In Praise of the Big Box Bookstore
Sitting in a Barnes and Noble cafe at the start of January, I read:
What is astonishing is the quantity of books worth reading at college age and later which cannot be bought except by luck and at second hand. The recently established “Classics Club” has done something to remedy this situation. Until it began to publish, it was for instance impossible to own or assign Samuel Butler’s translation of Homer, even though it is the most readable modern version and a masterpiece of prose in its own right. I once jotted down a few titles at random that occurred to me as beyond the reach of easy purchase in English. Here they are: Coleridge’s Table Talk, Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary . . .
The list, from Jacques Barzun’s 1945 Teacher in America, continues for another half-page. At the time he wrote, I think he might have been pleasantly surprised to know that almost directly above me sat a large, central display containing many of the authors—if not always the specific titles—he listed, and that this display was replicated throughout the country.
I’m speaking, of course, about the standard Barnes & Noble Classics editions, with their perpetual “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” offer and prices lower than all but the Signet editions which, in paper quality and ease of reading, they far surpass. When, the next day, the chain’s continuing financial troubles made their way into my morning read, I felt more regret than I might otherwise have expected.
As an avid reader whose books whose allowance went almost entirely toward more and more books, in a corner of my hometown that was, at the time, more or less devoid of anything but chain shops, the B&N Classics (along with their pricier cousins, the “Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading”) were a welcome presence in my life. There they were, the books I felt I ought to be reading, beckoning me, it seemed, to take a third home with me. Not that I bought too many—until I began to write regular margin notes, I was more likely to grab a pocket-sized Signet Classic for three dollars than a larger copy for five. But when I wanted to pick a title on a whim, and ensure some degree of quality in the writing—there they were.
And, as long as there is a Barnes & Noble, there they are, rescued from the doom of Norton Critical Editions in crowded university bookstores, shipped back to the publisher a week into the term and sold back at the end of the term. College literature courses should endeavor to create “stouthearted readers” more than future critics and scholars, writes Barzun; the great flaw of the noble-minded Great Books experiments being born around him was that they “trie[d] to do in college what the educated man should be expected to do for himself in the ten or fifteen years after his graduation.” What one reads in high school and college shouldn’t pretend to exhaust the course of knowledge to be found in great books, but to whet the appetite for later years. Books—especially the so-called “classics”—ought to have a life outside the classroom.
That, I suppose, has been the greatest quality of the unassuming “cheap” classics edition, no matter the publisher. These, they say, aren’t just for snobs—they’re for you. Even if all Barnes and Noble ever sought to do with their hard-to-miss displays of Austen, Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy, and James was atone for the half bookcase given over to the collected works of James Patterson, I daresay it has been worth it.
Walking in a Barnes & Noble these days is depressing; Lego displays and movie tie-in merchandise keep expanding, while the stock of backlist titles keeps shrinking. I took it on myself to re-alphabetize the R’s in “Fiction/Literature,” and kept thinking of D.G. Myers’ recent talk of the compulsion to rescue good books to the proper care of a home library. In my excessively literate (so studies claim) university town, only this Barnes & Noble and an independent store on the other end of town sell new books. The future is grim for shelves upon shelves of books.
But to think of the explosion of access since what is frequently thought of as the “Golden Age” of American higher education, and how this continues apace, despite the struggles of book chains tempers my anxiety. If I were younger and learning to read on (terribile dictu!) a Kindle or Nook, what would be more delightful than to look on Amazon and discover so many works—the same as in the B&N Classics display, and more—available for no cost at all? Some of my students have already taken to bringing the collected works of Shakespeare to class in a fashion that spares their backs the twenty pounds of a bound edition. One uses his iPhone: all of Shakespeare can, today, fit in your pocket and be carried anywhere, at no additional cost! (What other wonders are out there, in the world beyond my book-lined home?)
Yet I still worry. Without the physical store, without the displays, the tables, the deals, the promise of no additional critical essays, what will guide a reader (no matter their age) to Herodotus, Thoreau, or Willa Cather outside a class syllabus? There’s great promise in the possibility of out-of-copyright works becoming more accessible to more readers than ever before—but there’s also danger in the thought that there will be nothing to guide a reader toward them by chance encounter, that they might come to smell even more of musty classroom learning than before.
I’ve said and thought much in criticism of big chain booksellers in my life; it’s only proper that I should acknowledge what they have done—and what the last man standing continues to do—right: make reading books worth reading, for reading’s sake, easier than it had been before their rise. They’ve done their best to make up for the sins and failures of those like me, who likely never convince enough of their students that these books aren’t terrible chores after all.
(For those who have made it this far, a note on upcoming programming: as I approach and enter the reading lists for my preliminary examinations, I plan on writing my way through what I’m reading—think Rufus’ “Blogging the Canon,” but jumping forward a few millenia in a single bound. We’ll see how I long I continue to think of this post as a preface to those that follow.)