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Turn That Thing Down!

October 19, 2011

I have the misfortune to write the next chapter in the sad Decline of Books-A-Million. The decline of Books-A-Million began when the chain scurrilously combined their fiction and literary departments. Apparently, to the men in charge of the store, there was no aesthetic difference between Moby-Dick and Dial “M” for Murder. For the first time, Jane Austen could sit next to Janet Ivanovich, Thomas Hardy could lean on Tom Clancy, and Milton could be a convenient three feet away from Stephanie Meyer.

Behind this mixing of the sublime with the tacky was the assumption that there are no true aesthetic differences between books, that there are no aesthetic standards beyond personal taste, that Paradise Lost and The Unvanquished are just as good as Zombiegeddon. This, however, was not the worst of Books-A-Million’s sins.

Despite the fact that fiction and literature were mixed up together in a hopeless muddle, the fact still remained that people were reading, though whether they were reading Great Expectations or the collected short stories of Jimmy Buffet was up in the air. Over the next several years, though, Books-A-Million began to shy away from the traditional bookstore format of selling books. A large portion of the  store was gutted to make way for a section of “gifts” and other dinky-doos. No longer would shoppers have the unpleasant experience of walking into the bookstore and being confronted with the complete works of Shakespeare or those boring books on history. Now, they could walk straight in and choose what they would from an impressive array of geegaws, including magnets, keychains, notepads, and figurines of characters from Family Guy. If someone wanted to actually find books, they would have to wade past the chintzy toys and white elephant gifts, until they made it to the fiction/literature section (Which is uncomfortably close to the romance section.)

More bad changes occurred. The store became re-arranged, reducing the size of the “fiction/literature” department. More attention was given to comic books (excuse me, “graphic novels.), board games, and the coffeeshop. The display tables, which once (I think) displayed halfway decent books, have become theaters of the cheap and tawdry. One walks through the center aisle of Books-A-Million and is confronted by paranormal bawdry, weight-loss guides, obscene humor, and books written by non-actors. There are entire tables devoted to zombies or vampires or coffee table books. Judging from the display tables, Western literature has progressed to the point that now you can not only by a book written by Hulk Hogan, but you can buy a book written by his wife.

Worst of all, Books-A-Million began selling movies and video games. Movies can sometimes enrich our lives like books can. Most movies sold at Books-A-Million do not fall into this category: I doubt there is anything literary in American Pie Part 4. Video games are even worse—a form of entertainment that is at best an amusing diversion with friends and at worst a substitute for a social life that wastes thousands of hours. (I realized last night that if I had spent the thousands of hours that I had spent playing Super Smash Bros. Melee on working out instead, I would be ripped.)

All of this is bad. I don’t want to be a Pharisee here–I’m not against board games, “gifts” or non-literary fiction in general. As I write this, there is a magnetic hand on my desk purchased from Books-A-Million. Comic books can be a legitimate form of entertainment. The coffee at Books-A-Million tastes pretty good. Books-A-Million is my town’s prime source of Moleskine notebooks, which is a positive for the company, and outweighs the fact that they carry zombie magnets.

However, Books-A-Million has sunk even lower in the pit. I doubt this time they will be able to drag themselves out. Background music in stores is almost always annoying. Books-A-Million, prior to their latest fall from grace, usually played some vaguely jazzy muzak in the background. It was instrumental, it was quiet, and it was easily tuned out. It was enough background noise to allow you to sit down and read in peace without disturbing you from John Donne or Stephen King.

But now all this has changed. I visited Books-A-Million this week while visiting my rural seat in Texarkanashire, Arkansas. When I stepped into Books-A-Million, I noticed something was different. They were playing rock music. And they were playing it loud.

I stop here to note that while this makes it sound like Books-A-Million was cranking up the AC/DC to window-shattering volumes, they weren’t. Their rock music came more from the blue-eyed, vaguely indie, middle-of-the-road, John Mayer aesthetic. And when I say loud, I don’t mean Metallica loud, I mean “loud enough to disturb you from your reading and browsing loud.”

Loud music in restaurants and stores has been getting worse of late. Clothing stores crank up the volume on their inoffensive rock music to the point where Jason Mraz becomes an unwelcome participant in any conversation you try to have. At Shoe Carnival, they have a radio station that seems devoted to the most vapid pop songs that were performed by women and girls, and only women and girls. It is impossible to try to decide what kind of shoe to buy when some tween charlatan like Willow Smith is blaring her mindless chorus in your ear. I know you whip your hair back and forth, now shut up!

Books-A-Million was always sort of a musical safe haven, a fortress against the assault of the world’s most shallow musical genre. But no more. Now rock music has invaded the once-hallowed halls of the bookstore. To make it worse, it’s not even good rock music. It would be one thing if Books-A-Million was playing some literary-minded acoustic wordsmiths, some Damien Rice, Ivan and Alyosha, Sufjan Stevens or something in that vein. But the music they play is simply vapid. One song sung by an unremarkable woman singer had a chorus of “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” I kid you not. I also had to listen to the amazing non-talent of John Mayer, something I would never do of my own volition.

Rock music is the most cheap and tawdry form of music invented on the planet. It doesn’t have the sophistication of concert music (“classical music”), and it is not part of a tradition like different types of folk, blues and (more traditional) country. It is a music that was invented by record companies who wanted a sanitized version of blues music that they could market to clueless white teenagers. This is not to say that I don’t like rock music—I do, even some of the more cheap and tawdry forms. I confess, I like Aerosmith. But Aerosmith is not Johann Sebastian Bach or even Miles Davis, and there’s no way that anyone can defend it like that. Bookstores should be places that reinforce literary culture, not tear it down. It is a tragedy when we see the Bookstores inviting the music that is the solvent of all serious thought into their walls.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011 1:41 am

    This your 9th Symphony.

  2. October 20, 2011 3:41 pm

    I hope not–that would mean that I am deaf and about to die.

  3. October 20, 2011 4:12 pm

    Publishing companies pay big bucks for their books to be featured on tables and to be face-out on the aisles of books, so that accounts for some of the terrible featured content. Plus, your average Betty would rather read some drivel by Nicholas Sparks than anything that has substance or requires thought. I shop for books online now. There’s no wasting time browsing BAM’s terribly organized stock. They never have what I need.

    And the hipsters. Ugh. I walked in on some bathing in the bathroom sinks once.

  4. October 22, 2011 4:45 pm

    Traci, I completely see what you mean, but I personally love bookstores, at least in theory. Shopping for books online is nice, but you can’t browse through books and flip through their pages and imbibe the atmosphere like you can in a bookstore. What Texarkana really needs is a Half-Price Books, which would be really awesome, but not happening.
    Hipsters are pretty pathetic, but what I hate more is the overweight metalheads and Dungeons-and-Dragons guys who hang around the place all the time.

  5. George Grant permalink
    October 22, 2011 11:40 pm

    Amen and amen!

  6. October 24, 2011 1:12 am

    George Grant commented on my blog! I feel like a fifteen year old girl who just had Justin Bieber wave at her. 🙂

  7. October 30, 2011 4:31 am

    No wonder you had George Grant comment. It was a fascinating piece of writing.

  8. D. R. Leach permalink
    November 16, 2011 10:02 am

    If George Grant excites, I’m sure smelling salts will be needed when mine is observed. Or..maybe..not.

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