My shop around the corner has gone. It wasn’t a book shop like the one in You’ve Got Mail. It wasn’t staffed by Meg Ryan or a cast of loveable oddballs. Nor did it have the range of a book store in the city. It was a small suburban book shop in a regional mall; a place not much larger than the average lounge room. But it was my local. Now it’s gone it’s a 40 kilometre drive to the next one.
The bookshop folded in the same week Darrell Lea announced it was going into receivership. But while it seems we’ve been pondering the future of the book forever, no one is yet forecasting the death of chocolate.
At the risk of being simplistic – ‘It’s the economy stupid’. Or as Tom Hanks’ character puts it in You’ve got Mail, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’.
Glenn Dyer at Crikey points out that the demise of Borders and Angus and Robertson had as much to do with the REDGroup’s exposure through US private equity as any change in reading habits. And the disappearance of my local bookstore doesn’t mean people have stopped reading or buying books. Like other aspects of retail, many factors are in play. As the beguiling BBC show The High Street reminds us, the face of the market rarely remains static.
At some level, of course, it is personal. Personal to the staff of the bookstore who are now looking for jobs. Personal to the store owners who have lost their dream. In a somewhat selfish way it’s also personal for me and the other customers who are being forced to change our buying habits. The epiphany Nora Ephron leads Meg Ryan’s character Kate (from You’ve Got Mail) towards is that change is not all bad. While Kate’s perfect bookshop is gone, readers are still reading, booklovers are still buying books. It was a similar message to the one outlined by Ephron’s parents, Pheobe and Henry Ephron, in the 1957 movie Desk Set when Katharine Hepburn’s gun researcher faces off against Spencer Tracy and a computer.
On the day of the closing down sale I left the bookshop with an armful of books, and the proprietor said ‘If everyone had supported us the way you did, we wouldn’t have needed to close.’ Maybe so, but change happens and there is not always a lot we can do beyond learn to make the best of it.
In permaculture theory, the edge is where most of the action is. The intersection between two apparently different /contradictory elements is seen as one of the most important areas for growth. Extending the edge is a strategy for increasing productivity.
We are living in a period when there are a plethora of opportunities to increase and celebrate the intersections between different literatures – the ‘edge’, if you like. Opportunities to develop or extend guilds and communities and to acknowledge, perhaps, the existence of a ‘permalit’, that will continue to evolve, no matter how varied the vessels we use to contain it.
I’m someone who will probably go to my grave with a book clutched in my cold dead hand, so I don’t want to appear too much of a Pollyanna here, but It seems to me that we would do well to worry less about mourning what is past and concentrate more on celebrating the collaborations and new things that are happening as writers explore. Writers have always embraced and learned from whatever medium is available. Sometimes new constraints produce the best work. Thus poets embrace twitter, novelists learn to love new media and short story writers use crowdfunding sources like Pozible to finance their work.
New work continues to appear – as Mathew Asprey and Theodore Ell, the editors of new journal Contrappasso assert, ‘The fear of the decline of intelligent reading is so widespread that it proves what a huge audience is really there, primed and waiting for something new.’ In a recent interview with Jennifer Byrne on First Tuesday Book Club, Jeanette Winterson said that she continues a lifelong habit of learning books by heart:
‘ …because if all my books are taken away – and in a forthcoming electronic world, that is a very real possibility in a totalitarian regime – they can just take them all away when they’re not in print anymore. If you memorise them, at least the library is inside you and no-one can burn it down and no-one can destroy it.’
Winterson’s Fahrenheit 451 style vision may be overly pessimistic, but even if no one remembered a word of the text, the echo of the book would remain, and new literature would arise. Like Nu shu, the secret written language developed by Chinese women, words have a way of being heard.
We may not recognise the container, the way it looks or sounds, but we will always recognise the soul of the words.