A Book Manifesto

This is a snapshot of one bookshelf in my living room. Someday I’ll have enough space for all my books!

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.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Reading, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A Book Manifesto

  1. Faith Hough says:

    Great, great post, Laura. Buying books is so important–and think of how easy it is to support writers with a measly $18 or so…supporting other artists is a lot harder. I don’t have the $1000 I would love to spend on a beautiful painting, for example.
    Of course I don’t have the money to buy every single book I’d like to read–but checking them out from libraries is also important to the book’s success and sales numbers. Thank goodness for libraries, or I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford clothes for several years now…since of course books come first. 🙂

    • That’s such a good point about more expensive kinds of art, Faith! I was so struck by how few people bought books, or were seriously looking at books, during the writing event where–ostensibly–we all were there because we love to write and read. That really struck me. I agree totally about books vs. clothes and am equally thrilled that libraries exist!

      One of my biggest expenses, book-wise, has been buying titles so I can interview their authors on my blog. I just bought another one, despite being on a book-diet, because there was a wait at the library and I just asked the author to participate and don’t want to wait too long before I send him questions. For another recent interview, the e-book was available from the library, so I borrowed it and read it on my iPad. I’ll still buy the book down the road, because I enjoyed it, but that was a great, immediate solution.

  2. Laura … there is no reason not to read and consume as much in as many ways as we can of the medium we love so dearly. It is the main course of any writer and when times get rough … we can always visit our library. Also … if your readers have Kindles … they can check the book lists and often publishers allow “borrowing.” There is a function on amazon.com that allows you to lend a book on your Kindle to another person’s Kindle. Some publishers block this … but if you have books that can be shared … you can send a book to a friend for 14 days. How delightful is that?

    • So delightful! I had no idea about being able to loan books through the Kindle, Florence! That’s amazing. I assume it’d work on my iPad, using the Kindle app. I love loaning books, even more than I love borrowing them. Especially when I can’t wait to discuss the book with someone else. My neighbor is a big reader, and we have very similar tastes. I handed her The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt last week and am excited to see what she thinks, because I adored it and am still thinking about how he pulled that story off.

  3. Excellent post.

    In terms of people not buying books, it is true that a lot of people walk around bookstores (and possibly Wordstocks 🙂 ) browsing and checking out what’s there, and then they go home and order the books online because it’s so much cheaper. So, those people may be buying books after all.

    Are people reading fewer books these days? The statistic I’ve seen is that they’re reading less fiction and more nonfiction. A friend was bemoaning that trend a few years ago, and I pointed out that the most popular TV shows and movies are fiction. Non-fiction is very secondary in those media. So, people certainly still seek out stories, just (maybe) not so much on paper.

    I’m not all that attached to books per se. I do like stories, though, and books are one good place to find stories.

    I do wonder about the blips and burps point. I always hear that people have a shorter attention span these days, but when they do read fiction they don’t seem to shy away from long books and even long series. The Millennium books, the later Harry Potter books, the Game of Thrones books — those are all huge. It would be interesting to see some statistics on this. I wonder if anybody tracks fiction best-sellers based on page count.

    And our blips and burps are increasingly separate, tailored to us, as you say. This is, to me, the most alarming trend of all. Google shows us results based on what we’ve searched for before and what other websites we visit. Do a lot of people these days want short and easy facts, specifically tailored to them? I think more and more do, and that’s a shame. I remember my father used to read both liberal and conservative papers, and the same for TV and radio programs. He paid attention to as many different points of view as he could. (And it certainly wasn’t because he lacked opinions of his own. 🙂 )

    • I hadn’t thought about the browsing then buying online consumers. Interesting! At Wordstock the only books being sold by the two major bookstores were written by the authors doing events, so the buyers could get autographs. But it’s true that I wasn’t fast enough to buy Pauls Toutonghi’s novel after his reading, so I went to Powell’s Hawthorne and got it last week.

      Your consideration of movies and TV shows as stories, as a visual fiction, makes so much sense. And visual entertainment is often shorter, certainly, and faster, in terms of delivering a satisfying arc, compared to reading a whole novel.

      I’m not sure about page counts and bestsellers. It’s true that we can–and do–embrace longer books and trilogies. But from the day to day perspective, we like our news short and our letters short–quick emails and texts instead of long newsy explanations of our days. My bigger concern, and fear really, is how these short blips are individualized, and the common ground we have is eroding. Most people, even if they get the local newspaper, don’t turn to the jump pages. That’s a whole other post, perhaps, but I learned some really interesting things about attention span and readers’ needs these days when I worked in journalism. There’s a reason so many papers feature little boxes of information–so their readers don’t have to bother with reading the actual articles.

  4. So sad that you experienced a book event where people weren’t buying books! I usually see the opposite happening. As for who’s reading or not reading, John Green, a well known YA novelist posted on twitter today, that the under 30 crowd is reading more. Here’s a link to the Pew study: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/10/23/younger-americans-reading-and-library-habits/ So chins up, the news out there ain’t all bad for books!

  5. Dear Laura. I am new hear but buying books, reading and sharing them, discussing them is crucial to my life. I always tote extra books with me when going anywhere to share with everyone. Everyone laughs when they see me coming but happiness to me is seeing people eager to read. I LOVE this post. Thank you.

    • Welcome! I’m so glad you stopped by to visit and share your wonderful comment. I love that you carry extra books around to share. That puts a huge smile on my face. (Yes–happiness indeed!)

      One of my favorite book-borrowers lives right across the street, so it’s always fun to bring a stack over to her, or when she returns what she has read and we get to talk about the contents.

  6. 4amWriter says:

    I love books, but I have run out of space (not to mention $) for just any old book. For the most part, I borrow from the library or from a friend. If I read a book that I know I would read again, I would buy it. But if I read one that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up again, then I don’t bother purchasing it. Even if it was a good book–I just have to be very discriminate these days. Going to the library is one of my fave things to do anyway, so being poor is a good excuse! 😉

    • I know what you mean, Kate! I’m on a book budget (diet?) right now due to the same factors. Thank goodness for libraries! I do find myself still buying books by Oregon writers, in part because of this interview series. After Wordstock, I went to Powell’s on Hawthorne to sell them some copies of Brave on the Page, and Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days was there on the shelf. How could I resist? I really enjoyed hearing him speak. The other fun thing, for me, in buying books, is knowing I’ll loan them to my neighbor and then we’ll get to talk about them.

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