When I was a young man in high school and early college I would often drive down to the local Borders or Barnes and Nobles bookstore to peruse the shelves; spending an afternoon reading entire books while seated on the comfortable sofas in the air conditioning – it was Phoenix after all – occasionally standing to walk to the little café for a croissant or a cup of coffee. And I would pass an afternoon, for I was poor and the entertainment free. Shelves and shelves of books; endless reels of stories to play in my imagination. Tolkien and Lewis; W. Somerset Maugham and Pearl S. Buck; Kierkegaard and Burke.
That, it would seem, was then. Things have changed for this generation. Borders, Barnes and Nobles are now gone – mostly – from our lives. They could not survive Kindle and the advent of America’s new age of illiteracy. America is said to have published more books last year – over four million – than at any time in the history of humanity. One would not guess that were so after a simple conversation with the average college student – or, still worse, a voter. Adolescents still though their time passed, adults glued to iPhones scrolling through profiles, crafting that most clever of post to satisfy the tiny endorphins product of the next “like” or “heart” or – the most coveted of all, the “retweet”. Flitting from screenshot to screenshot, tapping their devices more than 2500 times a day. Illiterate, blanking at any treatise longer than 140 characters.
There are only two cities I’ve visited – and I have visited many cities – that still preserve the literary spirit of old. Where being called a writer is still a coveted title and you may even encounter people sitting around the café or the confiteria, paper book in hand actually spending time with the author. These cities, incidentally, are Paris and Buenos Aires.
I spent some time in Paris recently, visiting “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore which is now too famous to be cool. A tourist trap along the Seine, hordes of Chinese snapping pictures – people from all over trying to look introspective and thoughtful but mostly preening for – wait for it – their Facebook timelines. “Look, I am at Shakespeare and Company”: like, like, like, like, like, like, angry face. Nevertheless it was fun to visit, to think about the days of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre (who, these days, would I’m sure find the place annoying and go elsewhere); and I bought a copy of the auto-biography of the store (yes, the store wrote a book) and rushed back through the refreshing spring rains to my little hotel room on the Rue de Mars by the Eiffel tower to drink a bottle of cheap wine and read about Paris’s literary tradition, personified – come to life in one small rundown bookshop along the Seine.
Then of course there is Buenos Aires, La Ciudad de los Libros – where my first novel was published in Spanish by a local publishing house in a place where the grand ideas are still hotly debated. Where people sit on Plaza de Mayo reading; where every third storefront along the storied streets of that old forgotten city that never changes is a bookstore. Where the sizzling smells of milanesa, the busy bustling of the servers dressed in a white shirt and black bow-tie as they lay down the hearty meals of meat and potatoes and local wine, still waft through the high thin colonial double-doors opened onto the street.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two cities have survived, as they have, revolutions and coups and invasions and economic collapses relatively unscathed if somewhat bedraggled, a little bit rough and crumbling around the edges but with tremendous personality and a secure sense of themselves and their place in history. Germany they are not, bombed out and rebuilt pristine and new and clean – and boring. Washington D.C., a greedy, grasping city of global nomads, transients attempting to build a world upon the shifting sands of politics using only stolen money and pull – no time for reading, except perhaps the latest headline. Caracas, where when I was there a book in that little underground bookstore on Sabana Grande would cost maybe $100 or $150. Cedice Libreria desperately seeking to find a way to subsidize copies of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand in a city which read only free copies of Karl Marx and Heinz Dieterich until the stolen money ran out and the ideas lost their appeal and the books were used for kindling to cook the sad beans, the last gift from a government spent and tired. Africa – Bamako and Abuja and Abidjan; poverty so profound it allows no place for the written word. An illiteracy consuming Timbuktu, that ancient library town which once protected the greatest library between the House of Wisdom and Oxford.
No, Paris and Buenos Aires have muddled through – have withstood times of madness to endure as imperfect protectors of words. I too have some utopianism, like these old cities; for I too am a romantic. And, for that reason I also imagine myself not here, but instead there: a simple day in the belle epoque when people could still sit, and think, and debate, and write it all down. And when that was considered a gift to society, far from the maddening grasp of reality.