Looking up from a paperback, you notice the bookstore’s packed but no one’s reading or buying anything. Not the ladies blocking the aisle to the restrooms, laughing loud and talking to each other over bookcases. And, certainly, not the couple making out over in the poetry section. Those groups leave when a hostess calls them to be seated in the adjoining restaurant. They’re replaced by a group of guys taking their conversation from the bar to the bookstore and bringing their drinks along to be placed on those shelves.
And of all its purposes, one thing’s clear: books may function only as decorations for some people. But what if they ceased to exist, or never existed at all? No bookstores or libraries. No spot — and no way — for book fiends to cop a fix and nod off in literary stupors. That question has some writers, literary activists and advocates in D.C. redefining their world.
“Without our literary legacy we would have to ‘dream’ a world,” said E. Ethelbert Miller, who chairs and serves on the boards of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and The Writer’s Center, respectively. Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. “I can’t imagine an educational institution like a college without books,” the poet and author said. Try imagining Islam without the Quran. “Impossible,” he said. Books help shape identity.
They shaped his while growing up in the South Bronx during the late 1950s and early 1960s. That period, known as the post-World War II era, was dominated by the “Beat Generation.” The literary movement formed in New York City around Columbia University and was established later in San Francisco. The term “beat” — according to various sources — “referred to the countercultural rhythm of the Jazz scene” and “to a sense of rebellion regarding the conservative stress of post-war society.”
During that era, bookstores were popular places for writers and thinkers. Miller recalled spending Saturdays with his brother, hitting up bookstores in Greenwich Village. “We fail to understand that a bookstore is not simply where one goes to purchase a book — it’s also a place of community,” he said. Of the times now, he added, “We are a people in need of new literary guardians. The loss of our literary institutions is a victory of ignorance.”
That victory of ignorance once had people thinking the world was flat. Only through literature were they able to dismiss such a notion, said Abdul Ali, host of Poet’s Corner on WPFW. “Literature offers dimension to our imagination and records the evolution of our intellectual heritage,” he said. It’s also “a record of conversations that authors have with society since the beginning of presses.” Without books, he added, all of that is lost.
So why is something so significant taken for granted? “There are way too many things that compete with literature these days,” Ali said. “We’re seeing the consequences of this across the nation.” Recent data by the National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF), a literary advocacy group, showed that 42 million American adults are illiterate. About 50 million are not reading at fourth or fifth grade levels, and the number of functionally illiterate adults increases by about 2.25 million each year. “Our literate culture is deteriorating,” Ali said. He recalled a time when writers used literature to communicate to large populations. “Nowadays,” Ali added, “writers are just talking to other writers.”
Casey Tesfaye, poet and senior research analyst at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md., can’t imagine a world without her books. Her appreciation for them came when she went through what she called “a period of detox and transition” after completing a strenuous college program. “I used them as an escape from my thoughts and my life,” Tesfaye said. “At the time, I especially appreciated [Native American writer] Sherman Alexie’s dark novel, ‘Indian Killer.’”
To some folks, literary institutions are seen as “high-minded and made out to be distant or unavailable,” she said. Some people are put off by the idea and attitude of some artists and intellectuals that literature belongs to some and not others. “The word ‘literary,’ alone, evokes wine and slippers,” Tesfaye said. However, “The truth is that there is something out there within the literary world for everyone. There is something that can stir you, no matter who you are.”
Brian Gilmore, a public interest lawyer and poet and writer and columnist, has a different take on the idea of a world without books. “I don’t think our world will ever be without a literary legacy, I just think that legacy is evolving into something else based up on our development and our ability to communicate with each other differently now,” Gilmore said. Before books, there was an oral history that often included folklore, myths, songs and stories that were passed down from generations by word of mouth.
Both E. Ethelbert Miller and the poet Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade) agreed that without books, the oral history would be one that’s strong and current. “We might be more communal without the book,” Miller said. Dias-Porter added that people would have better memories. “There would still be stories and poems, they just wouldn’t be written down and would be a little harder to share across cultures,” the poet said. And what’s lost without books? “The ease with which information can be communicated, not just across physical space, but across time,” Dias-Porter said. “We know Chaucer’s work because it was preserved in a written form.”
And just like those oral histories were recorded in written form and printed inside of books, Gilmore said the way people communicate is ever-changing. Technology, he noted, is already forcing books to become something else. (Books and articles can be downloaded and read off electronic devices; and Google introduced its electronic reader, the Kindle, in 2007.) So, 100 years from now, will parents read to their children? the poet and columnist wonders. Or will that intimacy be lost with e-books and electronic readers? While there’s no way of knowing that, Gilmore said, “These are the kinds of technological issues that are before us that will change us but will also open up enormous possibilities for development and knowledge exchange.”