coming. Perhaps he saw a world where there was no shortage of books, but little being said. Perhaps he foresaw Fifty Shades of Grey spilling from bookstores by the truck-load while the population steadily grew dimmer. Perhaps he guessed there’d be a million new titles published each year (around 14,000 in Australia) with few having much between the covers. But he also knew that in there somewhere was truth. ‘If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which, repeated, becomes order.’

The National Year of Reading is nearly over. Perhaps we should stop to ponder what has been achieved. Also, what the legacy of this well-meaning attempt at preserving and sustaining our cultural heritage might be.

As a novelist, I believe in stories. We tend to forget them, and need to re-write (and re-read) them. The Joads’ journey across America in The Grapes of Wrath is still being made, this time from Afghanistan via Indonesia to Australia. If we forget the former, we risk not understanding the latter. That’s how history works, and books are just scraps of history. In the song The Road to Gundaigai, we hear, ‘Where my Daddy and Mummy are waiting for me, And the pals of my childhood once more will I see …’ We realise this song isn’t about a road or a town, but dying, and the journey to a heaven of lost things. But folksongs, like books, like writing, like reading, are perpetually endangered animals.

So, are we still reading? The recent closure of several bookshops hints at an uncomfortable truth. As stocks are returned to publishers or sold off in fire sales (one shop owner told me his closing down week was the best he’d ever had), we are told it’s all because of online sales. There’s no denying the part-truth of this: cheaper books delivered to your door from all around the world.

But what if that’s only part of the reason?

Some bookshops are their own worst enemy. The good ones have worked it out. It’s all about browsing. Stores need to have a wide range of titles. Too often they attempt to second-guess their readership by stocking large numbers of fewer books they believe they can shift in quantity. This is a direct invitation (apart from cost and convenience) for readers to head online. Even loyal browsers give up when faced with piles of the Latest Big Thing. The machines at Adelaide’s Griffin Press have never been busier. But what if Borges was right? What if it’s not the number but the quality of books?

What if it’s really our fault? What if our lack of mental muscle is causing the problem? Daniel Defoe was one of my writer-heroes. He’d write on any topic, any time. Apart from longer works such as Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year, his 400 publications (mostly pamphlets) set the agenda for scribblers for the next 300 years. My all-time favourite is his 64-page pamphlet about how Dickery Cronks, ‘ … a Turner’s Son, in the County of Cornwall, was born Dumb, and continued so for fifty-eight years: and how, some days before he Died, he came to his Speech’.

Defoe became Dickens, then dozens of other British writers who have carried the flame. Both men had a voracious readership. No internet, no telly, no radio. One shilling for a pamphlet. Information, words and the writer’s craft were valued. But now, in an age of Babelesque information, things have changed.

Now we turn to the six o’ clock news, or online tabloids, only to find the de-evolution of information and analysis. As I write I have a copy of The News on my desk. It’s tattered, yellow, dated 31 March 1945. It’s covered in headlines such as ‘Jap Islands Hit for 8 Days on End’ – but, but, it’s also covered with words: discussion and analysis about what’s really going on in the world, not just at Crows Central. One small ad cowers in the corner of the front page, almost afraid to raise its self-interested head. Now, it’s the opposite. Self-interest rules. Money. And its inevitable first victim: truth.

Perhaps people have given up trying to understand such a complex world. Then again, things were pretty complex in March 1945. Perhaps, faced with a reality at odds with our much-touted consumer paradise, we turn to distraction. And herein lies the problems for books.

Borges suggested the important thing about books were the thoughts they contain. If books, like newspapers, only aim for a certain lightness of being, then they might be making themselves irrelevant. Who really cares if we get our fix with an e-reader or a physical volume? As long as we get it. But we ain’t getting it, despite the ease of its transmission.

Words define thought. Orwell told us this. Newspeak was all about reducing the number of words in a language so that particular thoughts became impossible. Corporations caught on to Orwell a long time ago. The technology we put in our kids’ hands today is almost word-free. Images, sound and colour rule supreme. And if that’s the case, how hard will it be to reconnect these cyber-kinder to real books, real thoughts and real ideas? Should we start public iPhone burnings in Hindmarsh Square?

Regardless, we are well down the path to medium beats the message. One Adelaide high school has already dumped its library in favour of an e-learning centre. Perhaps they understand the complexity of a problem I’m still grappling with. Still, they didn’t have to ditch the books. We didn’t bin every radio when the telly arrived, or the tellies when the internet dragged its sorry arse into our living rooms.

The death of a library (even Borges’) is always a tragic thing. You can’t get that history, those ideas back. Gone; like the Ancient Library of Alexandria. To me, it reeks of Goebells, the flames, Mendelssohn consumed by fire. Maybe, in the end, we don’t need to burn books if we are going to choose to ignore them; to let them die a slow, dusty death.

At the end of the day, all I really know is that I was made by books. Steinbeck, White, Joyce, Conrad and a hundred others. I’ve walked in their landscapes, met their creations, dealt with their dilemmas and learnt, somehow, mysteriously, to love, hate and forgive.

This is what we really risk losing: an understanding of where we come from, what we share and who we are. And this journey is our own. It doesn’t help to have Jennifer Byrne narrowing the discourse to a few books that she or her cronies like. This prevents us from making accidental discoveries which, in the end, are the only ones that matter.  The First Tuesday is a Ministry of Truth that no one should enter. Or are books becoming fashion items, read to be discussed more than absorbed through the skin, the fingers of readers?

Quality books are endangered for many reasons. Most, I fear, can’t be reversed. Perhaps it’ll end up like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a small group of book lovers committing the classics to memory as paper burns, or sit on the shelves of Babel, forgotten in the din of ecstatic makeovers.

 

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