Who reads that and why? Books have been demystified by numerous factors

Dec 1, 2003

Imagine this scenario at the local Wal-Mart. A young mom, toddlers in tow, wheels her cart into the book aisle. Momentarily ignoring the kids, she scrutinizes the eye-catching titles and brightly colored dust jackets of the 2003 titles.

She begins with television personality Dr. Phil McGraw’s The Ultimate Weight Solution, then puzzles over Alan Paton’s 1948 classic Cry, the Beloved Country, with its bold blue and orange sticker proclaiming it “The newest selection from Oprah’s Book Club.” She skips the eclectic mix of liberal and conservative titles, including Bill O’Reilly’s Who’s Looking Out for You? and Laura Ingraham’s polemical Shut Up and Sing. Yet she can’t miss the equally provocative Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? nor Hillary Clinton’s highly-touted Living History

Then she spots Steve Martin’s new book, The Pleasure of My Company, which she remembers Martin discussing on Aaron Brown’s NewsNight on CNN. She vaguely recognizes the names of the rest of the pack, the best-selling giants like Clive Cussler, Nicholas Sparks, Tom Clancy, David Balducci, and Patricia Cornwell. She notes the clump of Harry Potterbooks, which she already owns, and settles finally on John Steinbeck’s 1952 East of Eden, billed as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” It’s big and heavy, but she may have time to squeeze it in. She wedges the volume between a jug of Tide and a bag of McIntosh apples, and steers the cart and family toward the checkout lines.

This innocent little transaction, and thousands like it taking place every day across the country, are nevertheless part of a larger cultural swing in which books become ordinary consumer items like bottled water or underarm deodorant. And thus demystified, books become part of business culture, marketing strategies and corporate decision-making. At some point, an executive, not an author or artist, will call the shots. Books are now packaged and sold in much the same way as television shows and movies, which often are “tied in” to previous book sales — Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings being obvious examples here. 

But, unlike TV dinners and microwave popcorn, books become intimate features of the consumer’s mind and personality, so their availability and diversity make a crucial difference in the quality of life. Books frame the way we live, becoming the mental landmarks that allow us to discover our individual tastes and larger cultural values. The day-to-day experience of Americans is materially different today because of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (1952), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), four books among many that reshaped the pattern of American life. The freedom to agree — or disagree — with such books is a basic political right. Furthermore, the ability to find and access such books is also part of the political enfranchisement of all Americans. Freedom is fully expressed in autonomy, the freedom to put freedom into action. Consumers would be horrified and outraged if a corporate outlet deliberately reduced the available choices of popular and widely distributed digital cameras, say, or athletic shoes. But, like it or not, that is exactly what is happening in regard to the marketing of books at chain stores like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and to a lesser degree, at bookstores like Barnes and Noble, Borders and Waldenbooks, venues where the primary business, after all, is the selling and purveying of books.

The proliferation of Wal-Mart stores in the ’90’s and the evolving popularity of Oprah’s Book Club coincided, like intersecting vectors, to create a unique synergy, a kind of one-two punch previously unseen in the publishing trade. An endorsement by Oprah and subsequent adoption by Wal-Mart became an instant passport to bestsellerdom for new titles and resurrected old ones. Certainly, it was good citizenship on the part of Wal-Mart executives to expand the readership of national treasures like John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison. That is not the issue. What concerns many cultural observers, like David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times, is the large number of authors who are shut out, creating a de facto censorship that tends to “homogenize” popular culture.

The numbers are telling. Chain stores in general, and Wal-Mart in particular, increased their market share of intellectual properties exponentially during the last decade. Such mass merchandisers improved their book sales by 30 percent, music sales (audiotapes and CDs) by 50 percent, while utterly dominating the sale of DVDs. According to Kirkpatrick, the “disconnect” between consumer autonomy and corporate policy is dramatized by the appearance of branch offices of major record labels near the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark. That Bible Belt location has made it easy for critics to see Wal-Mart as the victim or perpetrator of some kind of Evangelical or Pentecostal Christian conspiracy, possibly because the chain has championed the sale of a series of Christian video cartoons called VeggieTales that feature homilies delivered by talking tomatoes and cucumbers. Nearly 3 million copies of Jonah, the latest tale, have been sold, one of every four copies at a Wal-Mart outlet. Individual artists and authors who have benefited from Wal-Mart’s highly selective largesse include the Dixie Chicks (before their recent anti-war sentiments) and rabidly conservative writers like Ann Coulter. 

