On Monday I received a very disheartening email. The bookstore at the Graduate Theological Union where I did my graduate studies will be closing its doors. They simply can’t keep up with online retailers anymore. It is such a fine source of theological resources and the fact that a university bookstore can’t stay open is very sad to me indeed.
I think even sadder to me right now is recognizing my own culpability in this. I buy a lot of books, and I buy most of them through Amazon. I wholeheartedly believe in supporting independent bookstores and have often thought I would be better off ordering all of my books either through the bookstore at the Priory where I am an Oblate or even the neighborhood bookstore just up the street from me. But the truth is, books are so expensive, and I buy so many, that I tend to gravitate toward the online retailer where I can buy more books for my money.
Several months ago I wrote this post on Words, in which I reflected on books. And while I still believe that they represent “worlds of meaning and possibility” and that they are “sacred objects – invitations to wonder, discovery, and encounter” — the other part of my reflection on the shadow side of books holds equally true as well:
“Sometimes they can take the place of practice, especially in the case of books on spirituality or art. It is easier to read about praying than to engage in it directly, it is easier to read about new art techniques than to engage in the act of art-making and the risky places it takes me. Or sometimes my hunger for books touches a need to feel current, to have read all of the given material on a subject, the impact of my academic training. Sometimes it is pure gluttony, wanting more and more.”
I recognize there are many shadow levels operating here. There is my greed for more and more books which in itself deserves some reflection, I justify this compulsion because of my work. I am in part a scholar and so I need the resources with which to do my work. But the compulsion then leads me to seek places I can purchase them less expensively, since I can buy more titles this way, rather than ask whether I need so many new books considering the hundreds that already line my shelves.
Perhaps paying more money for each title will force me to be even more intentional and selective and to also make use of our great public library system more often where I can go online and have the books I want to borrow delivered to my local branch three blocks away. Or to make use of the theological libraries in either of the fine insititutions for which I work (I found out while in New Orleans last week that Loyola will even mail me titles I need). It means sometimes I may have to wait longer, but delayed gratification I have been told is a sign of maturity. :-)
In the past I have provided the Amazon links here figuring that most folks would be buying from them anyway, and I might as well earn a small percentage to help support the running of this website. But in all honesty, the total amount is perhaps $20 a month and is not worth the larger price to me anymore.
So I will continue to feature my weekly Abbey Bookshelf, but I will consider being even more selective about the number of books I recommend and I will find new ways to link to information about those titles. On my “Recommended Books” page I have taken out all of the Amazon links and just listed the titles. It would be too much work to go through all of my old blog posts and remove those links as well, so I will let them stand as a reminder of my own journey of conversion around this subject.
It seems fitting that my last Abbey Bookshelf edition with those links included would be about shadow work. We live in a complex time where we are presented with such a variety of choices each day, that for most of us we do the best we can with the time, information, and resources we have. And yet the spiritual journey for me is always about the movement toward freedom and illuminating those places where I participate in the oppression of others and myself. When independent bookstores can no longer survive, I may not be able to make a difference by myself, but I can be intentional about the choices I do make and share those reflections with my readers.
I don’t offer these words in judgment of anyone reading here, but as an invitation to reflect on the systems in which we all participate.
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts
I buy too many books too – and here there is NOT a theological bookshop which stocks books in English so I am grateful for Amazon for stocking Christian books – and also Christianbook.com
I do try to buy from publishers if I can – e.g. the church of England bookstore – but often their postage cost are impossibly high.
I agree that amazon is taking business away from independent local booksellers – and that’s a pity –
that said – I might be addicted to buying books – but it’s healthier than some other addictions I think. And I do my bit in re-circulating books with bookcrossing.com – not that that helps the local booksellers either!
I guess one good thing is that postoffice is kept alive here in Finland by buying on line :)
Thanks everyone for the heartfelt comments.
You are most welcome Anna.
Yes Bette, you are right about the online purchasing affecting a lot of small businesses. Luckily in Seattle, most businesses are either in walking or bus riding distance, so I rarely have to make the driving discernment. Also, its not the Priory store closing, but the one at my graduate school, which in many ways is even more shocking to me.
Suz, your comment about the dog made me smile. Tune loves when the UPS man comes, because he always brings her treats. Half the time I have to drag her back inside or she would go home with him. :-)
Great story kigen!
There is a story about St. Francis and a novice monk in his community. The monks were on a fast during Lent — they drank water, but took no food. The older monks were very capable of going a long distance on a fast, but the novice was struggling mightily and finally, after just two days without food, he crept down into the kitchen of the monastery in the dark of night, and began to gorge himself with bread and cheese. St. Francis heard him and came into the kitchen with a lamp. The look on the young man’s face in the candlelight was terribly shamed. So St. Francis sat down beside him, and without saying anything, grabbed some cheese, broke his own fast, and ate with him.
Hmmm…feeling more than a little guilty here. I have Luther Seminary Bookstore a block away and a neighborhood bookstore in slow decline. Even Sophie the dog knows the sound of Amazon at the door…
I’m sorry to hear that your priory’s bookstore will be closing. Online purchasing is taking out more independent small businesses than just bookstores. But your idea to not give Amazon links is probably a good one so you will not have that guilt of contributing to big-business monopoly. I try to support small businesses in my own city but will admit that I will buy a book online if I can get it cheaper. Now one has to consider what they also spend in gasoline just driving across the city, in order to support local business. You have an excellent idea to borrow library books long distance, and most often the scholarly ones can only be found at university. This reminds me of the pledge at Etsy to only buy handmade….and… “Tis The Gift To Be Simple” comes to mind: http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/t/t717.html
“When I have a little money I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” — Erasmus
This has been my MO since I was a child. I’d not seriously considered the shadow side, but in reading your posts, I felt heat creeping into my cheeks with the realization that I’m often not engaged in making art, that I’m far from living a contemplative life, that I will not live long enough to make all the recipes from all the cookbooks I’ve collected, that my journals are missing great gaps of my life. You’ve given me food for thought yet again…thank you, Christine.