Oh Noes, Peoples Stopped Reading! We Is Doomed!

By Neal Comment

“Last week I spent 22 hours in Las Vegas,” National Book Critics Circle frontman John Freeman tells Guardian readers, and “good luck finding a book.” That’s the opening salvo in yet another one of those “OMG, the lumpenproletariat doesn’t seem adore reading as much as I do, so let’s throw in the towel on Western civilization” pieces we’ve all come to know and love. At least this time Freeman only blames the impending collapse of American letters on money-hungry Republicans, and not on the shrinking book review sections…oh, wait, no, he does manage to throw that hobby horse in, but as an effect rather than as a cause.

“Even in New York City, the so-called literary epicenter of America, books are becoming scarcer,” Freeman complains. “Many of the venerable independent bookstores have closed down, as have the used bookstores. Jump on a downtown subway train and you’ll be lucky to see more than a couple of people reading books.”

Let’s call bullshit on that, shall we? Granted, some venerable indie bookstores have closed down; I was as disappointed when Coliseum Books went out of business again as the next fellow, but you know what? There’s a Barnes & Noble three blocks up Fifth Avenue, one of several scattered throughout the city. Even if you’re one of those anti-corporate types who wouldn’t be caught dead at B&N or Borders, there’s still plenty of good independent stores in Manhattan, and The Strand still has plenty of half-price review copies. So if anybody tells you they’re having trouble finding good reading material in Manhattan, feel free to take them to one of those bookstores, grab a hardcover, and smack them upside the head with it.*

Well, sure, you might say, but Las Vegas is still a cultural wasteland, isn’t it? Maybe—or maybe Freeman just didn’t look very hard, because he totally missed The Reading Room in the shopping pavilion at Mandalay Bay, one of several stores PW discussed when it spotlighted the Nevada bookselling landscape last week, and the subject of a Bookforum profile last winter. Perhaps Freeman was too busy nursing his anti-conservative fury to keep up with the trades; he and Pat Schroeder can form a club. (Oh, and Meg Gardiner was similarly unimpressed, which is how I found out about this in the first place.)

*As for the subway thing, whenever I don’t have my nose buried in a book, I see plenty of other people reading books—not the entire car, true, but then I don’t see everybody on the subway listening to iPods, either, and I’m not exactly wailing and gnashing my teeth about how Americans have lost interest in music.