Last thing I remember, I was watching 84 Charing Cross Road, and hating it. I suppose I should have read the book instead. I don’t remember making the decision to watch the film first—I usually go the other way around, but there it was in the mail, auto-delivered in a bright red Netflix envelope from a queue I long ago lost control over, and there we were, exhausted from the usual end-of-summer syllabus scramble. Someone had recommended it to me, someone who thinks of me as a bibliophile, which I suppose I might be. Don’t remember who that was either, but I absolutely hated the film, based on the true story of writer Helene Hanff’s decades-long relationship with a London bookstore. All I could think of was how wonderful it is that hardly anyone will have to go to such lengths again to get a book. Pretty much any book you can think of is readily available online, and you can either download it instantaneously or have it delivered to your door in just a few days.
The whole “good books” attitude seems snooty to me, smells of The Canon, of Dead White Men and beliefs that exclude little brown women like me. Hanff was not just a bibliophile but an Anglophile, and anyone who acts like the sun should have never set on the British Empire is highly suspect in my book. I’ve met people like this, people who believe nothing good has been written in the past hundred years, which happens to coincide with the diversification of postcolonial literature. People who refer to women’s literature as “minor.” I don’t like these people. The death of the canon, of the leather-bound Good Book only a few of the initiated are capable of appreciating, is good news to the likes of me. One wonderful thing about the proliferation of alternative publishing venues is the democratization of literature, or at least the promise of it.
What I can’t bring myself to embrace, however, is the lack of a physical future for literature. I can download anything I want into my fancy ereader my husband got me for Christmas, but I can’t go to the Main Bookshop anymore. The Main Bookshop, like so many independent bookstores and even more than a few big-box stores, is closed for good, done in by a fire a few years ago but in reality in trouble long before then. Summer for me meant the beach, yes, but it also meant the Main Bookshop, a huge remainder bookstore that once stood in downtown Sarasota. At its height, the Main Bookshop had two floors, three if you counted the even deeper discount books, records, and prints you could find on the third floor. The place was messy, cluttered. It smelled funky. It was full of ancient tables and chairs, ratty armchairs, and even rattier sofas. When the rain kept you off the beach, you could spend hours there, reading. No fancy coffee or cakes. Just books and classical music or instrumental jazz piping in through the speakers. Every year my husband and I would bring home dozens of books, sometimes for as little as two dollars each. I had a favorite chair, I knew where the key to the bathroom was. I knew the cats—everyone did. It was home. Home the way my local library branch—now basically a hallway of computer terminals—used to be when I was little, when Saturdays meant getting free air conditioning at the library and reading and napping with books. I can browse online, I can “look inside this book” on Amazon, but I’m still here, in front of this screen, my world ever smaller as the need to leave this bright rectangle in front of me for pretty much anything lessens more with every passing day.
|View from the second floor of the Main Bookshop. Photo courtesy of jennadeleo.com|
|Byron, one of the Main Bookshop cats.|
Photo courtesy of jennadeleo.com
|The bathroom door. Photo courtesy|
Reading is an activity of the mind, but I also have a body, and this body longs for books that occupy more than digital space. The thing that rankles me about the so-called bibliophiles is that often books seem like just keys to some clique they wish to belong to—some coffee-drinking, fake-glasses wearing club that just looks better holding a book. I’d hate to think that such hypocrisy is what, at heart, makes me still prefer paper, and, much as I once longed to wear a hoopskirt, I have no illusions about the Great Past When Good Books Were Written. Maybe wanting to sit on the floor of the Main Bookshop in front of the Women’s Studies section with a stack of books and a cat again is no different from wanting to fit into the bikini or boogie board all the way to shore—one of those summer joys I long to feel again.