Why Bookstores Might Be the Enemy

Here’s an interesting tidbit I’ve discovered about myself: while I love libraries, I don’t like bookstores. And yet I should adore bookstores, since my professional life is based on reading (I’m an English professor) and since I read incessantly. In fact, one of my favorite cocktail party questions is this: If you had to choose between never writing another word or never reading another book, which would you choose? Most of my friends choose the former: for them, writing is of paramount importance. They hesitate a bit when making their choice, it’s true. But for me, there is no hesitation, because there is no choice: it’s far more important for me to read than to write.

And so I should love bookstores; after all, when I’m in one, I’m surrounded by what I love. But that’s not the case. The truth is, I never leave bookstores filled with satisfaction and pleasure, even when I buy an armload of much-desired books. It’s only recently dawned on me, in fact, that I must not really like bookstores at all, because I often leave them feeling depressed and anxious. Once I realized this, however, it didn’t take me long to figure out why.

Let me stop for a moment and explain that I do in fact love libraries. I can sniff them out in a town I’ve never been before and locate them (despite the fact that I have a deplorable sense of direction) with as much ease as a Ring-wraith sniffs out Frodo when he’s carrying the Ring. And once inside a library, I especially love checking out old, forlorn copies of books that no one reads anymore.

So what is the difference between libraries and bookstores?

It’s an easy question: the answer is money. Libraries need money to run, of course, but they don’t make money off the books they lend. That’s why I never mind paying late fees–and I’ve had some whoppers–to libraries for the books I’ve checked out. On the other hand, bookstores make money off of books; they turn books into commodities. For me, that’s an ugly process, one that I abhor. That’s one reason I won’t proclaim–here or anywhere else–my love of books or brag about how many books I have. (I will brag about the lonely orphans of second-hand books I have occasionally brought home, however, and kept close to me through the years: The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, the poor, neglected thing, and a 1963 edition of Waverley with cute colored-pencil illustrations).

And so, from now on, to get a sense of peace, of timelessness and of the pleasure that comes of these things, it’s the library I’ll be heading to, not my local independent bookstore. And when I hear the local bookstore tout itself as a mainstay of culture in my community, I’ll be thinking about the unpleasant nature of the publishing industry, the difficulty encountered by writers of all varieties and talent levels, and the intense competition for attention waged by all of the above entities. I’ll disappear into the stacks, turn up yet another unloved copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I’ll remember that bookstores themselves might just be the enemy of all writers and readers who truly love books.

Beyond Capitalism: The New World of Publishing

It’s an exciting time to be a writer. In the last ten years, we’ve moved beyond capitalism into an era of direct sales. And although it seems like we’re gliding–or stumbling–into uncharted territory, the truth is that this is really nothing new. Elizabethan poets circulated their own works among their friends at court, for example, and many writers through the centuries have published their own works, as well as those of their friends. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf and how she started Hogarth Press to print her own works and then ended up printing the first UK edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. So, while circulating small editions of one’s own work may sound odd to us, situated as we are in the age of the commodity, it is probably just about as normal as it gets.

Yet I have conflicting feelings about publishing my novel Effie Marten on the Kindle (available at Amazon.com) and as a paperback, due out in the next couple of weeks. This is nothing more than self-publishing, to be honest. And it’s been drummed into me for decades that a respectable writer doesn’t self-publish, just as a respectable citizen doesn’t go into politics. (I have a little bit to say about that last topic, but I’ll save it for another post.) Likewise, many people thought I was crazy when I bought a small flock of backyard hens, but just as I found it incredibly satisfying to collect eggs from my chickens, taking direct control of my own food production, I also find it satisfying to present my work to my friends, relatives, and colleagues directly, without having to commodify my novel and make it conform to the competitive world of publishing.

I hope that if you have questions or comments about Effie Marten, or about any of the issues addressed in it, you’ll post them here. But in the coming months, I’ll also post other short essays and musings about writing, about history, and about what it means to be a writer–and I hope you’ll get involved then, too, because what I’d really like this blog to turn into is a rousing discussion among people with similar interests.

In the meantime, do I have a deal for you! The first three people who post below with the answer to the following question will receive a free, signed copy of Effie Marten. How’s that for marching to a capitalist drumbeat?

The question is: Why would anyone name a blog about writing “The Tabard Inn”?

Good luck, and Happy Writing!