Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Book Lover's Manifesto

by Adrian Newell, Warwick's Book Buyer

Recently, a local school district announced a major change in their school curriculum - the removal of classic literature as required reading because "classics," according to this district, have been deemed to be irrelevant. School curriculum will instead focus on math and sciences. Such a change in emphasis will most likely result in a negative effect rather than a positive one as reading comprehension has been proven to improve test scores as well as lay a good foundation for academic achievement in college.

This announcement triggered a heated discussion in my office regarding the negative side effects/fallout that such a shortsighted approach will produce…this took me down a mental “rabbit hole”, which brings me to the point of this, my first ever blog entry...and, no, the irony is not lost on me!

There has been a lot of chatter these past few years regarding e-books, digital content and platforms, which has led to the inevitable prediction of the demise of the printed book. Despite all this chatter it’s safe to say that no one was truly prepared for the exponential growth in e-book adoption as evidenced in this past year. Everywhere you turn there are articles etc covering this topic and the book industry has not been unaffected by this constant barrage of negative press regarding the future of the physical book. Physical books are already being relegated to the ranks of obsolescence and possible extinction. When self-professed book lovers and supposed supporters of independent bookstores (most notably Sven Birkerts in a recent WSJ article) agree can the end be far off?

It is not - unless book lovers unite to stem the tide of this potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as we stand by, fail to speak out and remind/educate consumers as to what we stand to lose, we may witness a loss that will be devastating to the cultural and intellectual fabric of our society.

I grew up without a TV or phone. My parents were depression era babies and quite frugal in their approach to consumerism but books were always an important constant in our lives. We went to the library every week for a new batch of reading materials. They also took the time to read aloud to us daily. A favorite memory (and only good one!) from school was my 6th grade teacher who read The Hobbit aloud to us every day. The only effective way to get everyone to behave was the threat of not reading if someone misbehaved. This only happened once, after which the severe peer disapproval leveled at the miscreants was enough to keep everyone in line.

I credit my lifelong reading habits and exposure to the ideas discovered on the pages of books as my truest and best education.

At this point I feel the need to declare that I am not a Luddite...well perhaps a wee bit...I love the ease that certain technology has brought to everyday life. However, I view technology as a means to an end, not the end itself. I own an iPod, an iPhone, a computer, but at no point will these devices ever replace the satisfaction and joy of holding and reading a physical book. When I look at the books on my bookshelves I can clearly recall many happy moments spent reading as well as what was going on in my life at the time of reading specific books. They are a visual history of my life and looking at them evokes memories of people, places, and experiences that would be lost if my library consisted of only books downloaded to an e-reader.

Additionally, the literary life has put me in contact with many wonderful people who have enriched my life. Technology can be good, but also serves as a barrier to truly connecting with people. We are losing the art of conversation, letter writing, journal keeping etc...always connected but never truly connecting at more than a superficial level. Texting, tweeting, and emailing cannot adequately replace face-to-face conversation where you can look the person in the eye and watch their facial expressions mirror their thoughts and emotions. Nuance is lost in cyberspace and emoticons are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Recently I gave a shout out to It’s a Book by Lane Smith as my favorite book of the year. Why, you might ask, would I pick a children’s book above all the other deserving, finely written books of the past year?! Here’s why - he succinctly captures, with few words and charming illustrations, the current struggle between technology and the printed word. This is a book every book lover should read and share with others. (Check out his interview with the Wall Street Journal.)

So... my challenge to you is this. Just as we’ve seen a burgeoning “slow food” movement address the encroachment that fast food, processed food etc. has had on the culinary arts, I’d like to propose a “slow books” movement to encourage book lovers to go out and remind those around us of the importance and necessity of physical books. This is my call to arms and revolution, if necessary, to preserve something precious and vital to our culture.

Be retro, take a vacation from technology and unplug for a day...and use that day to reconnect with friends, explore the outdoors, or read a book. Most of all, speak out about this issue. Let’s not stand by doing nothing until it’s too late.

