During a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I had reason to wander down King Street, not too far from the Belmond Hotel where we were staying. I came across a bookstore. It just wasn’t any bookstore. It was a Pauline Bookstore. Bookstores are becoming increasingly scarce but to find a Catholic bookstore in the South was way past my imagination. I had thought that there were only two Pauline outlets, the one I visit in St. Louis and the one near the Mother House in Massachusetts.
I mourn the decline of the American bookstore. There is nothing sadder than walking into a homegrown or chain bookstore and seeing a stack of empty shelves. The current decline of the mom-and-pop bookstore is disheartening. One need only see the movie with Meg Ryan, You Got Mail, a remake of the classic, The Little Shop Around the Corner, to feel the sadness that permeates the closing of a neighborhood bookstore.
Losing a familiar bookstore is like losing a good friend. Now the same malady is afflicting even the big chains, like the now defunct Borders chain, and Barnes and Noble, which barely survive today.
Is it that people don’t read books anymore or is it that they just don’t buy them? Part of the recent decline is attributable to the transition from print information to digital, both for news and recreation. I will also offer that our population seems to have lost much of its literacy and the sense of curiosity about the meaning of life.
The digital age has seriously impacted traditional book reading. I saw my first Kindle on an airplane and from where I was sitting it looked like a large video game.
Then there is also something called the Nook that sounds more fitting for the first meal of the day. And then my daughter got her first iPad.
Books are essential for man’s right to know. I fear that someday, despite all the electronic book-reading devices, people will be so dulled by what passes for education today–a basic form of indoctrination–that they will use these devices merely for the distracting contentment of bread and circuses. And what of the bookstores?
A world with empty shelves and no bookstores is like a world without love, passion, humor, adventure, drama and nobility. I saw a cartoon years ago that says it better than I can. It depicted a library for illiterates—many bookshelves, devoid of any books. What is happening is a sad testament to how low our civilization has sunken. I don’t know if I can live in a world without books.
That’s why when I see a new bookstore, I am compelled to enter. Standing in front of this Catholic bookstore, I knew I had to go inside…but of course only to browse. One thing I enjoy about Pauline bookstores is that there is always a nun to talk to. I really miss the ubiquity of the Sisterhood. They were the only teachers I ever knew until the Jesuits took over my brain in high school and college.
I knew I had to buy something…even though my shelves at home grizzle and groan under the ponderous weight of tomes I know I will never live long enough to read. Usually, I look for any book by Fulton J. Sheen or G. K. Chesterton I have not read. The latter is always available. I chose one of his novels, Manalive.
Though I love his cryptic wit, I sometimes find Chesterton very difficult to understand. It is probably his British use of our common language. Sister recommended that I find a chapter of the Chesterton Society when I went back home. We do have a chapter in St. Louis but I know I would feel woefully ignorant around the kind of dedicated amateurs that usually attend these meetings.
I must have boasted to sister that I wrote for the Mindszenty Foundation for 11 years and now write for the Catholic Journal. I say this because she convinced me to buy a short book of mediations (Living Faith) that would give me many ideas for future essays. Of course I bought one. She was quite a persuasive saleswoman.
I wish I had had time to browse more because I would have looked for anything written by Pat Conroy, who I think is one of the best American novelists of all time. I know many literature professors would be revolted by that idea. For me, he not only captures the voice and flavor of the South, but he treats more universal and Catholic themes that are lined with his own recurring struggles with his childhood faith.
Conroy was born in Atlanta but with his father in the military, his first and only permanent home was in South Carolina. His picture hangs among other luminaries that have dotted Charleston history in the lobby of the Belmond. Most of his best work is buried deeply in the Piedmont soil of his adoptive home and the complicated theology of his Catholic faith.
His lifelong attempt to exorcise the deep-seated devils of his upbringing appear on almost every page of his two best books, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. I mourned his death from pancreatic cancer this past March. Conroy was no Chesterton but he had a vision of a side of Catholic life that most of us will never see or experience. There is much more I could about my love for Conroy but I think I will save that for another day.