by David Stuckey for OPB.org (originally posted Dec. 15, 2018)
You’re Jeremy Garber. You’ve loved books your entire life and for the past 13-plus years you’ve worked at the Camelot of literary institutions: Powell’s Books. First as a cashier, then as a bookseller, then as a used-book buyer and now as the events coordinator for the biggest independent bookstore in the country. You curate what the public sees and write reviews for some of the biggest translated titles in the world. Then, OPB came and had the audacity to ask you why books are so important.
P R O L O G U E
If Beale Street could talk today, it would say we are living in extraordinary times. Times not so different from our past. Times in which the truth has sometimes become inconsequential for a taste of power. And you know what they say about the truth?
If you want to hide it, put it in a book.
In the age of screens, the importance of books is being swiped aside.
Television is arguably in its streaming heyday. Social media has become the drug of choice for those numbing whatever they need to numb. And books are sitting somberly in the background as if to say, “Hey, remember me?”
To learn to read — and then to learn to consume — books is one of a child’s first artistic accomplishments. A whole new world opens. To ride in the back seat of the family car and draw a deeper meaning from those signs you’ve seen countless times before. To give an opinion because words are no longer a jumbled puzzle right in front of your eyes. To travel to different countries, different worlds, different galaxies without your feet touching the ground. These moments serve as an entryway to knowledge and understanding, empathy and education. Books are our first passports to the world.
The power of books resonates throughout history. They’ve been forbidden. They’ve been exalted. The holiday season itself revolves around a certain best-selling book and its protagonist.
On a bustling block in downtown Portland is Powell’s Books — a rose that grew from concrete, a living shrine to books and their importance. Its aisles are trailways of curiosity. People walk them, scanning those colorful spines before plucking one (or two or five) off the shelf.
So what’s it like to work at one of the country’s largest independent bookstores in an era when everyone seems to be staring at a screen? OPB sat down with Jeremy Garber, events coordinator of Powell’s Books, to talk about how vital books are, what it’s like to speak to political players in front of a live audience and what books he’d choose if he had to reintroduce the entire world to reading.
In his 13-plus years at Powell’s Books, Jeremy Garber has also been a cashier, a used-book buyer and a bookseller.
David Stuckey: My first question is a very simple one. Why is it so important to read books, now?
Jeremy Garber: I think we’re living in really uncertain times right now. And I think, as always, it’s important to have different perspectives of our own, to have access — even if just in print — to other ideas, other ways of being, different people’s perspectives. I think fiction especially can help us empathize and understand people in ways that we otherwise may not have access to. Nonfiction is great because you can keep up on current events or specific subjects. But I just think, in general, reading takes you places. Like LeVar Burton said in “Reading Rainbow.” It’s quite literally just that. With books and reading, we’re afforded perspectives that we otherwise may not ever have a chance to discover, let alone understand or embody or interpret in ways that enrich our own lives.
So I think it’s important to read books all the time, but especially now and that’s to say nothing of the precariousness that people are feeling right now, the uncertainty, the outright fear. And I think the act of reading itself can be comforting, can make you feel less alone or less alienated, whether it’s reading somebody that looks like you or has a similar background or somebody who couldn’t be more different than you. Like, you realize that, as human beings, we probably have a lot more in common than we first think and I think reading is a good bridge between people, between cultures.
Stuckey: I feel like me and you, we read a lot. I like to call it “high-end” reading (meaning, reading is a lifestyle).
Garber: Those are your words. I’ve been accused of book snobbery on many occasions.
Stuckey: But that’s the thing, it’s not about that, really. It’s about taking reading seriously. Does it matter if you’re reading [Roberto] Bolaño or say crime fiction?
Garber: I think reading in and of itself, as an act, is important. And I think it can confer a lot of the advantages or opportunities that I just mentioned. I think there persists, in American culture at least, the idea that so-called literary fiction, or especially literature in translation, is somehow hard or difficult. And I think that’s off-putting for a lot of people. I presume they get lost thinking stylistically it’s not gonna be beginning, middle, end and things wrap up. So, I think that leads people to think, “Well, this book will be hard.” It’s not gonna be hard.
But I think it’s good that anyone reads anything. I’d like to see more Americans reading. But I’d also like to see them challenge themselves to read outside of their comfort zone, whether it’s an author of color, LGBTQ, someone from a country that speaks an entirely different language, whatever it is, I think that’s important. So, I mean, read whatever you like to read. But also, step out of your comfort zone and your boundaries. I think growth, or learning, or the ability to see the world differently comes by challenging yourself and stepping out more. Plus, it’s just ultimately rewarding. I think some of the best books in the world aren’t being written in English right now.