Be vocal, be proactive!

So spread the word, spread the love and give someone you care about a physical book this holiday season. It’s still the best entertainment value out there and time spent reading is never wasted!

Check out the following links to articles of interest on this topic.


  1. Sign me up for the "slow books" movement! (Seriously, I'd wear the button.)

  2. There is a definite difference in the levels of success between those who read books and those who don't. I recently quoted Ben Franklin on the subject in a post entitled A Novel Approach To Success:
    "The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them."

  3. I was fortunate to have had worked in a bookstore in 1986-87 with an awesome group of book people, since then my love affair with the printed word hasn't dimmed but has flourished. I began reading Benedetti, Garcia Marquez and Allende and Jose Agustin and now I read english writing authors in their own language. My point was, I grew up without many things things just like Adrian, but a book was always easy to grab, now tell me, how do you highlight a phrase you like or bend a page of your book on an e-book?

  4. Hi Adrian,
    I am a good friend of Mrs. Judy Nelson for about 15 years. I and my son, Ryo(19) are an enthusiastic fan of her shop.

    I enjoyed your blog very much. It is stimulous, informative and wonderful work. Please keep up your good work.

    Noriko Kohno in Tokyo Japan

  5. I would also comment that while physical books are sometimes beautiful, and often evocative of time and place, they are merely artifacts. It’s the words that form ideas that mix with the imagination to form dreams and desires that's really worth preserving. And this is not lost with an e-book any more than music was lost with the advent of the CD. I recall the vinyl faithful saying CDs wouldn’t survive b/c people would demand the artwork and liner notes that came with albums. Looking back, that theory seems very quaint.

  6. I'm an avid reader, was a liberal arts major, would like to go back to school for a literature degree someday, AND I couldn't agree more with the new school curriculum (and I don't see where anyone there calls literature irrelevant).

    I would argue writing skills proceed students’ awareness of the composing process, and hence provide a foundational appreciation for literature.

    I volunteered as an evaluator for the Poway High School's Senior Project Program the past three years. I would estimate the majority of seniors (who were about to graduate) wrote run-on sentences as a matter of course.

    My college freshman son has an opportunity to read just about every dead white mans' (and a few authors of color) works in his humanities class, but the skill he's most grateful for is the ability to compose a cohesive and coherent argument that doesn't rely--like so many--on argumentum ad hominem.

    David Shields' excellent new book "Reality Hunger" addresses just this topic (among others) He argues that literature hasn't caught up to contemporary strategies, but that it should and will eventually.

  7. Amy, equating a paperbound book with a CD seems overly simplistic to me. Afterall, the book as a form is a 1000 year old technology, while the CD lasted a couple of decades. (And you can't expect booksellers to embrace the idea of not reading books in the classroom anymore. C'mon.)

    That said, while the intentions behind the school system's new program are admirable, I think there could be room to include both the reading of literature and the critical analysis and writing skills of the 'new school.' I somehow managed to learn how to write a complete sentence while still reading Shakespeare in high school. I just don't think they need to be mutually exclusive.

  8. Seth,

    Who said anything about not reading in the classroom anymore? Spencer is taking a new offering at Torrey Pines called AP English Language. They mostly analyze expository writings, but are also exposed to classic and contemporary American novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays. But the emphasis is clearly on the student developing writing skills. I think the curriculum developers make a good point that writing skills are required in almost every college course but broad and deep knowledge of classic literature is not. If this is an interest, then let student pursue it, but first make sure the student knows how to write a complete sentence. It's no different than Warwick's hosting the range of authors it does, spanning from Tori Amos and LL Cool to Sue Monk Kidd and Alexander McCall Smith. Different strokes for different folks.

