Forty years ago, when I was in college in Brooklyn, there was only one Barnes & Noble, a barn-like shop in Manhattan on lower Broadway near Union Square, a wonderful shambles of books both new and used. Not far away, on Fourth Avenue, was a row of used-book stores, including the incomparable Strand Book Store that featured what seemed like miles of books piled on floor-to-ceiling shelves.
I wandered for hours through the aisles and book stacks of these shops, dazed by the plenitude around me, exhilarated by the intellectual world beckoning from all those miles of titles on those sagging and dusty shelves, fired with ambition to read as many of those books as I could. Or in more modest moments, I aspired to own and perhaps in due course to read all of the Everyman's and Modern Library series.
A few years later, a graduate student at Columbia, I encountered more riches in the university book store and others on Morningside Heights, so that my universe of books and the intellectual ambitions they filled me with stretched nearly the length of Manhattan Island. As I look back, my education was inseparable from the hours I spent browsing in those bookstores and the precious library that I began to accumulate.
The post-war years brought a paperback revolution that filled bookstore shelves with an extravaganza of cheap reprints of literature and scholarship. I remember (and still own many copies of) great paperback series featuring long lists of classic titles in literary and art criticism, history, and philosophy like Doubleday Anchor and Harper Torchbooks.
Books like that are now harder and harder to find, as such series have almost disappeared, victims presumably of the slashings of corporate bottom-liners. To walk through the typical corporate megastore is to have grave doubts about the wisdom of universal literacy. Relegated to special sections, literature, scholarship, history, and philosophy have only a relatively small place on the shelves next to the tidal wave of contemporary ephemera that dominate the mass marketplace: self-help, advice to worried parents, pop psychology, holistic medicine, New Age guides, diet books, computer manuals, celebrity biographies, kiss-and-tell gossip books (wait for Monica Lewinsky's!), and blockbuster best sellers by the likes of Tom Clancy and John Grisham. I am sometimes ashamed to be so fond of books as I hurry past this proliferating junk, and I am certainly embarrassed as I consider the implicit equation in the modern chain book mega-store between these disposable consumer items of our trashy present and serious reading meant to instruct and inspire.
It seems to me essential that a university neighborhood like ours try mightily to preserve something of that old world of real books that I remember (perhaps with a distorting nostalgia) from my student days. Perhaps the new Barnes & Noble-run Penn Bookstore will be an improvement; maybe it will minimize contemporary junk books and actually feature literature and scholarship prominently. The arrival of the mass marketing bookselling giant on the Penn campus may just be a crucial moment for the survival of a central aspect of intellectual life at our university.
Even with a new, improved bookstore, it seems to me that we have a collective responsibility, that we owe it to ourselves and to our students to support independent book stores like the Penn Book Center and House of Our Own and to try to lure more booksellers to our neighborhood. As one of my colleagues reminded me recently, other university neighborhoods are still characterized by a universe of real books, and to walk in the vicinity of Harvard or the University of Chicago is to breathe that heady intellectual atmosphere I remember from New York in the 1950s. Surely, independent book stores around our campus deserve some sort of special treatment so that they can compete with shops selling jeans, sunglasses, and fast food, and help to provide that excitement that I remember so vividly.
John Richetti is a professor of English.
Editor's note: This is the original version of the essay which appears in the print edition of the September 3, 1998 Current. Space restrictions prevented us from running the full text in the print version.
Originally published on September 3, 1998