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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The internet has me thinking...

There is a series of recent articles swirling around in my head right now (not the least of which is this one - no more Oxford comma? I'm a fan of all commas!). I know how they all fit together in my head; I'm just looking for a way to connect them to yours. You know, without the convenience of The Matrix.

The first is a recent discussion on NPR's Talk of the Nation regarding our limitations in media input called "You Can't Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying." The title basically says it all and I don't know if I can possibly explain to you how this made me feel. As a means of understanding I'll share an anecdote from my childhood, when I was a kid I once asked my mom how long she thought it would take me to read every book in the world. She told me that I couldn't possibly, ever. This hit me pretty hard. Frankly, I'm still getting over it. And I'm still trying to read every book ever, which is probably why I have over 1,000 books at home. But back to the show, one of NPR's culture critics, Linda Holmes, suggests that you must either cull or surrender when it comes to imbibing books (or culture or mass media at large). To cull is to make a broad swipe and say this is not good/relevant/worth my time/whatever and ignore whole sections of artistic output while surrendering is to say this may be great, but I've already got all this other great stuff going on over here so I can't possibly get to it.

I'll call myself an approaching surrenderer (yeah, I just made that up). I'm not a cultural elitist, so I wouldn't say that I judge wide swaths of culture as beneath me and thus cull them. That being said, I can tell the difference between art and entertainment and I think that's a really important distinction that often gets lost in the shuffle. So, what I mean when I say that I am an approaching surrenderer would be that I try to balance the art with the entertainment (perhaps what my more highbrow peers would cull). I don't think being well-read means that you've read all of the Russians or Milton or whatever; it seems to me that being well-read means being widely read. I've read Milton and I've read Christopher Moore, for that I consider myself rather well-read. There's a cultural playing field when it comes to literature that I feel comfortable stepping out on. I know that there are holes in my literary background but I'm striving to fill them. That's just gotta be enough for me because, as my mother told me years ago and Linda Holmes reminded me Monday, I can't read everything.

Now, why am I sharing this with you? Before I go there, let me share the next article. Author Ann Patchett will be opening a bookstore in her hometown, Nashville. Apparently, Nashville doesn't have a bookstore anymore. The indie that had been in town for 30 years has closed, the chains have fled, and Nashville is left with nothing but the internet (and here's hoping a thriving library system but somehow I doubt it; are "thriving library systems" even allowed exist anymore?). I'm hoping you are starting to catch my drift here. This is going to be one of those "bookstores are important!" posts. I heard Patchett's news and I immediately thought of Holmes' discussion.

When you know that the number of books out in the world is really too much to fathom, how do you deal with the question of what to read? For some the answer is simply the recommendations of friends, for others it's the NYT Bestseller's List, but one that I think is really important is the community bookstore (as well as the library; I'm a huge library fan). Sure, a website can tell me what books customers purchased together, but is that all the information I want? What if I want a recommendation that's geared to me and my immediate literary community? That's not going to happen without a conversation. Then there's the limitless possibility. Not all limitations are a bad thing; in her interview Patchett says "I think we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000." The word typically used for stocking a small bookstore is "curating," as though it were a collection. When you have such a small amount of space a great deal of care goes into how you fill it, trust me on this one. When I consider whether or not to put a book in my store I am taking into consideration whether or not I would recommend it to someone. I don't have enough space (or funds) to dedicate it to books I don't believe in.

That is how I'm helping you to surrender to the vastness of the literary world. I spend most of my time reading books or reading about books because that's my job. I do it so that I can act as a guide through this vastness and in that way you can still have time to, you know, do your job.

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