Why Books Remain(der)

May we be fortunate enough to live in a world with too many books.

“I had a friend once who looked at his library and discovered that even if he completely stopped filmmaking (he was a filmmaker too) and just decided to read the books he had in his library, it would take him until he was 100 years old. He was a little bit panicked. But he was courageous. He went out of his house. He went to the bookstore. And he bought ten books.” —Alain Resnais, director, Hiroshima mon amour

“We talked about books, how boring they were to read, but how you loved them anyway.”  —Charles Baxter, Feast of Love

1.

Used bookstores ought to be melancholy affairs. If described in objective terms, you’re really just sifting through other people’s trash, their overstock, their leftovers. Books rest on the shelves like orphaned children, making gee-shucks eyes at passersby, their bindings pocked with the fault lines of age. Scrawled on the opening pages are handwritten notes, dedications, dates of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, now years past and long forgotten. Some words are circled, underlined or annotated for a college course, now a memory. Stale air, musky odors.

But used bookstores (hereafter UBSs) are in fact a great joy for me, maybe some of my very favorite places on Earth. The thick stench pleases me, and the quiet, typically unpeopled rows allow me as much space and time to fully ingest the inventory. And although I take great care of all my books, trying to preserve their pristine condition, I don’t mind the pre-wear and -tear of a used book. It becomes part of the book’s inherent character as if it were designed that way. Also, because the books usually come with rips, fades, and markings, it relieves the pressure of maintaining mint conditions. The previous owner alleviates (some of) my neuroses. Perhaps the most important part of a good UBS is the selection. As any bibliophile knows, USBs often don’t realize what they have in their possession. Forgotten masterpieces, rare editions, and some just plain weird titles fill every crevice like mortar. For a reader, it’s home.

Whereas large, corporate chains like the now-defunct Borders Books—these are different beasts. They can be joyful, too. Anyone who has ever received a gift card to one of these places knows what I’m talking about. New books (as in perfectly untouched and recently published) offer other kinds of pleasure. For me, I love the idea of reading a just-released novel along with the rest of the country (though the phrase  “rest of the country” is of course hilariously hyperbolic). Also, big corporate bookstores (BCBSs) reflect, in some ways, the current literary scene. The popular books feature prominently on high shelves surrounded by similar books with similar designs, hoping to attract some like-minded eyes. Paperbacks line tables like a buffet, and one can almost hear the publishers vying for your attention. Blurbs are everywhere. And people, too—no longer can one enjoy the library-like quiet of a near-empty UBS. Now, as you stand in any aisle, you’re forced to mutter, “Oh, sorry,” and “Excuse me,” at regular intervals. Really, these stores don’t feel like stores at all—they’re more like book malls.

But since it’s still—no matter what the atmosphere—a giant room filled with books, I can still dig a BCBS, but the section that always fills me with an indefinable gloom: the remainder section. On one hand, though, the remainder section can be a treasure. First of all, they’re mostly hardcovers, which I often prefer. Former bestsellers that have recently gone into paperback or new novels by major writers with disappointing sales—all on sale for less than half the price. Pretty good deal.

But there’s something else. There’s something there in that remainder section that speaks to larger fears I have, that recall for me truths we usually like to avoid. To explain this, I have to use books. I don’t know how else to explain it.

2.

Avid readers have all embarked on a life of disappointment. I don’t mean to be bleak, but any reader worth her salt has ambitions to read way more books than she can possibly read. Even if she has modest goals, she will ultimately fail—there are simply too many books. Depending on the source, the U.S. published nearly 400,000 books in 2013, and a 2014 Pew Poll found that 54% of Americans read 5 or fewer books a year. Trends since the 70s suggest that while more and more books are printed annually, there are fewer people reading them. Now, I’m not trying to lament the death of American literacy, or even rant about literary culture as a whole—rather, my interest is in the way these numbers affect the individual reader.

Think about it like this: if the total number of published books continues to climb, that means that there will be more acclaimed masterpieces and award-winners, more writers to be fans of, more choice, more books—all of which drastically increases the inverse relationship of a reader’s foolish completism. Ebooks may not have brought down the physical book like some industry types predicted, but readers have still more Sisyphean battles to face.

3.

When people talk about overpopulation (which they don’t often), they think of it in global terms—geopolitical, economical, environmental, etc. In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Walter Berglund becomes fixated on overpopulation, explaining to Lalitha:

In America alone…the population’s going to rise by fifty percent in the next four decades. Think about how crowded the exurbs are already, think about the traffic and the sprawl and the environmental degradation and the dependence on foreign oil. And then add fifty percent. And that’s just America, which can theoretically sustain a larger population. And then think about global carbon emissions, and genocide and famine in Africa, and the radicalized dead-end underclass in the Arab world, and overfishing of the oceans, illegal Israeli settlements, the Han Chinese overrunning Tibet, a hundred million poor people in nuclear Pakistan: there’s hardly a problem in the world that wouldn’t be solved or at least temporarily alleviated by having fewer people. And yet…we’re going to add three billion people by 2050. In other words, we’re going to add the equivalent of the world’s entire population when you and I were putting our pennies in UNICEF boxes. Any little things we might do now to try and save some nature and preserve some kind of quality of life are going to get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers…And yet nobody is talking about the problem publicly. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s killing us.

This nicely communicates the information and many of the ramifications of our rampant reproducing, but it doesn’t talk the about the more subtle, less globally disastrous implications.

