Saturday, October 25, 2014

Books ARE Glorious!

A Clerk of Oxford translates an ode to books from an Old English poem:

'Books are glorious. They abundantly proclaim
the appointed purpose to anyone who thinks at all.
They strengthen and made stable the steadfast thought,
gladden the heart of every man
amid the pressing miseries of this life.
Saturn says:
Bold is he who tastes the skill of books;
he will ever be the wiser who has command of them.
Solomon says:
Victory they send to each of the true-hearted,
the haven of healing for those who love them.'

Further comment:

The value to be found in books, and in learning and wisdom generally, is a common theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry - although the most famous bookworm in Old English gets nothing by the books he devours! TheSolomon and Saturn example is particularly nice because it doesn't just talk about the value but the pleasure of books: they amyrgaĆ° 'make merry, gladden' the heart in the midst of the troubles of the world. Don't they, indeed?

Today, of course, books are so readily available--in earlier eras they have been rare, expensive, and of limited range. Terry Teachout points out in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal that for all their availability, the way we shop for books has actually limited their range--if we don't shop in real bookstores, used or new, and only search on line for the books we think we need, we don't find the book(s) we really might need. He offers an excerpt from the column (behind The WSJ paywall) on his blog;

On a recent trip to Chicago, I spent an hour wandering through the Seminary Co-Op, the University of Chicago’s much-loved independent bookstore, which claims to have more than 100,000 titles in stock at any given moment. I bought three books during my visit. . . .

He explains that two of the books he bought, on subjects he is interested in, he had never heard of:

What’s the point of this anecdote? Just this: It was solely because I visited the Seminary Co-Op that I bought those two books. Yet it had been at least two years, if not more, since I’d set foot in a large brick-and-mortar bookstore. Nor can I remember the last time that I went into a record store of any size. Like a fast-growing number of Americans, I now do virtually all of my book and record buying online. It’s cheaper and infinitely more convenient to click a few keys and be done with it.

That’s the good part. Here’s the bad part: Nowadays I buy a book or record onlybecause I’m specifically looking for it. But when I went to the Seminary Co-Op, I browsed purely for the sake of browsing, and in so doing made two happy discoveries. Had I not stumbled across “Music Makes Me” and “Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert” purely by chance, I doubt I would ever have learned of their existence, much less bought and read them.

In 2006 I noted in this space that online stores like Amazon were “seeking to replace the personal touch…with ‘preference engines’ that automatically generate computerized lists of ‘other items you might enjoy’ each time you make a purchase.” Eight years later, I can report that these marketing tools haven’t made the slightest bit of difference in my own life. So far as I can recall, I’ve never bought an “other item you might enjoy” from Amazon, not even once.

For me, then, preference engines have not replaced browsing. But neither has anything else. As a result, I no longer browse. What’s more, I suspect that my experience is widely shared. Browsing, it appears, will soon be as dead as dial phones. That constitutes a huge cultural shift, one whose unintended consequences are not yet clear. Still, I’m sure that they’re going to be significant, and if I had to guess, I’d say they’ll be harmful….

I agree with Teachout. Long live Eighth Day Books, which just celebrated its 26th anniversary--with a sale, at which I browsed, and found two books to buy!

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