The world of books holds a special fascination for people my age and a recent article in The New York Times that describes a dystopian culture at the giant online retailer Amazon sheds a disturbing and unflattering light on a what has long been considered a “gentleman’s profession.”
Over time Jeff Bezos’ mammoth company has become an Orwellian world resembling the British author’s novel 1984. “At the bottom, a very large group of unskilled and low-paid proletariat with no stake in the organization; above them, a smaller middle tier of managers, hard-working, ambitious, fearful and suspicious of their colleagues; at the top, an inner circle wielding total power, ” is how one writer described it. During last week’s Bibliopad podcast Maclean’s senior writer Anne Kingston compared Amazon culture to the East German secret police, the Stasi.
For those of us caught between the age of print and the digital age, or between Gutenberg and Steve Jobs, a reverence for books continues to reflect our relationship to culture, ideas, the economy and a general appreciation of “the good.” We’re troubled that this axis of everything we hold dear is being overshadowed by the Internet of everything, or plainly put, by the digital world where a company such as Amazon not only destroys its competitors but uses inhumane techniques to do so.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as joined at the hip to my MacBook as any twenty-year old. My partner claims that I spend more time with my laptop than I do with him, and I must agree. Yet in my heart, I’m a print person. I write books and holding a “real” book in my hands makes me feel part of something much larger than myself, something literary and historic, an act that is on the side of the angels.
Consider this example. A long-time friend, Beth Appeldoorn, recently posted an amazing board on Facebook. On it is a mishmash of phrases invented by William Shakespeare that still remain in daily usage more than 400 years after the playwright penned them. Here are some:
Beth and her partner, Susan Sandler, owned and operated Toronto’s Longhouse Books on Yonge Street for years, the delectable store where so many first discovered CanLit. Just before bookselling changed into a business of metrics rather than taste, Beth and Susan sold the business and their home in Toronto’s trippy Annex neighbourhood and moved to Salt Spring Island where they live today in a secluded British Columbia oasis of their own design.
To my mind, the sale of Longhouse bookstore, was the turning point for print lovers in this neck of the woods. Today it’s difficult to browse through the shelves in an independently-owned store, to know that the curatorial acumen of one or two buyers have carefully chosen each book presented for sale. It’s much easier to one-click and buy on Amazon. Even the most devoted readers can’t seem to resist the temptation.
As retirees, we were supposed to finally have the time to read, and to pursue other cultural pursuits that we were too busy to enjoy when working full time or raising a family. The question is: In the digital age will we carry through or be thrown off course by other clickable pastimes?
Shakespeare reminds us in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true” so this summer I purchased tickets for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. I must admit, it’s been a few years since I attended a play in this glorious little town. Passing through the gentle rolling hills of Mennonite farms with their sturdy yellow brick houses, to arrive at Stratford is like stepping into a pre-digital era. It’s a cozy place with an old-fashioned Ontario small-town demeanour coupled with a wholly intelligent energy where the word reigns supreme.
Stratford is a town entirely devoted to culture. The Hamlet we saw was magnificent and precipitated a lengthy dinner conversation about the meaning of the tragedy. Written around 1601 and later performed before Elizabeth I at the Globe Theatre near the Thames, the play remains as important a look at the obstacles facing young adults as it was way back then.
When I returned home to my computer, I purchased tickets for another play in the fall. Next year I hope to visit Stratford more than a few times.
The new retirement is all about extreme fitness and exotic travel and other age-defying pursuits. Maybe it could also be about relishing our cultural heritage and exploring the human condition. Maybe it’s good for retirees to advance their understanding of the world, an understanding that is often in contradiction to the current zeitgeist.
If a smidgeon of Gutenberg’s printing press is going to survive the digital age, it’s up to us to make sure it happens.
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