I used to be an avid reader. And I suddenly realized that I’m not anymore. I used to devour books. I read them on the bus, during lunch breaks, curled up on the couch. I probably averaged a book every two weeks or so. But in the last year, I’ve stopped reading like I used to.
When I first moved into my neighborhood thirteen years ago, there were two independent bookstores within two blocks of each other. A couple of years later, a third bookstore joined the neighborhood. This meant that, while running errands or waiting for a table at a local restaurant, I could stop into a bookstore and check out the new releases. I could look in the used section to see if the novel I’d been wanting to read was finally available at half price. I could ask for recommendations on new nonfiction. Or I could sit and read a chapter of a book (which inevitably led to my purchase of that book).
But now, none of those bookstores remain. They’ve been replaced by a yoga studio, a shoe store selling the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen, and a resale clothing shop. And I don’t read as much. How many communities still have independent bookstores? Most people, I suspect, buy their books from Target or Wal-Mart or Costco. A few may have access to a Borders or a Barnes and Noble. But all of these stores tend to promote blockbuster fiction rather than literary fiction. And Amazon is great if you know what you want, but web shopping is just not the same as browsing through a bookstore. There’s no real thrill of discovery, no sitting down to read a few pages and realizing three chapters later that you’re completely engrossed in a book. No instant gratification of seeing a book, buying it, and settling in for a night to read it.
Studies have shown that the consumption of fresh produce in a community is directly related to its availability. Residents of poorer neighborhoods eat fewer vegetables, not because low-income folks don’t like them, but because the few stores that are around don’t stock them. As soon as a farmers’ market or a produce store opens, the residents’ fruit and veg consumption increases. And food banks report that when they offer fresh produce alongside junk and packaged food, the produce disappears long before everything else.
I think it’s the same with books.
I was listening to a segment on NPR in which one of the commentators remarked that holiday blockbuster books tend to be more “popular” fiction than literary fiction. It seems that most Americans would rather read a Dan Brown novel than, say, a Margaret Atwood novel.
Or would they? Maybe most of us are just picking from what’s available. Maybe what we need are more choices – not only blockbuster books from mega chains, but also quiet novels from neighborhood stores. I’ll take my junk on the side. What I really want – need – is a healthy dose of intelligent, engrossing, thought-provoking literature.