A recent Sunday New York Times featured full-page photo spreads of people reading all around the City: old people, young people, children; walking, sitting, lying down; on the subway, in a park, on a front stoop… What is it about the summer, exactly, that prompts such interest in books even when you’re not at leisure or on vacation? Why so much attention to “summer reading lists” and “new releases,” (especially of romance novels set in exotic locations)? Don’t people read all year round? I do.
But perhaps readers’ habits change in the summer, as I’ve come to notice that mine have, this year especially. Maybe it’s the heat. With over 60 days of temperatures in the triple digits so far in San Antonio, nobody wants to go out of the house unless they absolutely must. Baking on the beach or blistering by the pool hold no allure, even with a great book. Better to ensconce yourself in the air-conditioned comfort of home with a glass of iced tea while being whisked away to another place, another time, another galaxy without the need to break a sweat.
I am a non-fiction writer, so following the old adage that “you shouldn’t try to write what you don’t read,” I read predominantly non-fiction books. I am also a former journalist so, of course I’m a news junkie, but one who prefers to get news and analysis from prize-winning print sources and experienced reporters rather than from social media and so-called “citizen journalists.” In addition to books, then, I also read a large number of newspapers and magazines. You might say that I’m a serious reader, a critical reader, someone who looks not so much to be entertained as to be enlightened, inspired, or instructed by what I read.
But in the summer, this summer in particular, I have become almost frivolous in my reading habits, leaving piles of those “serious” books on my nightstand (and on the floor) in favor of popular fiction!! Not to demean fiction as a genre (after all, writers, readers, and publishers everywhere remain perennially in pursuit of “the Great American Novel”), but I admit that for me, most contemporary fiction is light reading even though their authors are hardly lightweights. Authors such as Elizabeth Strout (Oh William!), Charles Finch (An Extravagant Death), Taylor Jenkins Reid (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), Shana Abe’ (The Second Mrs. Astor), or Colleen Hoover (Verity) are in command of more than just a good story that propels them onto the best-seller list.
Back when Amazon started to dominate the book industry, effectively shutting down competitive national and regional chains (Borders, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton’s, Brentano’s) and adversely affecting even independent community bookstores, dedicated readers everywhere mourned the loss of lazy afternoon browsing bookstores and events bringing their favorite authors to town on book tours. And once e-readers became ubiquitous, well, that was viewed as the death knoll of the printed anything.
But as it turns out, it wasn’t. To paraphrase a common (mis)quote attributed to Mark Twain, the story of the book’s demise was greatly exaggerated. In one of those irony of ironies, along came a pandemic that killed over a million Americans even as it breathed new life into the book business. Suddenly, more people were reading, and reading more, and small bookstores were managing not only to survive, but beginning to thrive. (See a wonderful docudrama about the survival, and revival, of one small independent bookstore and its owner Matt Tannenbaum in Lenox, MA, in “Hello, Bookstore” available on Amazon or Apple TV.)
After the devastating Covid closures and revenue losses in 2020, something really unexpected happened in 2021: according to the American Booksellers Association, more than 300 new independent bookstores opened, many in ethnic neighborhoods that were previously underserved both by booksellers and by titles that reflected cultural diversity. Many were opened with the help of community grants, GoFundMe drives, stimulus checks, and generous, loving patrons. Another 200 independent bookstores are on target to open this year.
It seems people, whether previously avid readers or not, had a chance to re-evaluate their lives and their values during the Covid shut down. Many discovered that they missed printed books, which allow them to write in the margins and dog-ear the pages, and relevant children’s books, which explore characters and stories that relate to their own children’s lives. A survey of booksellers earlier this year found that 80 percent of industry respondents reported their sales were higher in 2021 than in 2020, and 70 percent said their sales were higher than in pre-pandemic 2019. How about that?!
With more people staying at home, working from home, or buying a home, there is now even a growing trend toward the home library and a term for the pleasure (and convenience) of being surrounded by books: ”book-wrapt.” A new book published last year, The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom, by Reid Byers (Oak Knoll Press) explores the conventions of the home library and explains why physical books displayed en masse nourish the senses, enliven the intellect, and soothe the soul. A room full of books is never empty, even when not being used as a den, a media room, a living room, or a home office, which it often is.
The Strand, that venerable independent bookstore that has been in business in New York City for 95 years, touts “18 miles of books” on its logo. Certainly, every mile counts when fulfilling orders for custom book collections in their “Books by the Foot” program. No doubt originally intended for interior decorators, set designers, and real estate stagers as backdrops, today specialists at The Strand will also create a personal library for individual homeowners (for a price well beyond the books, of course). And how many volumes constitute a respectable home library? Most experts agree on between 1,000 and 1,500 books, perhaps a few hundred more if scattered among several rooms. (I shudder to think of the Strand’s cost of that per running foot!)
We readers and writers who are lucky enough to enjoy being “book-wrapt” at home have accumulated our 1,000+ volumes ourselves over time, not all at once. My own library (pictured above) is the result of an ever-expanding collection of carefully arranged and catalogued books that I’ve chosen to keep over the last 50 years or so. It even has a rolling library ladder that was once used in a Borders Bookstore where I spent many, many happy hours browsing, reading, sipping coffee and meeting friends a long time ago. This room, these books, those memories all bring me joy and make me smile.
I can’t honestly say that I have completely read every single word of every single page of every single book I own, but I have consulted all of them at one time or another, sometimes repeatedly (references), I have selectively read many (poetry and essays), and I have re-read many of my favorites (classics). I have a “reading in waiting” shelf, a holdover habit from my days as a book reviewer when new books arrived faster than I could read them, and a “read-and-released” section of books to be passed along or donated to the local library, also a habit from my book-reviewer days.
As I wrote in my last post (“Bookish”), books have shaped my life and largely made me who I am. No wonder I feel so comfortable “wrapt” between the covers of a good book.