I met Alex Rosenberg ‘13 almost as soon as I “met” Shimer. Alex served on the search committee for a new president for Shimer, and joined me for a very early introduction to some Shimer alums. She also served on our Board of Trustees, and ate lunch with me in… Florida! I am thrilled to have her do this guest post for us today.
At Shimer we touch a lot of books. “First Books” days were a magical thing. Students would stop by the bookstore and watch the Federal Work Study employees dispense the first few books the classes would discuss. There is so much hope and desire in this exchange. Where would the texts and the discussions about them take you? Were they really as good of reads as previous students had promised you? It reminded me of being in elementary school filling out the Scholastic Books forms. I would bring them home to my grandmother and proudly declare that I wanted to read one of everything in the pamphlet. After hours of weaning down the list she would still relent and buy me more books than she wanted to buy. Now I work on one of the other sides of the book world. I touch hundreds, if not thousands, of books every week.
So, what is the ‘now’ for me? At this moment I am sitting at the dining room table in a wonderful home in the most beautiful city I have ever lived in. (Number four on this list.) After graduation I took a job with Dan’s Books, a rare and signed online bookstore (which can be found here) owned and operated by Dan Shiner, who serves on Shimer’s Board of Trustees. Serving as one of the Student Representatives to the Board was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Plus Dan offered me the incredible job I have now!
Stanley Unwin, co-founder of the George Allen & Unwin Publishing House and the man who published the first Lord of the Rings book, is rumored to have said, “To write books is easy, it requires only pen and ink and the ever-patient paper. To print books is a little more difficult, because genius so often rejoices in illegible handwriting. To read books is more difficult still, because of a tendency to go to sleep. But the most difficult task of all that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book.” Now, I don’t know if I agree with his assessment on the ease of writing, but I understand his final remark.
I have no connection to most of these books other than the fact that I purchased them somewhere and am selling them somewhere else. I touch them, describe them, shelve them, pack them, and send them away. It is not the same excitement as the Scholastic book flier, nor the First Books day. However, sending a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics to Israel or de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to Kentucky brings back the intense discussions I was a part of and I find myself hoping their new owners will cherish them. When I moved out to California I had to give away a lot of my books. After four years at a Great Books school, and in Chicago where there are more used book stores than I had ever seen before, I had collected quite the library. It spilled out of my bedroom into the dining room onto three more bookshelves. Every book I put in the “Donate” boxes broke my heart. Without its physical form would I remember the wisdom within? This question remains unanswered.
My pen-pal, someone who attended Shimer many years ago, sent me this New York Times discussion on yet another side of the book world. My response to him was the following:
A paragraph in the letter from Professor Sherman of Columbia Business struck me. (This paragraph: “Understandably, those threatened by disruptive change bemoan innovative business practices as unfair, evil or even bad for society. The problem with such arguments is that those dislodged by innovation are conflating their own welfare with the marketplace as a whole. In a similar vein, one could also question whether technological progress was bad for farming or just family farmers. Or whether iTunes has been bad for the music industry or just for defunct record stores.”)
Certainly, this is true. I fear the digital age’s destruction of something that I hold dear. I often point out how there is less of a connection with a book when you are not holding it in your hand. I will bring up studies that prove that physically writing notes, rather than typing them, help you remember them better. On Kindles or iPads there is no actual writing, the notes are neatly typed and tucked away as footnotes at best. What happens to symbology in this process? When writing my thesis I would scribble a smiley face next to passages I wanted to come back to, a tornado next to facts I wanted to cite, squares next to information I wanted to research further, and so on. Coming up with a typed equivalent seems bizarre to me.
With all that said, one can also copy and paste passages from these devices straight into their email to be deposited into their theses without having to re-type every word. And finding one’s symbols only requires a quick ctrl-F. A tempting ability to the exhausted student.
Back to Professor Sherman’s passage: While what he says may be true, it also worries me. Reading The Grapes of Wrath in Shimer’s “Politics of the Novel” elective made me realize that what was bad for the small farming families was bad for the heart of the country. We are consumed by our ever-driving passion for innovation and invention. Our society seems utterly preoccupied with pulling us out of the last century and into this one, but we lose so much in that bargain.
People will often compare what is occurring now with books to what has happened with the music industry, but lately I’ve begun to believe that this is foolish. We have not yet seen the full extent of change within the music industry after the invention of the iPod. So far people can pirate music at an incredible rate and artists are relying ever more on profits from concerts to make a living. (I’m not concerned with the superstars of this world so much as the dreamers, the artists.)
And now people are beginning to download books illegally as well. Unlike musicians, authors will not make money off of concerts. They will not make money at all. Already journalists have learned that repetition and blogging can get them farther than “hard news.” Yellow journalism seems to be back in full-force. What of authors? What of craft?
I went to a book event recently to see the author Kevin Smokler talk about his new book Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. I have my reservations about the experience. Obviously he is a book lover, but I believe him to be completely naive and blind to the majority of America. At one point he said “books are not in danger. Reading is not in danger. Libraries will survive. People still love to read.” I almost laughed out loud! Libraries will survive? Perhaps in NY, definitely in this area of CA, maybe Chicago if they keep fighting as hard as they are now. But everywhere else? In my hometown in FL the library is closed more often than it is open. And there seem to be as many computers as books at this point. Reading is most certainly in danger.
Are we like Steinbeck’s Joad family? We’re traveling toward the promise land of cheaper, more easily accessible everything but will we find that there is no promised land? Places like Shimer and the library system and independent bookstores keep us book-loving travelers alive and thriving, but I’ve reached California and they don’t have the answers to the changing book world either.
It is clear that I will never find an experience as fulfilling in the same way as my time at Shimer was. However, I feel blessed to be surrounded by books where I am now, even if they are not mine to keep. I’ve always loved books, Shimer made me love discussing them, and now I’m learning to let them go, but also to involve myself with a different side of them. It is not how many books I have touched, but how many books have touched me.