    I too love a "physical book" and don't yet own an e-reader, so I don't disagree with you and understand the romanticism, but it's an academic debate. E-readers are the new "big box" stores, and just like the big-box stores, e-readers are here to stay--at least until they're replaced by the next generation of technology. (It is also a false dichotomy to say that readers must choose between paper bound books and e-books, or for that matter between paper-bound books and a literary life). Just as the CD (which replaced vinyl) is currently being replaced by music downloaded from the Internet, like it or not, the e-book will cut into the physical book market. From a purely business perspective, it is not proactive to suggest we stop the e-book tide. It is reactive. It's burying your head in the sand. I hope for Warwick's, and all the other great indies across the country that they have a better plan than stopping the e-book. I also hope for them a greater share of the book market than Slow Foods has of the their market (even though I'm a faithful member of Slow Foods, International), and a greater share of the book market than vinyl has of the music market.

  9. I saw this in one of the regional trade show catalogs, and think this is the right direction..."With Google as an ally, the ABA plans to make Google Editions the main source of e-books on the Websites of hundreds of independent booksellers around the country. Google Editions will make some 400,000 books available online to readers through any Web browser and Web-enabled device, including laptops, tablet computers and smart phones. If you are selling e-books, if you're planning on selling e-books and certainly if your customers are looking to purchase e-books this important session is for you."

    Also, I was thinking, if you were planning a revolution to eliminate e-books, in order to be consistent, wouldn't you also have to eliminate audio books? They are not a physical book so presumably they are just as dangerous?

  10. Amy, no one ever called for the elimination of anything, e-books or otherwise. Where is that coming from? But, as a former Warwick's employee, you are aware that we sell paperbound books for a living, right? The Google partnership - if it ever comes to fruition - would be phenomenal for independent stores & we'd completely embrace that. But for the moment, we are trying to survive by promoting our love of books - in the traditional, paper and glue sense. But I think you know that, honestly.

    And in your previous comment you asked, "Who said anything about not reading in the classroom anymore?" - this particular school (which Adrian has left anonymous) has decided to eliminate the reading of paperbound literature from their classrooms. This was the driving issue behind Adrian's post.

    I just read that this same school district is considering placing advertisments around their campuses as a means to raise money. Since the kids won't be reading Dickens, presumably they can read Coke ads instead. How is that better?

  11. But that's not Adrian's argument Seth. She's not saying don't by paper bound books because Warwick's can't sell them. I'd respect that argument more than the one she makes which is that they are necessary to a literary life and necessary if we are to appreciate literature; an argument with which I strongly disagree. Again, although I too love a physical book, owning an e-reader will not make me any less literate, or appreciate great literature any less.

    And, I know it's been a while, but I still am a bookseller. I make my living advising independent bookstores how to sell more books. If indies continue to go under at the rate they are, then I'm going to be right behind you in the unemployment line. My point is that just as booksellers have sat around with their Starbucks cups in hand bemoaning their plight of living in the shadows of the Walmart, Costco's and Targets of this world, wishing to turn back the clock to the 1950s Main Street model of commerce, so too are they trying to stop the tide of e-book technology. I would argue that their time would be better spent adapting to the realities presented by the new technologies that are upon us rather than telling people to turn off their e-books and phones and pick up a "real" book. This is just silly. There are ways to counter technology, but not, in my mind, ways that will earn you a lot of money, e.g. Slow Foods, vinyl record stores, etc. Ergo, if you can't beat them, join them, or at least outflank them but don't just build a wooden fortress around your precious paper bound books when a fire is burning.

    With regard to the school that "was not mentioned", there was a link in Adrian's blog to the article where the school district was mentioned which contained more information on the research that prompted the changes. It said nothing about eliminating literature (or books) from the classroom or that the classics are irrelevant. I don't know where Adrian got that info. from the article unless she read a different article that the one that is linked to her blog.

    I just bought 33 books for Stuart for his Intro to Humanities class at Reed. I was tempted to purchase him an e-reader so he wouldn't have to lug many of those and his physics and calculus text books with him to class every day. (Next year I probably will). Had I, would he have gotten any less out of the Odyssey or Euripides? I doubt it, he just wouldn't have anything to sell back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.