Other evidence of Wal-Mart’s pervasive influence takes the form of precensorship by big publishers (such as HarperCollins) who routinely hold back certain titles with “explicit” content and even design book jackets to suit the tastes of the Wal-Mart buyers who have willy-nilly become the gatekeepers for a large and growing segment of American culture. 

But is Wal-Mart’s America the real one? The giant virtually eliminates all rap music, including Eminem, even altering the video version of the film 8 Mile, just as it cut sexually explicit footage in key scenes from the highly popular and erotic Mexican film, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Considering that more than a million shoppers enter a Wal-Mart each week, doesn’t the ideal of good corporate citizenship and the code of “best practice” speak volumes about the giant’s rather quaint and patronizing assessment of the marketplace?

Of course, Wal-Mart is free to sell whatever books it pleases, and the company has not broken any laws in this department. The issue, again, is free and open dissemination of intellectual property so that citizens can make informed choices and participate in much-needed national dialogues on a long list of social and cultural ills. For example, conspicuously absent from the Wal-Mart shelves are the many books, pro and con, which examined the war in Iraq — and its tragic aftermath. Is there any other major conflict that was embarked upon with less of a national town meeting? No, Wal-Mart is not solely responsible for the lack of informed debate about the war, but it does bear responsibility for recasting our cultural image in its own likeness. With big power comes big responsibility. And the citizenry that empowered Wal-Mart and other big chains can always reclaim their autonomy by voting with their feet.

A parable that speaks to this situation occurred in Decatur when Kroger opened a giant supermarket near the intersection of U.S. 36 and Route 121. Within two years Wal-Mart opened a store on immediately adjacent property, and it seemed as though the Kroger store and a K-Mart directly across the highway would surely succumb. Traffic dwindled, and the K-Mart did close its doors. But Kroger survived by providing better service, higher quality and greater diversity, including fresh lamb chops, bok choy and “free range” eggs.

The important lesson here is that customers are willing to support choice, and if that rule applies to eggs and meat, why not films, music and books? Some observers may take the long view and point out that choices have been dwindling for a long time as small-town and village newspapers close up shop, following Mom and Pop grocery stores and privately owned bookstores. But there is still room in a diverse 21st century America for all of them if consumers truly want them to persist.

The situation for the reader of books is even more complicated because of the advent of computers and the Web. In some ways, the computer has robbed consumers of time as they hack their way through “spam” and “pop-up” advertisements. Some, notably media critic Sven Birkerts in his highly provocative and sobering 1994 book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, argue that we have experienced a cultural sea-change, a fundamental paradigm shift. Birkerts had owned a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., but after a teaching stint at the University of Michigan, he concluded that younger, computer-literate readers just don’t “get it.” These Web site addicts and nocturnal perusers of “blogs” may no longer have the patience or mind-set to slog through a dense novel by Henry James — or even a contemporary tome like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

But if people don’t read books, they won’t buy books. And a shrinking book market means a further shrinking of choices. That downsized market also is a painful result of illiteracy, as shown decades ago by Jonathan Kozol in his 1985 classic Illiterate America.

Further complicating matters, one of the largest segments of the population is comprised of Hispanics, many of whom prefer Spanish, the language that will surely overtake English as the most spoken tongue during the first quarter of this century. Where will this large Hispanic readership find books and stories about itself? Will those future titles find shelf space in Anglo-dominated markets? 

And what about all the small press and university press titles, and other specialized titles that typically don’t gain entrée to Wal-Mart or even to Barnes and Noble, though the latter has done a marvelous job of helping authors and itself with public readings and book clubs? More can be done in all these areas.

So the contemporary reader is faced with problems of accessibility to books as well as erosion of the culture of reading as it is replaced by “information technology.” On top of those woes, books of paper and cardboard and leather face challenges from audio books, videotapes, DVDs and magazines (electronic and traditional). Book sales are often flat at some Barnes and Noble stores, but sales of videos and magazines are increasing by about 5 percent per year. At public libraries, there is a similar story, in spite of strong circulation driven by diehard readers and walk-in patrons seeking help or information. Videos and audios are in strong and growing demand. Lee Ann Fisher, the city librarian who oversees the 400,000 items at the Decatur Public Library, observes somewhat wryly, “On Friday we become a video store.” Then she adds with a twinkle in her eye, “Maybe I can hook you to be a reader.”

