The word is not good.

On a recent journey, it was simple enough to find a bookshop in a major city. A few perhaps. A Barnes &  Noble. An independent bookshop. Larger cities might even have two or more. Especially if there is a university close. Perhaps, if the city aspires to a significant intellectual life, you will find a good used bookshop as well. But most American cities today do not have an independent bookshop. A fact. Many do not even have a book chain outlet. The great majority do not have a used bookshop.

“We have the Wal-Mart. They have books, you know.  I’m pretty sure. Have you been up that way? I’d use the library myself.”

“What kind of things do you like to read?”

“Biography. I read that biography of Eli Manning last year. My daughter got it for me for Christmas. I think she got it from Amazon though.”

“What kinds of books do you take out at the library?”

“Oh, I don’t know. My wife does mostly. She likes mysteries.”

“What kind of mysteries does she like best?”

“Oh, I don’t know. This and that. I think she read the Da Vinci Code a while back.”

Pursuing the anecdote can be perverse. Your mind is adjusting to each answer and trying to find the question that might reveal a better truth than the one glaring at you. But it only gets worse.

Bookstores cannot survive if people do not care to read.

A friend of mine admonished me recently. He said I was being too negative. He works at a book printer and their business has recently seen an uptick. Then he cited the positive development of the ‘self-publishing’ industry.

This is something I have thought about myself. Thought too much about, I think.

So we all publish our own books. How nice.

No need for editors. No need for any authority that may tell us what we are writing is crap!

In twenty or thirty years, think of all the children cleaning out their parent’s homes after the funeral…Listen…

“What the hell are we going to do with these books? Daddy gave at least one copy to everybody in the family. What do we do with the rest of them? There must be a hundred more in that closet.”

I imagine some sour critic will be writing about this one day. But for the moment, my friend at the printer has seen an up-tick.

In Minneapolis I happily discovered that they have several fine used bookshops. The Book House in Dinkytown near the University reminds me of my own store (or the way it was once), and I spent several lovely hours there in the perfume of good literature. James and Mary Laurie Booksellers right in the middle of town is a totally unexpected treasure. The unique Uncle Hugo’s & Uncle Edgar’s carries both new and used titles piled high and deep. (There were more shops I never had the chance to see. I was in town for other reasons, and those demands were compelling.) The new book market in Minneapolis is dominated by a large and seemingly healthy Barnes & Noble, but there is one shop I totally missed, about which I had heard great things, Magers & Quinn, and now I am feeling quite guilty for my miss. It’s a large city and all those one-way streets eat up a lot of time if you don’t know your way.

But in another, smaller college town, Tiffin, Ohio, there is nothing. There is a large library which has made itself useful as a community center, where much of the floor space has been emptied of bookcases. Books have been replaced by computer monitors. The one used bookshop in Tiffin before this is gone now. The one new bookshop remaining is really just a very large newsstand offering a better than average selection of magazine titles, but that appears to be on its last leg as well, with every other light turned out in the ceiling fixtures to save energy. The darkness of the store from the outside is in keeping with the empty windows of the other shops in so many of the splendid older buildings there, but the Book Nook was still open as of October 24th.  And, there is, of course, a Wal-Mart in Tiffin if you are looking for a James Patterson title.

For most small cities and larger towns in American these days, there is no need for a bookshop, new or used. It is unwanted. A supposed fact, which I was told more than once.

“Why do we need a bookshop? All they print is trash anyway.”

The digital television dishes sprout at the rooftops from Abington Massachusetts to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere.

I missed Bookworms and Videos in Fort Dodge. I asked if there was a shop in town and was told no. Later, at a gas station a fellow said he thought there was one, but “they mostly have movies.” Now, on-line, I see someone has said that Bookworms has “many used books to choose from, at a very low price.” Sorry I missed that. If true, it makes them unique. Dozens of such inquiries in dozens of other towns netted me nothing but long pauses, hesitations, corrections of forgotten memories, and in many cases the much used, “We do have a library.”

