Monday, August 21, 2006

Getting under the covers

First, I happened upon a message board where young readers speculated madly on how the (now-defunct) movie of Gossip Girl should be cast. ("Yohomeboy" said "they should totally find unknown stars to play all the people cuz if they pick a old person like lindsey lohan then everyone is going to have bad thoughts about them already they should totally be new peeps who are perfect for the parts biatch not lindsey lohan!!!!")

Then I found a lengthy rumination on the closing of the fabled Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley:


Those were the years when just having a copy of a certain book could mark you as hip. Howl, say, or Das Kapital or Steppenwolf or The Rubyfruit Jungle or The Monkey Wrench Gang--carried face-out, of course, or read at a cafe table, it could get you kissed. Buying such a book in Berkeley infused it, and its buyer, with cachet.

But books don't mean what they once did. For those who write and read and publish and sell them, that's sad. But it's reality. When street mayhem broke out on Telegraph in the first years of the new millennium, the thieves stole shoes, scooters, CDs. No one looted the bookshops.

Did Telegraph kill Cody's? Hut Landon of the Independent Booksellers' Association certainly thinks so: "I wouldn't walk that street at night." He lived on Channing and Telegraph as a student in the 1970s. "Yes, there were wackos then but they weren't aggressive," he says sadly. "They weren't all hustling me for stuff. Cody's didn't do anything wrong. Cody's was a victim of its surroundings."

Less willing to blame the neighborhood, Andy Ross speaks darkly of something subtler but more devastating: a cultural shift. They're both right, of course. It's all part of that death by a thousand cuts.

First, America's book-buying demographic changed. Yes, people still buy books, but who are they? In fact, today's customers are the same as yesteryear's--the exact same customers. They're the Rubyfruiters and Monkey Wrenchers of yore; they simply grew up. They're now parents, homeowners, above-average earners. The typical American bookbuyer is a woman thirty to sixty years old. To her, and her male counterpart, books still mean what they always did. The right book can still be a status symbol, a social signifier. But things are different now for the young, including today's Telegraph habitues. The shattering of a monoculture into myriad microcultures has made it impossible for any single book to broadcast: Behold: This is me.

What books once did, tattoos now do.

While I'm certainly hoping that a copy of Gossip Girl doesn't say "Behold: This is me," I'm not sure that a unicorn on the ankle says that either. As the Gossip Girl message board demonstrates, books still do offer community, even when it's one of a more populist, even manufactured, design than the entre nous, "underground" kind that surrounds cult classics. (The article ignores the fact that those for whom Steppenwolf worked as a pickup ploy were always part of a microculture, anyway. Anything with "cachet" always is.)

The thing that's always kept me from tattoos is their permanence. Who wants to be stuck, at fifty, with what you thought was cool in your twenties? Do people look at that yinyang thing on their shoulder and cringe? But with books, you can reinvent yourself more often than Madonna. And I think that the book-as-personal-flirtation-device still has possibilities. (It probably doesn't even matter what you're reading, just the fact that you are ensures a certain degree of self-selection among the passersby.) Provided said book is closed, it's certainly an invitation to talk. But even this old-fashioned strategy proves vulnerable to corporate manipulation: I'm told that Pearson/Penguin commuters have been instructed to carry a copy of the Loren Long edition of The Little Engine That Could this Thursday in support of their company's sponsorship of Read for the Record Day. So if your idea of a good time is someone who whispers "I think I can, I think I can, I think can," then get yourself a copy.

16 comments:

Stacy Whitman said...

Here's something strange. None of your most recent posts, up to about August 7, are showing up on the LiveJournal feed. Rather than pop over to the site every day, I added the feed to my LJ friends' page, which lets me see new posts as they post. I'm not sure whether you manage the LJ feed, but I thought you might want to know about how it doesn't appear to be working lately.

rindawriter said...

Oh,no, no, no! That story about Cody's HURT! That picture of the empty bookshelves is utterly HAUNTING....I hope the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle survives, I hope, I PRAY...the best coffee, the best CHEESECAKE, the best books, the best children's picturebooks, the best quiet study spot....the best weird, little, obscure,interesting magazines and books...the best author readings in the WORLD!

http://www.elliottbaybook.com

I THOUGHT the literacy rate was supposed to be going up in the U.S. with all the author/illustrators visiting so many schools now. Apparently not. Apparently not. Wonder if the schools are wasting money on the author/illustrators when they maybe ought to just buy those children some books of their own? To read.....

In our local library, lots of things got stolen a few weeks ago by some burglars on a rampage through the neighborhood here in Bremerton...but...you guessed it...not the books. No, not the books.

jadelennox said...

Stacy, I've had no problems with the LJ feed.

Lisa Yee said...

I've been having problems with the LJ feed. I thought it was me.

Jane said...

We have to remember that even in The Good Old Days, readers were a self-selected group. Children (in TGOD) HAD to learn to read and HAD to read a certain canon of books. And reading then went on a downward slope quite quickly. And even in the Even Older Good Old Days, only a certain class of people could read.

