Most of us are complicit in the failure of bookstores. The bookstores themselves didn’t modernize. We wanted our coffee, and they didn’t serve coffee. They weren’t in the right location. The books themselves became less interesting. Shorter, less deep, less adventuresome, less important. The publishers didn’t want to publish anything controversial. They became more interested in selling fewer titles to more and more people, and books became more homogenized, less demanding. Books occupied us, but they didn’t move us. It is as if we have forgotten how to read. We turn to our “devices.” The death of bookstores is a big complicated subject, and I have written about it it on this blog here and here and here.
The period we’re in right now, beginning twenty or thirty years ago with the development of the web and the digitalizing of data and then the first Kindle in 2010, is matched in importance by only one other cultural period in our civilization’s history—the invention of moveable type after 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, a German city on the Rhine. What links us to the people in Mainz is the changes in the way that data—information—is passed on. Before Gutenberg, if you wanted a new Bible—for the most part, these people in the later Middle Ages thought the Bible held all the information they needed to know—and if you were rich enough, you paid some poor monk to copy one for you. If your neighbor wanted his own copy, he had to find another monk. Getting a new copy of anything meant you had to spend a great deal of money, which is why the church and the very highest nobility as well as any local kings in the neighborhood were just about the only market there was for a hand lettered and decorated book, the only kind there was.
Initially, people looked at Gutenberg’s new movable print book and didn’t know what to do with it. Why do we need two new copies of the Jerome Bible? Did we get a new Archbishop in the cathedral? Who would buy these new books? What would they do with them? What they did, actually, was to start the Reformation, which started wars and revolutions which came about because Martin Luther said everybody should be able to read the Bible in his own language. In the past, books had been so expensive and were made so slowly that no one had thought of what you might do with, say, 100 copies of a big Bible. It’s like having one hundred copies of the Washington Monument. Why? Transportation, warehousing, sales—all required that someone think to himself, “I have 1000 Bibles, and I own a house on the main drag in Mainz and I can put up a sign that says, ‘Bibles! Bibles for Sale!’ Then that person needs to say, ‘Come at Michaelmas and get yours.’ Bring money.” You had to convince people that everybody needs a Bible. It took a while for a Mainz inhabitant to learn that it would be most efficient if the town held a book fair at a stated time every year. Over 150 years, book buyers and sellers in Europe created times and places where one went to buy books. People learned to read. They developed agents and editors and buyers and distributers, a whole industry around print books. They figured out how to use the new technology, and why. In the end, this new technology led to the Renaissance and consequently to the modern age. The world was changed. Read exhaustively about this process in The Book in the Renaissance, by Andrew Pettegree.
Our culture has been in turmoil for less than fifteen years. During our transition from print to digital books, many bookstores have closed. People can buy books off the internet. Publishers have to sell more and more copies to make money. Publishers have been bought by conglomerates who have no native obligation to readers, and ebooks have arisen, and it feels like chaos. What we know is this: our culture is changing in fundamental ways, and nobody knows how digital books, as opposed to print books, are going to sort themselves out. We don’t know what effect this is going to have on our intellectual lives. What we do know is that this crisis is bigger than we are. And we can only partially control it. It may be clear that we don’t know what we control and what we can’t.
Calamus Books has gotten caught up in all this, but it has also affected writers, who have discovered that only parts of the lives of LGBTQ people may be written about (the publishers don’t want writers to write about anything controversial). What part of the failure of the book store is a consequence of the management of the store’s being unwilling to modernize and what part is a consequence of global forces having to do with Microsoft and Apple. How much of the failure of Calamus Books is a result of the effect of the web on all of us—we want to read things that are short and snappy and have immediate effect. As gay people, we don’t seem to want to read books that show us as victims. Was it really us who killed Calamus Books, because we wanted our books now, on my iPad, in the next 90 seconds? Part of what I think is distressing is that we don’t know. And we have not discussed these events among ourselves. Individually, we did not come together and demand to know what could be done to stop the change that is happening or to control its direction.
And yet, even in our ignorance of what is happening to our culture, we still understand that, whatever it is, it is is hugely important. And we ought to make a bigger effort so that the future will be more what we want it to be, rather than less. We ought to have some sayso, here, in what the future is going to look like. Is a future without Calamus Books what we really want? Nowhere to go where they’re willing to talk about LGBTQ books? And if not, where can I find an adult book on a mature subject at a decent price?
A third installment next time looking at the question, What can be done?
Andrew Pettegree. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010