The sum of my recent journey was quite wonderful. Old route 50 is a glorious road which I would recommend to anyone not in a hurry. And if you are in a hurry, it is you who are at fault. But don’t look for bookshops.

The saddest moments of the trip were spent looking through windows, hazy with a film of grime, at vacant shelves fallen down to floors littered with an empty coffee cup or two left behind by movers long gone.

The civilization I knew is dying. Some are quite happy about this, or so I’ve read. And heard. But I doubt these comments are made with any constructive thought. There seems to be a desire to destroy without any rational idea of what might replace what has been lost, or what might be accomplished in the aftermath.

And in the interim, technology had made communications fabulously cheap. The sheer wealth of data is overwhelming. And because the education system has been so geared for so long toward socializing the populace to the acceptance of the currently common prejudices (oddly called ‘diversity’ in a new bit of Orwellian misdirection), there is little chance for a recovery. The printed word is being lost even as I write this. Libraries are well along in the process of divesting themselves of those ‘troublesome books.’ Better to have the electronic database that can be updated, scourged, cleaned, homogenized, and replaced at the touch of a button.

And there is no outcry. Eyes glaze over at the suggestion that there is something wrong.

“Books are too expensive.”

Or,  “Look at this. I can store 4000 books in this one Kindle! Why do I need to fill up space with a lot of dead trees?”

Why, indeed.

“I see you have the new McCullough book. What do you think of it?”

“Oh. I got that for Christmas. But it’s so heavy. I’ve downloaded it onto my iPad. I read the first part. But I’ve been a little too busy to finish it.”

This from someone who has spent hundreds of hours this year messaging friends on twitter, watching sitcoms and sports on television, and downloading the latest movies.

With scholarship debased to the level of a Wikipedia entry, who will stand as the authority now?

The mob was once the tool of the orator, a group small enough to gather within the sound of a single voice, and large enough for a lynching, the scope of its violence limited by simple geography. Now, the mob is the greater force, web-wide, unaccountable, and available to do the bidding of any self-appointed Marat in the flash of a twitter feed.

The politics of the tweet is as limited as a scream. Perhaps that is the appropriate zeitgeist of our new age.

Reading a book is a quiet endeavor–a silent dialog. Not limited to 140 characters, we are alone with the many words of an author. We must pursue the communication–the relating of fact, inquiry, questions, acceptance, doubts, denials, inspiration, revelation–as individuals. We may join a mob after the fact, but only at the loss of that thread of conversation that informed us.

I saw a hundred splendid farms on my journey. I saw men and women working into the dark of the evening to prepare the soil for the winter months before the onslaught of bad weather. I have seen this before during planting season, as well as for the harvest.

Alone in my car, I thought to myself, those farmers live in a more comforting world, for all the troubles of weather and finance. In their cosmos, this method or that will produce a more certain result. They must plant before this time or the crop will not flourish. They must harvest by that time or the crop will be spoiled. I suppose books may be of little importance to someone who must work a sixteen-hour day, seven days a week, when the weather is prime. And there are other jobs which have similar demands. But over the longer year–during the farmer’s winter months–can the culture that makes their lives possible survive if they are so uninformed as to vote for whomever offers the largest subsidy?

I know that books were the winter refuge of the New England farmer. To this day you can find barns filled with moldering volumes of past generations. The Yankees read. Knowledge was not to be feared. And when I run across their letters tucked within the endpapers, I am often astonished at the use of language and the depth of thought. Newspaper clippings detail special interests. Marginal pencil notes tell me that they had their doubts about this or were excited by that. Gift inscriptions express the heartfelt belief that the book in hand was important and worth the time of someone else’s life, when time was not to be wasted.

When ‘college students’ demand their educations for ‘free’ without reasoning the ‘cost’ to others, and refuse to read anything that might disturb their self-absorbed ideas of academic necessity, I wonder what has happened to the world of the University, where those students were supposed to be informed by professors who had some inkling of the larger whole–the bigger picture, and the meaning of words. Clearly books are not a part of that equation now.

Authority is evil. Is that the deal? Wikipedia is all they need.

Until the lights go out.