“Florida Wildfire Tied to Man Burning Trash,” local news reported. A deeper dive into the story of the home-eating conflagration in Nassau County, Florida, reveals that books, not garbage, fueled the flames.
Do even paid writers not know the difference between tomes and trash anymore?
The Pew Research Center reported in their annual survey on the reading habits, or lack thereof, of Americans that a quarter of us do not read a single book in a year. By counting the listening of audiobooks as “reading,” the Pew poll likely undercounts the number of non-readers. In 1978, just eight percent of Americans copped to not reading a book that year. In other words, the percentage of people who don’t read a book in a calendar year tripled since Jimmy Carter’s presidency (not heretofore regarded as the cultural apex of Western Civilization).
If America were a book, the foreshadowing would lack subtlety.
Omaha offers a library without books. Several years ago, Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains replaced books with iPads. On planes and trains, passengers once read novels and newspapers; they now text and check social media to pass (waste?) the time.
My local library gives away books on two stands strategically placed near the exit. Charity sales typically ask $5-$10 for brown, paper shopping bags filled with hardbacks. On Amazon, companies such as Thriftbooks sell millions of titles a year by pricing many for a penny (plus the all-important shipping and handling to provide a rather marginal profit margin).
For bibliophiles, to paraphrase one famous novel peddled for a quarter on Amazon, the present ranks as the best of times and the worst of times. Sure, it’s a buyer’s market. But that means the incentive to write books becomes rather meager. How long before the entire industry becomes a vanity press with authors writing for the ego rather than the bank-account boost?
This future, the stuff of a dystopian novel, likely comes later than sooner. While Americans read fewer books, they spend more money on them. The publishing industry shows slight growth for three consecutive years even if the growth of the toy section and coffee shop encroaches on the bookshelves in Barnes & Noble. Writing as a vocation generally calls to bookworms, a subset of people drawn to the words on every line rather than the numbers on the bottom line.
One of the last century’s most prolific and pleasurable writers, who knew something of book burners, described writing as a need of sorts for him. “I’ve always had a lust for life, for art, for the written word,” Ray Bradbury wrote me two years before his 2012 death, “and I simply HAD to write each and every day, whether stories sold or not.”
A recurring character in Bradbury’s books are, well, books. A divorcing couple fights over custody of the family library in “Long Division.” In “The Parrot Who Met Papa,” a bird recites a lost work of Ernest Hemingway. The “exiles” of the story of the same name include the last copies of A Christmas Carol, Dracula, and other classic works sent to Mars for their destruction. One story in which people effectively became books Bradbury wrote on dime-operated typewriters in the basement of UCLA’s library. It foresaw the type of book burning that took place in the Sunshine State earlier this week.
“I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” Fahrenheit 451’s Professor Faber explains. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Before the government burned books, the people — drawn to giant screens and other digital distractions, abandoned them.
Something like this happened in Florida. No censorship-minded Savanarolas gathered to torch offensive words. Disinterest ignited the flames.