The end of the book shop?

In a comment to this Times article about the failure of bookstores in general, and Waterstone’s in particular, one person said:-

It is the failure of literacy and the death of imagination that underlies the problem.

And, you know, I couldn’t agree more – I worked as an adult literacy tutor in the mid 80s, and  the situation was appalling; it’s certainly not got any better since then.

Indeed, as a reasonably successful blogger I’m horrified at the inability of so many of my fellow-bloggers to string the simplest of words together coherently (and spelled correctly), not to mention their failure to grasp even the basics of punctuation. The idea that they might actually say something worthwhile eludes them too. I read a blog yesterday, for example, and, while the punctuation and spelling were both fine, the writer had absolutely nothing to say, just the most egregious, rambling, train-of-thought, self-indulgent bullshit.

As for the death of imagination, I think it’s rather more the dearth, and it’s quite staggering. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, when I was a child we managed to entertain ourselves quite well, and throughout the now-dreaded school summer holidays rarely bothered our parents, except at mealtimes. These days, unless it involves kicking a ball, kids seem at a complete loss to know what to do with their leisure time.

Not entirely irrelevant, the alleged next big thing is cinema, one Tahar Rahim, says that when he was young there was nothing to do where he lived, so some boys went walking in the mountains. Nothing to do? Many youngsters would kill to have mountains on the doorstep! Clearly his peers had rather more initiative – and imagination – than he did.

It wasn’t unknown, though, during the summer holiday, for us simply to sit in the sun and – shock! – read. And we were just ordinary kids from a borderline-deprived background, not the children of intellectuals. That, I dare say, isn’t something you’d see a lot these days.

In pubs, too, there is a long tradition of reading but, ask yourselves, when did you last see anyone in a pub reading anything apart from a paper another customer has left lying around? And that’s likely to be from the crap end of the market – the Daily Mail, or the Sun.

Commuting, too, used to be a hotbed of literacy, but does it happen now? I mean that – I don’t actually know, not having been able to work for 25 years (almost to the week). The same with long-distance travel. I last used a long-distance train in 2005, and it was nearly all mp3 players and laptops – nary a book to be seen. And I was as bad as anyone else, with my mp3 player plugged into my ears.

It wasn’t always thus. Coming home by coach from Kendal, in the Lake District, having walked the Dales Way (well, OK, failed to walk – I went down with food poisoning on the 4th day), I leapt off the coach in some confusion and the wrong town, after being so engrossed in a book I thought I was in Liverpool when, in fact, I was in Leigh, Lancashire. Not a good place to be stranded.

You know, it’s often computers that are blamed for the dearth of imagination – and for the damage to literacy, but I really don’t agree. Computer/console games probably aren’t doing either any favours, but I don’t think computers, per se, should carry the can. After all, some people have gone through a minimum of 11 years schooling, without having the fuse of literacy or imagination ignited. Buying a laptop won’t affect that for good or ill.

And based on my own experience, teachers aren’t to blame – they can instil the fundamentals (which often don’t take), but they can’t create a literary mindset, or jump-start the imagination, unless the seeds exist and, all too often, they just don’t. It’s a fact of life that some people have zero imagination.

Some of them become racing drivers, climbers, or sky-divers (because they can’t visualise how it would turn out if it all goes tits up), but most, like Stephen Baldwin, below, take to religion – scratch a fundamentalist of any stripe, and you’ll find the imagination of an amoeba. Often the intelligence of one, too.

I saw a cracking demonstration of imagination failure (not to mention failure of intelligence, logic, common sense and pretty much anything else you can think of), in the Observer magazine this morning – Stephen Baldwin (yes, those Baldwins) said, “Evolution isn’t true, because if we evolved from monkeys, how can they still be here?”

Disregarding the fact that nobody has ever said we’re descended from monkeys, other than retard Creationists like Baldwin, it seems never to have occurred to this dork – because he can’t even begin to imagine it – that even if it was true about monkeys, they would have been a different species of monkeys! FFS! And what makes Baldwin think he’s evolved at all? From anything?

Still, it must be comforting, for such a microbe-sized intellect, to be so certain about something, even if it is such complete and utter bollocks.

Baldwin, by the way, was bullied by his siblings when young – I can see why.

Computers, though – and the Internet – rather than being to blame, actually make both the lapse of literacy and the failure of imagination far more conspicuous than they would otherwise be – those bloggers, for example (and pretty much any newspaper comment section), but for me, at least my computer is, as much as it’s anything else, an outlet for, and a spur to, my creativity, rather than an impediment.

The causes of imagination failure are, I think, intrinsic – some vital spark lacking within people that causes them to fail to engage with books on all but the most basic level. It’s one thing to read the words, quite another to lose oneself in the world created by the author, and that aspect, I think, is where imagination failure is demonstrated best. As well as in all those who refuse to read fiction because it’s “made up”, or fail, utterly, to comprehend that Dan Brown writes fiction. That it’s crap is another issue.

2 thoughts on “The end of the book shop?

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and agree with your comments about the dearth of imagination. I find it sad that some people boast that they have never read a work of fiction – they don’t know what they are missing!

    One thing I wanted to point out is that not everyone listening to an iPod is listening to music – some of us use it to catch up on our reading by listening to unabridged audiobooks. With a long daily commute by car, I rarely have the luxury of sitting down to read a book, so listen to audiobooks whilst driving – that way I get to enjoy my favourite books and catch up on new fiction. And it has other benefits – I am a much more relaxed driver when listening to audiobooks.

    • Hi Bev,

      I used to know a guy who worked for my local council’s library service and, despite access to far more books than the average library user – he got to them before they were farmed out around the branches – he was quite pleased that, in his entire life, he’d read just one book – Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.


      I don’t like audiobooks myself – I also ways feel, the few I’ve listened to, that it’s someone else’s interpretation, and probably a long way from mine. And it’s worse with a book I’ve already read. As annoying as a film of a favourite book – like LOTR with Irish Hobbits, for pity’s sake!


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