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Beyond the Margins

What I fear is the loss of the culture of bookish browsing and collecting, the books that ask us the toughest questions and avoid the easy answers.

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"No one reads Budd Schulberg anymore,” the bookseller told me. “Even though it's a first edition with dust jacket, I won't be able to move it.”

So my copy of “The Harder They Fall” got bundled up with other library discards and estate-sale pickings I acquired as a grad student. I hauled the lot of them to Diversity Thrift.

More than Schulberg's literary reputation is at stake; pleasure reading of “serious literature” (define that as you will) has been in decline for a long time. Borders books entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will close many of its stores, including our West End location. Nearer to me and my personal library, Diversity's book rooms are neatly crammed with cast-offs, some very good. As if in penance for my dumping a novel about boxing and crime, I found, among the spewing of contemporary authors best left unnamed, a slip-cased “The Return of the Native.”

This type of book was meant to last many decades; the paper was pristine in an obviously read copy. I once toted this same edition of Hardy's masterpiece on a memorable trip to the United Kingdom to savor the text as well as its moody engravings by Agnes Miller Parker. In my hand I was not holding a book; I was holding an earlier, and somewhat imaginary, era of literate culture. Borders and Barnes and Noble tried to conjure, in vain, after they pulverized independent booksellers nationally. There's some rough justice at work now, but little comfort, while e-books and Amazon pulverize them.

But what was that bookish Utopia I envision? Ah, yes, the meditative, almost erotic, possession of “the good book” on a slow evening, a pipe of cavendish and glass of port by the fireplace, a faithful spaniel as foot warmer. Outside multipaned windows of leaded glass, snow falls on a quaint Yorkshire village. In my Booktopia, one might read Hardy's collected works a few times during one's life, musing, even taking notes in a journal, then, at the end of life's journey, pass the library along to a worthy heir.

Even though such an archetypal and Victorian reading experience existed for only a tiny minority of readers, its fantasy persists. Enter a good book shop, preferably a quirky locally owned one, to feel what I mean. There's gravitas conferred by their walls of books. Richmond has it at Fountain, Chop Suey, Book People and Black Swan. All of them swim against the tidal wave called Amazon. In the wake of the Borders news, I fear that they'll all vanish — chains and independents both. Then there will be no walls of books to wander among while building a personal library. But we'll get free shipping!

Lest readers of this essay — in print or online — take me for a Luddite curmudgeon, I hardly fit the bill. An avid blogger who flogs his work on Twitter, I only passed on the Kindle and iPad because I'm waiting for Google and Verizon's less-restrictive e-readers. I purchase a goodly number of professional texts online. My students complete multimedia projects merging text and image, not “papers,” and we share PDFs instead of dreary professorial photocopies. I'd happily abandon the row of printed journals on my shelves.

And textbooks? Who can claim that a bound botany text, overly priced and soon obsolete, could be superior to an electronic edition where a flower can be dissected with a few passes of a finger, and a student can study a changing landscape with the live webcam feed from a Costa Rican cloud forest?

So in the wake of Borders' collapse, it isn't e-books I fear, or even loss of interest in Schulberg and Hardy. Nor do I fear an apocalypse of file sharing like the one that wrecked the greedy recording industry: Public libraries never killed book sales. The National Institute for the Arts even reported a two-year increase in reading by young people.

What I fear is the loss of the culture of bookish browsing and collecting, as the publishing industry can no longer afford to produce printed copies of new and time-honored titles in history, literature, the arts and philosophy for readers beyond the academy. These are often the books that ask us the toughest questions and avoid the easy answers. The backlist of older titles shrinks constantly; small houses and university presses with dwindling readerships keep worthwhile fiction in print. My edition of Samuel R. Delaney's hypnotic and challenging science-fiction opus “Dhalgren” comes from Wesleyan University Press, not Bantam. The book was a mass-market bestseller in the 1970s. Yet today a mass public would never even encounter such a book, were it to see print. So how will the next Delaney find a public?

It will take the combined efforts of teachers, parents, librarians, publishers, Oprah Winfrey, and those setting state standards of learning to figure out how to addict young readers to hunting down good books.

They should start with titles kids love. It can be done. Marvel Comics' well-written 1960s series, The Fantastic Four, was my gateway drug to Doc Savage pulp tales and later, Asimov and Heinlein. I began reading Hemingway and Willa Cather. Jorge Luis Borges and Cees Nooteboom and Orhan Pamuk weren't far behind.

Then I piled on the history and theory. Some titles, ironically, landed in my library from browsing Borders' Indianapolis store. I knew that Philip K. Dick's depiction of an Axis-occupied America in “The Man in the High Castle” came from somewhere; it took reading to see that the 1930s technocracy movement could have led our nation into a nightmare. Knowing very little, even in my late 40s, about the First World War that spawned the Second, I read Johjn Keegan's history of the conflict in a hardbound edition found, quite by accident, at Charlottesville's Blue Whale Books. My world then became a little more explicable, and no convenient Wikipedia history of the war would have put me into the trenches in the same way as the British historian did.

Browsing the shelves and buying books in person from a local merchant is an experience to savor. Try it after Borders shuts its doors, and try it on a rainy day. Then find a good coffee shop to just read what you purchased, with all networked communications disabled. Finally, make the purchase the start of a small library at home, to provide a little sanity in a disorderly and downbeat world. S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond, is married to a librarian, and has many shelves of books, mostly read.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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