Reading has become a complicated pastime these days. Our beloved internet encourages a lot of weird habits that aren’t really reading at all. We pretend we’ve read things we actually haven’t. We use news articles as a vehicle to put forth our own witty comments. The internet certainly has its obscure and wonderful treasures that deserve our whole attention, but we are easily distracted. And then there’s Amazon, that bloated bully, making it so easy and cheap for us to buy our books for one cent and have them delivered in an hour. How many of us would find it easier not to shop there if it were a big box store on the outskirts of town, if it were a place and not a glimmer on our screens?
What are we to do?
I’ve been known to obsess a lot about what I consume, making a pretty steady stream of vows about my habits and inclinations, which are then honored to varying degrees. Recently, I decided to only read internet articles I specifically search for, therefore hopefully avoiding the trap of clicking from one thing to the next until I’ve fallen into a vortex. Sometimes it’s like I just trip and fall inside the internet. My concern is not just the what of my consumption, but also the how. How do each of my individual, tiny choices contribute not just to the welfare of my own brain and spirit but to larger concerns of cultural production and consumption?
Lately, these concerns have coalesced in such a way that I feel the need to act accordingly, not just be angsty and ruminate. If I want to live in a world where there is poetry, where I can cozy up in bed with my coffee and the newspaper, where I can buy books without selling my soul, then I have to make my choices in keeping with what I say is important to me.
Oh, the newspaper! Once a vital and most-immediate source of information (Extra, extra, read all about it!), it now feels nearly antiquated. Oftentimes, an article in the Sunday print edition of the New York Times is something I already read (half of!) a day or two before. But still, I deeply love the feeling of waking up Sunday morning and peeking out the door to see the newspaper waiting on my stoop. It feels magical, and strange, already nostalgic. I don’t want to read my news this way just to be a Luddite contrarian. It feels like the information enters and is processed differently. Or at least my experience of reading is different, and maybe that’s the crux of it, the part I can’t argue with. Part of it is I literally can’t click away from the newsprint in my hands. It turns out that, depending on my experience of reading, my attention span is just fine after all. But either way, whether your preference is print or screen, it seems we all ought to aim to read all of the words there.
Speaking of reading all the words, John Duvernoy‘s debut poetry collection, Something in the way//Obstruction Blues, published by Horse Less Press, arrived in the mail last week. Maybe it’s the cumulative alchemy of all these written words appearing in tangible form on my doorstep lately, but I’m starting to feel like there are choices I can make as a reader and consumer that matter. Horse Less is a small press that often relies on pre-orders to make its books a reality, creating a direct and essential relationship between the publisher, writer and audience. John is an old friend, and his email that informed me of his exciting publication news and how to pre-order his book sat in my inbox for a while. It seemed tricky. I had to go to a website that wasn’t Amazon and I had to buy the book and then wait many months for it to arrive. But I’m so glad I figured it out because when it finally did arrive, it made my brain feel like someone set a firecracker off inside it (in a good way). I read it in one sitting, turning back to certain lines again and again. It occurred to me that I would like my brain to feel like firecrackers are going off inside it more often. Also, in some small way, I helped this beautiful thing exist, which made reading it all the more special.
So there’s all this brouhaha with Amazon. Each of us has our threshold with Amazon; I ignored the red flags for a long time, but finally got taken over the edge. Here’s a company who internally called one business approach ‘The Gazelle Project,’ suggesting they would deal with publishers the way a predator would approach a gazelle. Maybe that’s the way business works, but it’s hard to ignore this February piece in The New Yorker by George Packer, who suggests: “…in the book business the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome: it would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in U.S. history.” Any one person or group, let alone corporate entity, having too much control over ideas seems kind of ominous. Ordering your books from Powell’s will take five extra minutes and dollars of your life, but now more than ever, is the time to support what we love, finding ways to make more space for these things to actually exist.
Just a few days after Duvernoy’s poetry collection arrived, I received a gift of Magpie Magazine‘s limited edition Issue 6. Entitled Viriditas, the magazine is a stunning anthology of contemporary female artists, showcasing artwork and extensive discussion around themes of ritual, dream and wild women, to name a few. As I looked and read through it again and again, I felt the same catalyzed, engaged feeling as when I read Something in the way//Obstruction Blues. It felt like the universe was conspiring to remind me of the active joys of being a reader. We can seek out a rich and wide range of voices to engage with, not just passively accept whatever is most clickably present before us. Both books also result from the independent efforts of the very gazelles that Amazon would rather have eviscerated, and their survival feels important.
In a time when we feel passionately about the empty echo of headlines, a time when all authors, publishers, and bookstores are vital to a rich and varied exchange of ideas, we need to create and participate in spaces where ideas are deeply felt, expressed, and listened to. In honor of the gazelles that are getting eaten by tigers every single day, let’s protect and champion what matters to us, engage fully with it, read it all the way through to the end.
Duvernoy writes, “You know my poetry it keeps/Me alive but it/Don’t exist. Not to willfully misunderstand his poetic intentions, but I’m sure glad he’s wrong about that not existing part.