With newspapers slashing their books coverage over the past decade, the once-ubiquitous mega-chain Borders dying an agonizing death, and pundits wringing their hands over the decline of reading, we could be forgiven for thinking that American literary culture--that community of readers, libraries, and booksellers that has flourished in one form or another since the introduction of cheap mass printing in the 1840s--has been dying as well.
Talk of the end of books is simply another example of the gulf between the need for pundits to have an impending seismic change to laud or bemoan and the reality experienced by most of us. It was in 1992, in The New York Times, that Robert Coover declared the end of books. That cry has been echoed repeatedly by Luddites, nostalgists, and techno-utopians over the past 21 years, all with an earnestness suggesting that none of them have heard of (let alone read) "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." And it's important to bear in mind that the people who declare books dead are often really talking about the paper codex, the collection of bound sheets of paper that has been the preferred format for publishing books for the past 1400 years. Apparently many of these people believe that the ubiquity of books in electronic format will kill serious reading, in spite of the fact that they're still...books.
Despite all these cries of alarm, the facts are encouraging. The number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has grown over the past three years. For the first quarter of 2013, book sales were up 2.2%, bringing the total amount Americans have spent on books this year to over $4.03 billion.
Newspapers may have cut their book review sections, but more than 10 million readers share their opinions of books on the site GoodReads. Bear in mind that that's almost twice the number of people who watched the season 6 premiere of Mad Men. And according to a survey published last December by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a majority of Americans age 16 and older reported that they read for pleasure, with suburbanites leading, at 82%, and rural residents at the bottom, with a still-solid majority of 71%.
In New York City, apparently, the combination of the public library system, The Strand bookstore, and Amazon isn't enough to satisfy some residents' hunger for books. Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, both 26, founded Mellow Pages, a library specializing in works by small publishing houses.
But what I find even more reassuring than statistics and news stories is my own experience. I'm a librarian. Despite the fact that I do a lot more computer troubleshooting and hand-holding of the technologically illiterate than I would have 15 years ago, I still get questions about books. Admittedly I'm asked about Chelsea Handler more often than about Hilary Mantel, but that's fine; people are reading. And not just in libraries: I was once called into the kitchen of my local café to mediate an argument between proponents of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. On airplanes and in bus stops, and, yes, in cafés, I run into passionate readers again and again: a short conversation is enough to reveal the people who consider books among the important things in their lives.
One night last winter I was riding the subway. A lot of people were listening to iPods. Others were glassy-eyed with exhaustion. I opened the biography of Carson McCullers that I was reading at the time. A few minutes later I looked up to see a girl who couldn't have been more than 18 grinning at me as she held up her copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Then she blushed and turned away.
Passionate readers. We're everywhere. And we're not going anywhere.