This post was inspired by attending Wordstock on October 13-14 and realizing how few people buy books, even at a writing event, where books are being celebrated, and where authors are pouring their hearts into readings, presentations and workshops.
Books are not consumables like spinach, cheese, milk. But they can be consumed by readers hungry for connection, for story.
Books are not part of most people’s budgets. But $14, paid for a book, can offer sustenance as rich as a carefully prepared bechamel.
Three or four hardcovers can be purchased–full price, from an independent bookstore–for the price of one tank of gas. Books are fuel for the brain and heart, and they take us farther, much farther, than one tank of gas. A book can lead us to Cairo, or Butte, Montana, or both, within the same span of pages. A book can take us to 1960s Saudi Arabia, a place that once existed and will never exist again. A book can show us how we as human beings have treated other human beings, the mistakes we’ve made, the explorations, the discoveries, the journeys that we may never make ourselves. And when we’re done with the journey of a book, we can wander that way again, any time we want, by beginning at page 1.
College educations cost thousands. But books let readers and writers sit at the feet of other writers, learning how to make plot, create characters, render dialogue. Books allow people to study anatomy and physics and economics and Italian history. Books teach us how to love animals, or music, or a particularly healthy side dish made with kale. Books let us reach past ourselves. Each one is an education credit, awarded personally from author to reader.
As human beings, we used to connect to content, long sprawling articles and six-hundred page tomes that offer slow, delicious rewards, much like setting a crock pot to low in the morning and smelling the simmer grow stronger all day. Now we’re more likely to connect to speed. We dip into the stream again and again–information, information, information–and we need our facts shorter and faster, no matter how complex the issue, or we will lose ourselves in the stream. Once we receive the blips and burps of news, or Facebook posts, or 140-character tweets, we move on. With our days. With our to-do lists. With our shopping for spinach, cheese, milk. We may or may not remember what we just read. There is too much to remember. Too much to process. Whatever flashed across our screen an hour ago gets replaced when we dip into that stream again. It is hard to have a real conversation inspired by blips and burps, especially when the blips and burps are different than the ones our neighbors read.
Our to-do lists are too long, our to-buy lists crammed with consumables, and the need for heat, energy, gas. But we can read, and read well, and we can share books with the people around us. Authors have poured years into their work, hoping that others will be touched by the stories they have chosen to tell. And if we cannot afford to buy, we can borrow books from the library or from our neighbors, and then we can have a conversation about what we found inside.
Books can be a common language, deeper and more satisfying than the texts, the tweets, the Facebook updates. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas funnels its readers into the heart of a dystopian society where language has eroded, and with it, civilization. If we do not read, if we do not think about what we are reading, and if we do not share our thoughts with others, we’ll slip further into the stream, where information is so particularly tailored to me, me, me that connection slips away. And connection is important for society, for our sense of compassion, for remembering that we share the world, this planet, our lives.
So please, buy a book. If there isn’t enough room in your budget, borrow a book, loan a book, recommend one to a friend. Circulate words in your community. Then talk about that shared experience–an invented world, a passionate fictional character or a specific nonfiction topic instead of who posted what on Facebook. Let’s wrench open the guts of learning and muddle about in the mess of human existence. Let’s read. And let’s have a conversation. Starting now.