  12. Ms. Sandberg,

    I've been reading your posts over the last couple of weeks. I have somehow managed to reign in my thoughts, trying to look at your words from a neutral standpoint, but unfortunately I can no longer do that. Your outright attack on Adrian’s blog entry has gone beyond ridiculous. I too took part in a conversation regarding this school district and was rather aghast at the removal of classics and other notable works of fiction from the curriculum. My contemporaries and I had a rather long distraught discussion about the issue, which was particularly meaningful since the majority of us are educators and curriculum developers. I personally hold a Masters in education specializing in curriculum development. My particular interest is in literacy improvement. I feel the need to point out that the article mentioned clearly states:

    “…reading lists once dominated by the classics now consist of newspaper editorials, historic documents, advertisements and some nonfiction.”

    I’m not sure how you missed that in the article as I quote you said “It [the article] said nothing about eliminating literature (or books) from the classroom “. The reading of great literary works greatly helps to improve reading comprehension skills, which in turn allows for a stronger grasp of literacy skills. It has been shown through studies that in order to develop strong writing skills (which you continue to focus on) it is important to also focus on reading skills, allowing for both growth in comprehension and the ability to express said comprehension in written form. As most people can understand these two sets of skills reinforce each other helping the student to gain a better understanding of both. I realize this is a rather simplified statement, but the research and arguments required to fully explain would make this an essay as opposed to a short blog response.

    Sadly, what I am seeing from you seems to be a lack of reading comprehension. You appear to have misinterpreted Adrian’s wonderful blog piece. Are you really so obtuse or do you just enjoy seeing your name on Warwick’s blog?

    On the subject of e-readers, Adrian calls for book lovers to unite in their love of books, not to unite in a revolution against e-books. Who said anything about hating and wanting to eliminate e-readers? Certainly not Adrian in her blog piece. Perhaps if you took the time to actually read and enjoy Adrian’s words for what they are, a tribute to the written word, you would have picked that up. As to your son’s book load…those 33 books will be read over a semester and won’t be carried to class everyday. It is wonderful that you take such pride in your offspring, truly. But you clearly are not an educator, nor well versed in the subject, just a person with a little too much time and too much ego.

    I didn’t want to comment, but really, you just need to stop typing and move on. Let us hope that you comprehend that statement.

    By the way, I’m a happy participant in the slow books movement. I also love technology and believe that e-books and paper books can and will exist together.

    Bravo Warwick’s for having such an interesting forum for discussion let us hope that we hear from more intelligent readers in the future.

  13. Wow! Who are you Marlene and why do you hate me?

    Unlike your words directed at me, I was not making a personal attack on Adrian. I like Adrian and respect her abilities as a buyer. I was merely disagreeing with her opinion.

    I've always thought blogs were intended as a means for discourse about various topics.

    My sincere apologies for deigning to comment on and disagree with Adrian's opinions. I will do better to censor my own opinions in the ironic as it may be that a bookstore and its defenders would encourage such behavior...?

  14. Has the makings for a great mud-wrestling match . . . My money's on you, Amy!
    Cattiness is sometimes attractive, but Marlene, you are way off base here.

  15. There are two issues in this discussion: e-books versus physical books and literary texts versus expository and persuasive texts in the high school curriculum. I want to address the latter issue only. I am a CSU English professor and I was interviewed by the reporter who wrote the article linked at the top. I chaired the task force that developed the CSU Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). I told the reporter several times that we were not against teaching literature,and that literary texts were part of the course. I am not familiar with the Sweetwater implementation of the course, but I would be very surprised if they were eliminating literature. The California English Language Arts standards mandate the teaching of multiple genres and both literary and expository texts.

    When students enter the university, if they are not English majors, they might take one literature course as an elective. However, whatever their major, they will be expected to write essays, reports, memos, letters, and many other kinds of documents, and they will read a wide variety of informational and persusaive texts. High school courses that are completely based on reading and writing about literature do not prepare them well for this work. The ERWC was designed to address this imbalance, not by eliminating literature, but by adding different texts and writing tasks to the mix. In fact, on many campuses, ERWC modules and teaching strategies are dropped into existing literature-based courses, and indications are that they help students read literature more critically and with greater engagement.

