Finding the Forgotten Books

by Rachel Baker on June 4, 2014

This is a wonderful essay about finding the books that we have forgotten.

In the nineteen-nineties, when you bought a book at Barnes & Noble the cashier slipped it into a plastic bag bearing a black-and-white illustration of an author’s face—Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton. Recently, I was poking around a bookstore in Manhattan and noticed a canvas tote for sale. In a simple red heart, the word “books” was spelled out in white letters. This tale of two bags is the story of decades of change in the publishing industry. “Books,” O.K.—but which ones?

The number of Americans who read books has been declining for thirty years, and those who do read have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise. Alongside the tote bags you can find T-shirts, magnets, and buttons emblazoned with covers of classic novels; the Web site Etsy sells tights printed with poems by Emily Dickinson. A spread in The Paris Review featured literature-inspired paint-chip colors (a charcoal Funeral Suit for “The Loser”; a mossy “Graham Greene”). The merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavor, as if what you read mattered less than that you read. In this climate of embattled bibliophilia, a new subgenre of books about books has emerged, a mix of literary criticism, autobiography, self-help, and immersion journalism: authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading—anything—still matters.

Read the Articles:
Ghosts in the Stacks

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