Last night, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary. It's been eleven good years and, before your thoughts carry you in that direction, I'm not saying that on our 20th anniversary, I'm saying it on our eleventh.
The 11th anniversary is the Golden Crayola anniversary (unless someone really wants to argue it using some apocryphal jeweler's website as evidence). It is so named because, if you conceived your first child directly following the marriage festivities, he or she is about the age when the standard box of crayons with the same boring colors just won't do anymore.
I do suppose it could also be the "Really Expensive Death Star Legos Set" anniversary as well. But, that runs the risk of putting too much emphasis on the children produced in the marital union or, at least, of being confusing to the husband of said marriage who might want one for himself.
In any event, my wife and I went on our standard date, which admittedly was not special enough for an anniversary. It was, though, better than the staying in and not getting a babysitter option that always looms large after a long day, when we're tired and realize that there isn't that extra burst of twenty-something energy awaiting us on the other side of 6 p.m.
Our standard date is, however, perfectly suited to our temperaments. First we go to dinner and engage in as much sparkling conversation as we can muster. We tell each other how much we love each other and how we both are grateful for our years together. Then, after a dessert we order to share and only eat half of, we go to Barnes and Noble, part company just inside the door, and separately go look for books to read.
My wife, a voracious reader who reads almost anything just to read, readily found something of interest to her last night and adjourned to the coffee shop where she knew I would join her, eventually, after I had walked the length of the bookstore several times and not found the book that fit the mood I was in. I rejoined her after about an hour with a copy of the American Spectator in tow. But, I didn't really enjoy it. The American Spectator is not as well-written or thoughtful as National Review which I have a subscription to.
I confess that I'm a particular reader and that my love affair with books ended a long time ago. The end came after it finally settled in that publishing companies could wrap pages of crap between two shiny covers as easily as they could a great novel, biography or scientific thesis—and that, in fact, they preferred to do so because the going price of crap is so much better than that of a great novel, especially when you figure in sales volumes.
Prior to this awakening, I would love just being in bookstores or libraries or, better, college library stacks. I felt as though I were wrapped in knowledge and wisdom and that any book I reached for would have something to tell me that it would at least be good, if not indispensable, to know. And, if the book had been certified by the amorphous class of English and history teachers and professors as a classic, I would feel as if I really held at least a shard of the Meaning of Life in my hands.
Different streams converged to wash this world away. First, I grew up and, having read a significant number of the classics, found that they were helpful and worthwhile but not the end of the search for meaning. Second, as old liberal arts teachers and professors died, newer, less intelligent ones who were enamored of their own works and other literary junk, started certifying worthless texts as tributes to the intelligence and merit they firmly believed they, the teachers and professors, possessed. Finally, books became cheaper and cheaper to produce, first as actual books and, lately, as e-books.
This last bit, the cheap production part, has filled the shelves of what few bookstores that are left with the writings of a literary class enamored of itself (and, frequently, its members' genitalia) on one end and the either low-brow or purely technical book on the other. The first don't sell but get media attention and a writing credit for the author who goes on to a low-grade literary or academic career. The second generates the cash flow that keeps the remaining physical bookstores alive.
At the Barnes and Noble I went to last night, I noticed there were two waist-high shelves of philosophy books, with significant gaps where more books might find rest, next to six, similarly-sized, packed shelves for New Age and Astrology. There were also long rows of technical and instruction manuals, mostly for computers. And, the appetite of BN customers for books for Dummies and Idiots is (I inferred from the allotted shelf space) very large, as well. These series very cleverly target the audience one gets when combining the audiences of the low-brow and the technical (perhaps that's what is meant in business-speak by "synergy").
Mostly for old times sake, I made an effort at finding that great novel that somehow combined what I liked about The Razor's Edge (Maugham), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Adams), Down and Out in Paris and London (Orwell), Mere Christianity (Lewis) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway). I knew I wouldn't find it, but I did burn a lot of the calories from dinner going back and forth.
I knew I wouldn't find it, because most of the fiction section at BN is given over to science fiction, romance and western novels. There are only a few rows left to this category:
And, the way they lump them both together shows that they don't really know the difference or have given up on trying to develop a standard to discern which is which. You can take my word for it that the split is about 95 percent "fiction" and five percent "literature" (even accounting for the overlap between the two categories). Just make sure that your taste in literature isn't too old or obscure. Many of the good works of the first half of the twentieth century and even the serious literary works of the Sixties aren't there. Of course, you can always buy Shakespeare and Twain in several glittery, discounted editions that have a nice margin because the works are in the public domain.
Now, it is at this point that I must leave the path you might think that I'm on and say that I do not mourn the demise of the bookstore. Like newspapers, they've been dying a slow death for the past 30 years and we've all just been waiting to get final word of their passing. Outside of New York City and, maybe, Chicago, those newspapers that remain are merely shells of the thick, daily tomes they used to be. What bookstores remain are enlarged versions of the airport newsstand—only the works that will sell and sell quickly are given place. Libraries, as well, are digitizing and becoming smaller, barely able to justify their existence outside a university setting.
What has taken their place is actually much better. Although I don't find refuge from the world in places of books anymore, I do like that a work of the world's great literature can be had on my Kindle within seconds. And, if I really want an actual book on paper, I can get a copy within a couple of days by mail and hardly be inconvenienced. Forty-eight hours of shipping time is equivalent to just two sleeps and fourteen kid activities.
While cheap production methods do produce a lot of unworthy works, they also have made it easier for those voices I'm interested in to be heard. As noted above, the old gatekeepers of literature have gone on and the new ones are often vain, petty and political (usually to the Left). Many of the books I've read over the past ten years are from Christian authors who would never have been picked up by major publishers. And, at least a few of those works have been worthy of the minor classics. A truly great book may be in the works even now and in need of those new production methods to see the light of day.
So, for the new year, perhaps the standard date should change. My wife and I would both really like to find a good piano bar in which to enjoy some music and each other's company after dinner. And, with a Kindle each, we can pretend we're in the most wonderful place of all—the stacks with a bar.