Now we have more books than ever before and probably the same percentage of readers. You do the math.

Jane

Roger Sutton said...

Yes, Jane, and you also make me think of our conventional wisdom that boys-don't-read. What that too often means is that they don't read what we want them to, which is fiction. That big, shocking nobody's-reading study a year or so ago made the same mistake, defining "reading"as novels, poems, and plays, as if they represented the only kind of literacy that counted.

Jane said...

I wonder if graphic novels and manga are factored in the reading statistics.

Jane

Jordan Sonnenblick said...

I am a teacher & writer, so I have a huge stake in the "reading wars". I obsess over this stuff!

For what it's worth, I still find that teenagers will read & love fiction -- if it's handed to them by an adult they trust. The hard part is getting them SELF-motivated. No matter how enthused a student of mine becomes about books in class, I hardly ever manage to turn that student into a frequent flyer at either the library or a bookstore.

Sigh.

Anonymous said...

As a former resident of the Telegraph area (now a New Englander) I just have to answer the question posed about Cody's: Andy Ross killed the Telegraph Avenue store, but they still have their upscale footprint in another Berkeley location. The politics aren't worth mentioning here, but the truth is that there are a lot of bookstore owners and managers that are doing more to kill their stores than any economic or social influence ever could.

I believe it was Nick Hornby who said something about the death of reading, along the lines of promoting the joy of books over the benefits of books. Far too often bookstores are filled with people pushing product that all the joy is gone.

But any East Bay resident could tell you: if you wanted a book you could buy it anywhere, but if you wanted attitude you went to Cody's.

Nina said...

Anonymous is perfectly right about Cody's...but that "attitude" is the whole point. The whole Berkeley attitude has shifted...from Telegraph Ave. to Fourth street. Luckily, there's still Moe's on Telegraph, which always had the better attitude, plus that lovely old-bookstore smell.

And yes, I was influenced to get my first tattoo by a guy I had a crush on who worked at Cody's... but in the end my self-fulfilling twisted-logic was to get a tattoo exactly so that I would never become a 50 year old who would cringe the person I was at 19. So far it's working.

Nina

Anonymous said...

I'm still laughing about that last line about The Little Engine That Could as a flirting device. . . Roger, you made my day.

Andy Laties said...

This, from the Indianapolis Star:

"A study last year by Ipsos BookTrends concluded that independent bookstores took in 9 percent of the total money consumers spent on books, up from 6.9 percent in 2002. In the last two years 400 new independent stores have dotted neighborhoods across America."

I'd say this is a pretty effective rebuttal to the handwringing article about Cody's. Indie bookstores are coming BACK as a genre of citizen experience, not disappearing. Specific stores may go -- others will take their places.

MsAbcMom said...

Hello,
I am so glad to have found your site but SO SAD to hear that Cody's is no longer around!
-Kelly

Dan said...

You quote someone who asserts:

>But books don't mean what they once did.

Last time a woman tried to pick me up because of a book I was carrying was in 1986 -- riding on the Red Line in Boston -- the book, "Working Space" by Frank Stella (it was *the* book to read among a certain crowd in Boston that fall). Now it's twenty years later -- and maybe it's true there's a cultural shift going on and people no longer read much or check out the books others carry -- but Occam's Razor suggests in my case the far simpler reason that I am no longer in my twenties. I suspect the same is true of the person you quote....

I'm with you in your comparison of books and tattoos. Today I wouldn't want to be seen reading "Working Space" in public -- imagine if it had been a tattoo -- what a dreadful thought.

But what I really want to know is this -- which are the books you have carried in public recently that have caused a total stranger to strike up a conversation with you (either a flirtatious conversation, or not)?

Roger Sutton said...

I'm afraid the light isn't good enough for me to read on the subway and a person would need ESP to know what book I'm listening to on my iPod (currently Donna Leon's Death in a Strange Country). But I have a total commuter crush on the gentleman who often sits across from me reading deep books about German music. I would strike up a conversation but he always has his iPod going, too!

Anonymous said...

When Smithson found he failed to attract the eye of the attractive older gentleman with the interest in German music, he began to carry a deep book about German music himself. To his great surprise, the following day, twenty four other passengers whom he had failed to note as regulars in his car (possibly because their reading material was insubstantive) were now carrying deep books about German music as well. Perhaps, he thought, they, like he, were shy. But the following day when they were also sporting ipods a more alarming thought occurred to him. Perhaps they were not also after the attractive older German music lover but after him. He took to wearing dark glasses and a beret. No matter, soon the entire train was seen carrying deep books about German music. But when they failed to sport dark glasses and berets he relaxed. Sociologists became unusually exercised in the following months when a census turned up an odd demographic blip in an area of Boston where three fifths of the population were German music scholars and apparently never dateless. Smithson never spoke to the original carrier of the deep German book. But he did not mind. He was busy.