July 23, 2019

The Empty Shelves of American Culture

There is nothing sadder than walking into a home or a chain book store 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 Little Shop Around the Corner, to feel the sadness that permeates the closing of this longstanding neighborhood bookstore.

Losing a familiar bookstore is like losing a good friend. It did not take long for this same malady to infect even the big chains. Witness the closing of all the Borders outlets years ago. Barnes and Noble, the last chain bookstore still standing, seems to be wobbly.

Is it that people don’t read books anymore or is it that they just don’t buy them anymore?

Part of this phenomenon has been the switch from print information to digital for both news and recreational information, as well as the loss of an inquiring literate population which seems to have lost its curiosity and interest about the meaning of life.

The digital age has also impacted traditional book reading. Years ago, 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.

These were all new ways to read a book…virtually any book. Now maybe I will be the last holdout. I never want to use these alternate reading methods. I still read newspapers that are home delivered. I get three in the morning  and later I try to find the New York Times someplace.

I just might be the Last Bibliophile who has the last book in the world. I like to buy my books and take them home with me. I like the interchange of having a real person wait on me.

I love the feel, the smell and the physical presence of a book.

Like so many people who wish they owned their own restaurant or race horse, owning a bookstore or even working in one has always been on my dream list. Being surrounded by stack of books entrances me like a beautiful sunset.

It is also like having the world’s wisdom at your fingertips…if you know where to look.

Sometimes I just stand in the middle of a line of book shelves and drink in the ideas and facts, emanating from the colorful array of new titles.

I must confess that I never go into a library any more because the Internet is easier and while time may be money to some, to me it allows me to have more time for my personal reading. Reading is a mental form of exercise that may help me fight the ravages of age, which often begins in the brain.

I have been cataloguing how many books I finish in a year since 1994. Several years ago, I read 128 books, my best year ever. Most years I can count on reading anywhere from 105-120. Some times I can read as many as 250 pages while other days, reading 50 can be a chore.

When we go on vacation, my wife shops and I am content to sit and read one of my traveling books. While my wife shopped, I can get quite a lot of reading done.

I judge the quality of a store by the comfort of its seats for waiting men.

I have sat on cold marble, dirty stairs and sometimes stood in a corner, just to get my book fix.

I read all kinds of books–many of them novels. James Paterson tells a good story. I buy his books not for their literary content but for their swift-moving pace.

Jonathan Kellerman and Michael Connolly are much better writers. The latter developed a character over the course of several books. A detective, named Harry Bosch–short for Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch painter, appeared in several of his books. Harry was a tunnel rat in Vietnam and was getting a little too old to feature. He now writes about Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, actually Harry’s half brother. Fortunately, Kellerman has brought back the wizened Bosch in many of his most recent novels. 

I read a lot of non-fiction as well…especially current events, memoirs, history and biographies. I enjoy reading books about the cultural decline in this country, although many seem redundant. Currently I am reading biographies of Woodrow Wilson, Napoleon and Martin Luther. I was inspired to do much of this reading by a history professor at St. Louis University, named Ed Maguire.

Dr. Maguire had a terrible stutter that affected his presentations but that didn’t stop him from teaching or passing on the secret of all education: Read books. And I have ever since.

I read exactly four books during my first eight years of primary school.  And my mother had to finish two of them for me.

I remember trying to read Black Beauty and could never get past the fourth chapter.

I did start reading in earnest, just before graduation from Eighth Grade. Xavier High School had given all incoming freshmen a book list from which we had to read 10 books. I read 11 books. But in high school I did only the required amount of reading.

What changed my life forever was the advice from a recruiter from Boston College who told me that with a Verbal score of 417 (before it was inflated 20 years later) I could not get into BC.

BC was my first choice at that time because they had a hockey team. So I got serious about reading. Like Cool Hand Luke said, I can eat 50 eggs. I digested 50 books so that by the next time I took the SAT in December of 1960, my verbal score had modestly increased to a  respectable 509. Strangely my math score went from a 522 to 647. Forget BC, I could now go to Holy Cross. My extra reading had now been ingrained into my soul.

As an aside, my verbal score on the Graduate Record Exam right after college was a 650, which placed me in the 92 percentile. Now I can use words like sesquipedalian and polymath with comfort and aplomb. 

I have always liked to have books around me. They are my friends, my companions for a lonely night and my teachers. I once had a library of nearly 3000 books in my home. My late wife called them a nuisance. I called them my library.

My book habit has always been expensive. I collect discount coupons that I hate to waste. Sometimes, I load up with 5-6 books. Right now I have more books than I will ever be able to read. So my urge to buy comes in more sporadic spasms. I have become more like a collector or even a hoarder.

As I get older and the books I want to read stack up, my motto is so many books…so little time. My late wife use to threaten that someday she was going to bury me and my books in an 80′ hole. I have become akin to the Fireman in Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, who burned books for a living.

During one such job he became curious and kept one of the books, which he then read. Like me, he became hooked on books and started stashing them all over the house. I do that now. He put them in a fake TV, overhead lights, closets, under floor boards and any where that would store his treasure. His love for books led him to a cult that memorized the great books and passed them on.

Books are essential for man’s right to know and think. I fear that someday, despite all the electronic book-reading devices, people will be so dulled by their education, they will use these devices, merely for the distracting contentment of bread and circuses. And what of the bookstores? They will be nothing but empty shelves which is like a world without lovea sad testament to the self-destruction of our civilization.

In many ways, the title of this essay is a metaphor for our cultural times.  While there are no firemen out there, deliberately trying to stifle our innate need to read and thus find the truth, the techno-leviathans of social media, the Facebooks, Amazons and Twitters have captivated our time and our thoughts with banalities and trivia. We are in effect indulging our senses, while the sources of our freedom to feel and touch real books are withering away into the ashes of a thousand lost worlds.

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Written by
William Borst

WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.

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Written by William Borst