Here is the issue from my tiny perspective: when I was born in 1985, there were roughly 4.8 billion people in the world. Now there’s seven billion. That means that in thirty years the population increased by nearly 46%. Thirty years before my birth year, 1955, the population reached 2.7 billion. By 2045, the number should hit 9.3 billion. That’s a lot of people. To use some A. Whitney Brown math, that means that even if you’re a one-in-a-million kind of person, there’ll be 9,300 out there just like you.

And for me—who certainly am not one in a million—the rapid increase in population makes me think about (of course) books, and the number of people out there right now trying to be writers. I think about how it all relates to our personal lives. Aren’t competitive worlds made even more competitive when you add more people to the mix? Aren’t we all even less likely to be successful, especially considering the ever-growing economic inequities? Sure, the number of independent publishing houses and literary journals has grown with the population, but has readership? Aren’t we reminded time and time again of literature’s irrelevancy?

I realize this is a selfish way to look at an enormous issue, but I can’t help it. Plus I’m curious about the ways overpopulation contributes to more aspects of life than Walter enumerated above. How, for example, has it affected art? Obviously, there are more artists than ever before—has this help art progress faster? Or has it simply created more aesthetic divisions? I mean, think about music, how many niche categories that exist now. On one hand, you could argue that these sub-subcategories have created smaller, more intimate communities, ones specified to meet particular needs that we previously never offered. People who before felt alienated by their musical tastes now can find solace. So, does this mean that instead of the “globalized” world we so often hear about, the people of the Earth will form smaller, more nuanced groups?

But on the other hand—sticking with music for a moment—from a musician’s perspective, this might not be as rewarding. They’ll find a listenership, no doubt, but will they be financially able to continue? Will they, in other words, make a good enough living to keep playing to the aforementioned alienated people for whom the music has provided so much comfort and strength? Has overpopulation made things better for the masses but not the artist?

I, of course, have no clue as to the answers to any of these questions, but I think about them all the time. Susan Orlean makes the case that the only antidote to such overwhelming notions is passion:

I passed so many vacant acres and looked past them to so many more vacant acres and looked ahead and behind at the empty road and up at the empty sky; the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.

Accept the bewildering size of things, find your passion and try as best as you can to be content with your manageable world. Sylvia Plath, too, speaks of the importance of locating your passion:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It’s a scary world without something you keep you going, but luckily passion can take many forms: family, friends, a job, a city, a hobby, anything. But for me, someone who definitively has a passion, who knows it, who isn’t relegated to stagnant worrying—for me there’s still more at issue here. I’ve found my ambition, but that doesn’t mean the world will care about it, especially one so big I barely register in its colossal statistics. When Susan Orlean published The Orchid Thief in 1998, the population was 5.9 billion. The world has expanded its “bigness” by a billion since then.

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4.

Remember that scene in That Thing You Do, where the Wonders hear their song on the radio for the first time? They each hear it separately, so they all run toward each other, panting and laughing and screaming. In this single moment, they’ve made it. They became, instantly, a real band.

This is how I used to view success: as a single threshold to be crossed. But of course, this isn’t true. Success is nothing but obstacles. But the fact is that with an ever-increasing populace, this becomes even truer. If people sometimes romanticize the old-guard publishing world and the radio-centric music industry, it’s because it’s a lovely idea to dwell on, even if it’s harsh: you either make it past the threshold, or you don’t. But the real world is all struggle with ambiguous rewards, it’s “making it” without really making it, it’s never knowing if you’re at an incline or the summit. Rather than a stepping-stone, any minor success could end up being your masterpiece.

And this is what the remainder section reminds me of. Here you can find books of every genre, by obscure writers and renowned ones. In some independent bookstores (like Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith, two of the best bookstores in the country, IMHO), the remainder section includes smaller presses. Basically, anything that was overprinted, undersold and unappreciated. It doesn’t mean these books weren’t great, or that their authors missed the mark; it means that, for whatever reason, the book didn’t catch on.

There are too many people in this world for everyone to be appreciated. There are too many books for every one of them to be read and understood the way they deserve to be read and understood. Art is an uphill climb, and for me, it’s a sad notion that no amount of success (publishing your first book or your tenth) will guarantee that the work you do will last any longer than its shelf life. So is the trick, to paraphrase Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives, not to expect too much out of life? Is ambition ever really worth the potential failure? The population is only growing, and the publishing industry can’t seem to follow suit. I’m not trying to be cynical, and I hope I don’t come across as selfish for putting myself up against seven billion people, for being like “Oh, no, I’m not special. Boo hoo.” But isn’t that kind of the point? In the face of such bewildering numbers, don’t we all seem a bit self-involved when we think only of our own lives? How could they possibly matter?

5.

But the thing is, they do. Our lives matter. And all of our books matter. Because for there to be books left languishing on the remainder section, books must exist in the first place. There have to be too many books, in fact. We all have to keep working, keep writing, keep publishing and keep reading even against the stupefying odds. We just can’t do it for ourselves only. If you really love books, you have to believe that literature is more important than you. We must accept some inalienable inevitabilities: some great books will fall by the wayside; some bad ones will become bestsellers; most books won’t sell out their first print run; most writers won’t become famous, or even financially supported by literature; and there is no pattern to it, no reason, no actual hierarchy of skill and talent. The remainder section, then, isn’t some dumping ground for failed books. It’s a consequence of all of our greatest ambitions. It means that we, as writers, have collectively succeeded. There are so many wonderful and brilliant books that even Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon and George Saunders have ended up remaindered. There is no failure if literature triumphs. If we all try hard enough, it doesn’t mean that we as individuals will benefit, but literature will, and because of that, the world.


Featured image: Vitezslav Halamka/Shutterstock.com

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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