    The reporter has characterized this as literature versus expository texts, or literature versus writing. I suppose that riles people up and sells papers. The reality is more complicated than that.

  16. I'm a friend-of-a-friend of of Ms. Sanberg but a little reluctant to identify myself given some of the rough and tumble of this exchange. However, as a kindergarten teacher with a teenage daughter I was intrigued by what I heard from others who'd seen this web page and wanted to have a look for myself.

    As a few people said above, writing and reading go hand in hand. However, after reading some of the papers my daughter almost handed in, and after reading samples of the papers college students submit to my husband (he teaches online business marketing at Phoenix Univ), I sometimes question how these kids think they will get by in the real world. Nobody asked me if I read Proust or Twain at my job interviews (at school districts no less!) but I assure you they noticed how well I communicated.

    In some ways I think the argument here is elitist. I teach in a middle class suburb of San Diego where families are losing their homes and where mothers and fathers are dealing with the stress of making ends meet. It's only a guess, but it may be a luxury to have the time to read for some of these adults, let alone read the classics, or own a Kindle. In a perfect world we could all sit around like in a Woody Allen movie or the movie "Dinner with Andre" and talk about the meaning of life and how many times we started but couldn't finish Ulysses. But who's kidding who?

    On the other hand I'm all for my daughter and others wanting to read the classics, and wouldn't stand in her way if she wanted to read just about anything with the exception of all the texts her boyfriend sends to her. Is that what the school district is doing? Standing in the way of students who want to read? Or are they merely "shifting the focus" to writing and college preparedness, as the article points out in the side bar?

    I think it's fair to say everyone has a point in this debate, and it comes down to a matter of degree. Maybe in La Jolla the classics are more important than in other parts of town, or maybe it's just a matter of personal taste and one's career ambition that determines whether the classics matter as much as may argue.

    As far as electronic readers go I'm thinking of the analogies my daughter is learning to decipher in preparing for her PSAT. To the point that electronic readers are to an old-fashioned book what junk food is to the body, doesn't really make much sense. I'm not sure what about an electronic book is bad for us?

  17. Now here's a good idea...


    I would like to thank you for your present and past support of Kepler's. There is no doubt you have made it possible for us to continue to be a vibrant community bookstore.

    Today, Kepler's faces two challenges. Obviously, the economic recession has affected our business -- we're working hard to survive in a very tough economy. The second is the "revolution" that has taken place in the book industry with the surge of e-books and e-readers. With the publishing industry in flux, we're evaluating how best to meet the e-book needs of our customers.

    As we review our options, we need and value your input. I am asking for your help by participating in this brief survey on your use and interest in e-books. It takes only a few minutes to complete. All responses are strictly confidential and will only be used to evaluate our customers' interest in e-books.

    Take this survey

  18. 'What Is the Value of a Book?'

    "What is the value of a book? Are books beloved because of their physical nature or because of their content? At Bookshop, we don’t view it as an either/or situation. We love books for both reasons. Our first love is sensory--the smell of books, the weight of it in our hands, how it feels to discover a new book you never knew about as you browse through the aisles of a physical bookstore. This is why there is a place for independent bookstores now and in the future. The second reason we love books is because of the way the content of books can change an opinion, a relationship, or even a life. We know that this is something that will continue to exist even if the book is delivered electronically.... Bookshop Santa Cruz would like to play an increasing role in the e-book market because we want to serve our customers no matter how they 'consume' their book content. In the next few months, we hope to launch our new e-bookstore in partnership with Google Editions, providing millions of titles at competitive prices....

    "E or not... either way we will continue to be obsessed about books. If you are obsessed too, come see us. We look forward to getting the perfect book into your hand--or your device."

    --Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, on the store's book blog.