The Demise of Literature

In thinking about the demise of the bookstore, I got to thinking about the books that are sold there. And I think that may be a big part of the problem–there is very little true literature being published anymore.

This has been especially obvious to be when shopping for books for my children to read. There are plenty of fluff choices–Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Junie B. Jones, etc. But these are all books that are not welcome in our house. Aside from the fact that they often feature characters that we don’t want our children to emulate, they’re just poorly written. Poor sentence structure, simplistic vocabulary–it’s the dumbing down of America in one neat little package. Children are no longer being encouraged to read books with rich storylines and complex sentence structure and vocabulary–now they’re just encouraged to read the latest gross-out story, or something that, while it may make them laugh, won’t make them think.

But how are children supposed to learn to be good writers themselves, if they don’t have good writers to model their work after? They say that one of the best way to encourage a child’s skill in writing is to give him something well-written to read. Doing copywork based on good literature is an excellent exercise for children in discovering how a good sentence is constructed, learning new words, learning how to write himself.

And how is a child supposed to be prepared to read adult classics, if he’s only been exposed to fluff as a child? I suppose the short answer is, fewer and fewer adults are reading the classics–they’re just reading the adult version of fluff. This, too, is painfully obvious in bookstores–it seems that anyone can get a book published today, regardless of ability or creativity.

We don’t just give children candy to eat–some parents don’t even give their children any. Rather, we focus on healthy, balanced nutrition. So why don’t we take the same approach to children’s minds? Instead of filling their brains up with the literary version of candy, we should be filling them with the protein and vegetables of the literary world. Perhaps if we raised our standards on what makes acceptable literature, books, (and by extension bookstores), would experience a renaissance, and more people would want to buy, and read, good stories.

The Demise of the Bookstore

I love books and reading. Big surprise, given that I’m classically educating my children using literature as the backbone for pretty much everything we do, right. So, it makes me sad to hear that brick and mortar bookstores are struggling, (even the so-called “big box” stores), and even closing their doors for good.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Amazon. I love their low prices, I love that I can order books from them that I can’t actually find in a bookstore, (which may be part of the bookstores’ problem), I love their customer service, (which is surprisingly good for an online retailer), I love the free shipping. But it’s not the same as going into an actual bookstore.

There’s just something about shopping in a bookstore. The racks of books in front of you, waiting to be opened, perused, and bought. The staff recommendations, pointing you to books you might otherwise have walked right past. The tables of new releases in the front, just begging you to buy a book and be one of the first to read it. All of the different sections of books to explore–travel, literature, cooking, children’s books, and more, just waiting for you to notice when you walk by.

Mitch Albom had a great piece in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press about the imminent closing of the Borders chain. He has a unique perspective, both as an author, and as someone who shopped at the very first Borders store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes about the way reading has changed, and therefore shopping for books has changed as well.

His most astute observation, (in my opinion)? People just don’t love books the way they used to. And I think he’s right. Because bookstores today, whether Borders or Barnes and Noble, or others, have split their focus too much. You can now buy music and movies and toys and stationary at bookstores, and in large quantities, not simply as an afterthought off an obscure rack. You can get a whole meal from the cafe, not a simple cup of joe. Bookstores aren’t just about books anymore, which is a huge part of the problem.

Just as Albom observed, there was a charm to those small, dimly lit bookstores of yesterday, crammed full of books, new and used, popular and obscure, big and small. And there were just books in those stores, because that’s what a bookstore should be–not a toy store, or a coffee shop, or a music store, but a store that focuses mainly, (or entirely), on books. There’s an irony in the fact that Borders, a store with simple roots, became so huge that it played a part in many independent retailers closing the doors of their bookstores, is now suffering the same fate.

Maybe people like me are part of the problem. I do enjoy getting a coffee at the bookstore, and have been known to buy a movie there as well. And as much as I love browsing in an actual bookstore, I’m still more likely to order a book online, once I figure out what I want. But maybe, just maybe, if there was an old-fashioned bookstore around here, that sold only books, and had a staff knowledgeable about literature, I might be reconverted to shopping in an actual brick and mortar store.