On the Modern Bookshop

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Tucked away in the affluent neighborhood of Daikanyama, in Tokyo, is Tsutaya Books, a design gem and book emporium that frequently features on lists of the best bookshops in the world. Large glass panels and white, woven facades distinguish the three-pavilion complex that houses a diverse range of books (in Japanese and English), plus an upscale restaurant, a Starbucks, and a travel concierge in the travel books section. There is no denying the pleasure of walking through the gleaming spaces, or of sitting at a large wooden desk with a view of the majestic trees outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The space spelled perfection – no dust, no insects, no stray books displaced. Being a bibliophile, bookshops are my natural habitat, but there was something jarring about Tsutaya. From the cafe to the design section, Tsutaya was mainly frequented by the trendy and wealthy customers who reside in the neighborhood. With the exception of a few arts students, it was difficult to spot someone who did not carry a luxury bag. Setting aside the affluence of Daikanyama as a contributing factor, I wondered whether the glamorization of reading, coupled with the commercialization of the modern bookshop, does not ironically spell the end of the book.

I grew up in the vicinity of a modern bookshop, and it provided much-needed sanctuary during adolescent years of existential confusion. That branch of Chapter’s (a chain of bookstores in Canada) was the place where I collected cheap paperback copies of classics, discovered contemporary prize-winners, and honed the art of book collecting. It was not a luxurious place, though modern, and on most Friday evenings, it was mainly filled with  students, bookworms or those looking for a birthday card. The shop will be closed at the end of the month, and its demise – alongside the demise of numerous similar establishments – signals the end of an era in the history of the bookshop. North American chains, such as Barnes & Nobles, probably occupy a space between the cozy, ever so slightly dilapidated secondhand shops of Europe and the grand, luxurious bookshops like Tsutaya. Perhaps glamorization is an effective marketing scheme, and by rendering the act of reading chic and sexy, bookshops not only hope to sell more books but also to encourage reading. Perhaps. At Eslite, a grand bookstore in Taipei (with chains in other Asian countries), I once came across a book signing event, in which an author encouraged young people to become novelists because it is now fashionable; true to the spirit of his book, many readers in attendance carried Prada bags and scrawled notes on the newest iPads. In many cafes in Taipei, there are piles of English books sitting in corners, by the window, or used to enhance the look of certain products. Vintage books have become fetish objects, and the bookworm is no longer a denigrated character, but a persona that many willingly assume, while relaxing in a gorgeous space decorated with books.

The linking of literature with fashion can be damaging to the former, much like the rising practice of giving students monetary reward for every book read – the surface reward (whether it’s $5 or a glamorous public image) erodes the intrinsic value of reading. We need to not just read, but to be seen reading. The spectacle of the reader means that the act of reading, and not just the physical books themselves, has been completely consumed by the market, like all the other arts. While shops like Tsutaya were founded with the ideal of resisting the advent of digital media, I wonder if they’re not as detrimental to reading as Facebook and tablets, if not more so. British novelist Will Self recently published a verbose panegyric on the death of literary fiction, and he points out how ‘The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestation’. When the culture of reading (and concomitantly, writing) becomes saturated with glamor, ruled by trends, it will be purely a matter of easy, fast consumption, without difficulties or complications, much like fashion. This process has already begun, of course – no other cultural conditions could have allowed for the flourishing of Fifty Shades of Grey. In an age of intellectual laxity, it is no wonder that books (particularly difficult ones that will not be read) have been reduced to merely decorative objects or status symbols in so many places in the world. When I see vintage Penguin paperbacks and literary paraphernalia such as fountain pens – which are now extremely popular outside western culture – I feel a sense of sadness, despite my ardent love for these objects, because they are remnants of a time that is no more. In an era where solitary reading, deep thought and intellectual engagement are unfashionable, what could such objects be except consumerist trends and empty signifiers pointing to a vacuous beyond?

So, the luxury bookshops, for all their convenience and beauty, will never replace their precursors. Of course bookshops are necessarily commercial spaces, but they should also be spaces for thinking, for imaginary journeys, for serendipitous encounters with that perfect sentence. Perhaps there are some similarities between the luxury bookshop and virtual spaces that encourage bibliophilia and reading. The newly launched My Independent Bookshop, backed by Penguin, allows bookworms to create their own ‘gateway to brand new worlds’. While choosing books for one’s own shop and choosing the ‘wallpaper’ can be quite fun, it is also a bit unnerving, since this is a shop that one can never enter, pages that one can never touch. But for every book bought, a percentage of the sale goes to a local, independent bookshop, so the website is linked to the spaces of real bookshops.

There is something about luxury bookshops that, like the virtual one, feels slightly removed from the physical, humble, and highly subjective experience of reading. Perhaps that sense of the unreal stems from the shop’s seeming perfection, or from the fact that many books (in shops such as Eslite) are wrapped in plastic to protect them from dust and humidity, thus rendering browsing impossible. Jean-Luc Nancy provides superb descriptions of the bookshop experience in his On the Commerce of Thinking: On Books and Bookstores –

‘[The reader in a bookstore] doesn’t devour, but tastes, inhales, sniffs, or licks the substance. The bookstore is a perfumery, rotisserie, patisserie: a dispensary of scents and flavours through which something like a fragrance or bouquet of the book is divined, presumed, sensed. It is where one gives oneself or finds an idea of the book’s Idea, a sketch, an illusion, a suggestion. Perhaps it speaks of what one was looking for, what one was hoping for.’

Nancy recognises the full sensory, even sensual, experience of the bookshop. And the scent of books beckons the bibliophile forward. Nothing smells as intoxicating as a secondhand bookstore, the scent that floods the mind with memories and an ardent sense of curiosity.

‘Even touching books communicates to the reader particular impressions: the weight, grain, or suppleness through which one thinks one can discern the inflections of a voice or else the fluctuations of a heart.’

Wandering through narrow corridors lined with shelves or turning yellowed pages that carry the scent of ages – these are bookshop experiences that are rapidly becoming obsolete. I think of the old bookshops on Charing Cross Road; G. David in Cambridge; and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris – the places where we might ‘find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being […and] balance ourselves after the splendors and miseries of the streets’ (Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting’). The complex spaces and shelves of these shops in a way mirror the Gutenberg mind, from the dust-covered corners of which something new or old always springs forth at the invitation of the familiar scent. I would gladly exchange designer armchairs and Starbucks coffee for such spaces again. It is not just the loss of beautiful vintage volumes that I mourn, but the loss of a solitary, internal life that is deeply entangled with reading, of life that leaps forth from words, of the infinitude of being and feeling suggested by the well-worn pile that accompanies the perpetual traveler.

Nancy says it best, and deserves to be quoted here in full:

‘For, in the end, the Idea of the book will always, from its very conception, have been the Idea of its reading, and through that reading, the Idea of another book, of another writing that continues on from the first […] In fact reading does not lead to more reading, but to everything else, to what is sometimes called action and sometimes experience, where we rub up against the illegible real.

All the same, it is only by always reading anew that one can discard books one by one. Throw them not on the pyre or into oblivion, but launch them further and more profoundly into what should, with just cause, be called the bookstore of the soul, the free space of a devouring of and by the pure Idea, the labyrinth of books that are read, jotted on, forgotten, and dust-covered, the books learned and forgotten by heart, the creasing of the edges of pages whose image always comes back because they contain certain precious words.’

 

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