If the reader is hooked, the final hurdle is the sheer size and scale of the reading enterprise, a massive footnote to the information explosion. According to this year’s The Bowker Annual: Library and Book Trade Almanac, about 150,000 new titles appear in America each year, and hundreds of thousands are still in print, as documented in the pages of the annual editions of Books in Print. That number helps to explain Sara Nelson’s recent publication of So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading.

There is simply no practical way for any reader to simplify the process of selection without professional help, or “channeling,” as one book executive calls it. Most of the channeling takes the form of lists or actual displays based on lists, like the “new book” displays at most libraries. Many readers utilize easily found lists like the weekly ones appearing in The New York Times or USA Today. Readers also use Amazon.com and such popular Web sites as Bartleby.com (which offers complete texts of books in the public domain), Access the Great Books, and Bookslut! Most patrons don’t realize that lists are made in a seemingly endless regression that involves a chain of professional readers. NoveList is a data base for librarians and other professionals that offers links or “author read-alikes” in the way that Amazon.com and others cue customers: “If you liked this book, you’ll also like... .” Baker and Taylor, the largest wholesaler of books to libraries, offers an option called “Automatically Yours,” whereby librarians preselect popular authors and automatically receive their latest works. But, good as they are, such lists tend to limit the chances of exposure for new authors, and readers are always in the position of following someone else’s recommendation.

It’s a rare moment when a reader receives a personal recommendation from someone like a librarian or a sales clerk at a bookstore, but that person-to-person communication helps to break down the officialdom of the formal lists and keep us away from re-establishing a Canon, or an ultimate and exclusive list of the only books that shall be read. The sharp reader has to be on the lookout for pitfalls from the left and the right.

Egon, the brainy scientist in the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters, makes the petulant comment that “print is dead.” But Jennifer Nippert, the manager of the Springfield Barnes and Noble, sharply disagrees. She is an avid reader (like almost all the booksellers and librarians in the area), and she can’t imagine a world without books. “People like the physical sensation of holding books. Nobody has come up with an e-book that people like. Books beat the Internet because you can make your own links.” 

In a recent column, Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star sounded a similar note: “Books provide the means for nearly the whole population — not just the elite — to be educated and empowered to think critically.” And Harold Bloom, the distinguished Yale literary critic and author of How to Read and Why, answers the question “Why read?” in this way: “It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves.”

These are wise words to remember on the next trip to the mall or shopping center.

Readers can find help everywhere, if they take the time to look. Nationally, there is a booming interest in book clubs and discussion groups. Even whole cities become involved, as occurs through “One Book, One Chicago,” which began in 2001. Through the initiative, residents of the Windy City are urged to read a single book, including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Elie Wiesel’s moving account of the Holocaust, Night. Most libraries and bookstores now sponsor such activities, and three new books have appeared on the topic, notably Rachel Jacobsohn’s The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Book Group

Readers may not be able to find the sort of utopian bookstore run by Meg Ryan in the 1998 romantic fantasy You’ve Got Mail. Families won’t return to those perfect evenings when well-dressed parents and children sat around the blazing hearth and read three-decker Victorian novels by Thackeray or Dickens. But it is possible to make more informed choices about books and to demand better access to the titles in print. Yet nothing will change unless reading habits change first. 

A few years ago, schools, libraries and even scouting groups across the country began to institute the “Drop Everything and Read” program. 

Children drop chalk, soccer balls and backpacks and immediately sit down and begin reading their favorite book. 

It’s only a fantasy, but wouldn’t it be grand to see truck drivers park their rigs and dive into copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Or legislators sitting on the marble steps of the Capitol, passionately arguing fine points in Plato’s Republic — or even bankers momentarily setting investment portfolios aside to contemplate Vachel Lindsay’s Gospel of Beauty? It’s only a fantasy, of course, but one of the things reading teaches us is that anything is possible. 

Dan Guillory has been a poetry reviewer for Library Journal since 1975. His most recent publication is “Being Midwestern” in The Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland. He is currently on sabbatical from Millikin University, completing a book called The Lincoln Poems.

Illinois Issues, December 2003