01 April 2009

Frogs in the Sun

We were sitting around in the late March sunshine, four guys of a certain age, talking, surrounded by green growing things, and birds, and women and children, as old men ought to be surrounded in the spring.

We were talking about a village in Zimbabwe in the 1990's where 400 sculptors had gathered in a cooperative to produce art. The only rule: No copying each other. People came from the wider world to see the village and buy the art.

We were talking about the death of newspapers. One of us asked, rhetorically, did we think there would be any newspapers left publishing on paper in our lifetime? And if not, what comes next?

Newspapers, like books, are the products of a long chain of events. In the case of books it may be years from the idea to the book in your hand. In the case of newspapers, maybe a day or two, idea to print.

You pick up the finished product, look it over, skim to the Sports or read a chapter in a book that interests you. You can read as much or as little as you wish, but someone else thought it through and laid it out before you picked it up.

On the Internet, right now, you can design your own book and create your own newspaper. If all you want to read is Sports, that’s all you will read. You will not have to page through the news, Home & Garden, or anything else. Just Sports, if that’s what you want.

Same for books. Leaving aside stories, tales, novels, comics and poetry, leaving fiction aside, you easily can look up a topic on Google, research Wikipedia, visit any number of web sites in any number of places, and make your own book, at least in your own mind.

You won’t be going on a book tour. You won’t write like Rebecca Solnit or have adventures as thrilling as Bernard Cornwell’s inventions, but you can find the facts yourself.

Then there’s the bookstore. When you enter a good one, you enter into someone else’s mind. I always thought of my bookshop as a mind filter. There’s a universe of books and newspapers out there, but in my store you find only what made it through my personal filter. Books I liked even before they were published and hoped you’d like. Picked for you, or someone just like you.

So the question came up, Tony, you’re about to travel in Italy. What are the bookstores like over there? And what about libraries? Do they even have libraries with free lending over there?

Good question, my friend. I’m going to look around and ask questions. I have seen modern Italian bookstores, sleek and clean, in the big cities. I don’t remember seeing bookstores in other places, little towns. I don’t remember seeing bookstores anywhere in Italy but in the cities.

Same for libraries. There are famous and important libraries in Italy, but they are mostly museums for manuscripts. They keep the originals safe and scholars consult them in white gloves. Italy never had Andrew Carnegie to build brick palaces throughout the land for free lending libraries. Are regular books available for regular people in regular libraries? I have no idea.

* * * * *

Children raced around the garden, making trails that never were, climbing trees, shouting to each other. The women came and went, staring. In silence they watched us, squatting in the sun like frogs, shooting the spring breeze. Waiting for instructions.

It is so fine to be an old frog in the sun, pondering the world and its many wonders. No need to jump. No reason, right now, to go inside and do the dishes.

Spring, sun, and friends. Italy, books, and libraries, and newspapers and African sculptors who invented a tobacco farm into a cooperative village in the former Rhodesia.

How are they doing in that village now? I asked. Zimbabwe is a mess.

They’re still there; I think they’re doing fine, my friend said. That’s what he said. Maybe someone should go look.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Two comments: first, you aren't quite the doddering old guy in the chorus of a Hardy novel. C'mon!
Second, in Mexico City when I lived there, aside from the institutional libraries in the museums, the US Embassy had a lending library geared to "anyone interested in learning more about the United States." I don't know if other foreign missions did the same. So far as I know, libraries there are pretty much private, although there is a national library much like our Library of Congress. None of which may be of any interest, but you never know what might start a conversation....

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