The Dangers of the Written Word

Why the book selling industry inevitably struggles during Covid-19

trange times, when bookshops have to close while gun shops remain open. As of Tuesday, that is the world I live in. In Austria, since the government decided to impose a hard lockdown over the ‘soft’ version it favoured till mid-October, things have been topsy-turvy. More than usual, that is.

Before, it was a question of why museums needed to close while churches could remain open that managed to polarise parts of the nation. With religious communities having suspended public services in solidarity with government regulations, the question why click-and-collect is all right for pizza and burgers yet not for books puzzles more minds than mine.

(Note: That has changed, with regulations regarding gun sales tightening up and the government tentatively assuring that other services may make use of click and collect but that hasn’t translated into a physical rather than virtual space to order books. )

You’d be forgiven for assuming that home delivery would even up the stakes and it may be enough for the readers among us but it’s not enough for booksellers, who have to cut their profits after delivery costs have been deducted. The only one to win from the current state of affairs is-who else?-giant retailer Amazon.

Scrawling through message boards, I couldn’t help but snicker at some of the comments. The idea that crisp pages are seen as more of a health hazard than firearms is certainly amusing. (And, believe me, I get all the arguments regarding the online sale of bullets being illicit and the need for the hunting industry to survive but in a country where culture has long been sidelined by the current government, criticism seems apt.) Till it got me thinking-books are dangerous and access to them has been restricted before.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 tells us all about it.

The book about a firefighter who lives in a world where people in his line of life actually come to incinerate houses full of books rather than extinguish the flames is an ode to intellectual freedom and an exposition on the dangers we face when we try to mold society into the bland shape of conformity.

Reading can save us. It is no co-incidence that college educated voters are less prone to succumb to the arguments of religious proselytizers, racists and conspiracy theorists. I’ve heard people I love talk about Trump, the Christian Saviour. I’ve never blamed them but bemoaned the fact that the pursuit of knowledge, of reading itself has grown unpopular enough that some of us are content to live in our very own social media bubbles. Fahrenheit 451 is astute in that it shows us that it’s not books as objects that we miss but the ideas they hold, ideas that could just as well be transmitted via film or radio or any other modern medium. The only distinguishing element about them is that the written word lets us ruminate, stew and even turn away from it- a Broadway musical on the same subject is so intensely visceral a performance that it does not always provide us the headspace to ‘think it over’.

With a global pandemic on our minds, there’s plenty to think about as we are cooped up at home. Whether it’s the incompetency of politicians, useless squabbling on the selfsame political arena or the inane mundanity of every-day life, we are called to contemplate our individual circumstances more than ever. In that kind of environment, no one was surprised to hear that book sales are shooting up through the roof. From the usual post-apocalyptic reading a la Boccaccio and Camus to more recent offerings in post-apocalyptic literature by the likes of Emily St John Mandel or Ling Ma to various comfort reads from childhood literature, humanity has found solace in books during these hard times.

That is probably why I find this imposition on book selling so hard to stomach personally. Relevant to the system-is this what happens when we let bureaucrats decide for us what that means? Reading is essential. Reading is liberating. Reading is escapism.

Bibliotherapy is a real thing-an age old process to support mental well-being through the power of reading. Many of us probably do it unconsciously by turning to our very own ‘comfort reads’. I stumbled on a book on the subject that I found invigorating-formally, it was basically a set of listicles on books about every single topic imaginable, ranging from growing old to falling in love for the first time. But the pleasure of being able to look up the right book just at the right time felt tantalizing. (For everyone who wishes to do just that, I’d recommend the online tool Whichbook.)

Many people have been discovering the joy of reading on their own. Parents trying to entertain bored children beyond the next Netflix binge cracked open more spines than usual. Harried workers with ‘no time to read’ gave short stories a spin. People on the job hunt or stuck at home finally decided to brave the huge tomes of ‘great literature’, aka War and Peace, Les Miserables or Middlemarch.

Closing both libraries and bookshops at the same time, in that environment, is unfortunate. I remember seeing empty bookshelves in the former and impossible queues in the latter- something I never thought possible just a couple years back.

In a week, things will be ‘normal’ again.

As normal as they can be and I won’t have to contemplate a future where I hoard and steal my books from friends (Balzac and the Little Seamstress!). There are some of us left who find their delight soured by the understandable fear of delivery men encountered in stairwells and I am sure more are fed up with seeing the ‘sold out’ sign on a website when you want just one particular book.

I will walk the aisles again and hope not to forget in a week what a privilege it is that I have been exposed to, every single day.

One can hope.

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer

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