I was sitting at a cafe at Barnes & Noble the other day, sipping my usual, and reading a newspaper, when I caught the guy next to me licking jam and cream cheese off his fingers and turning the pages of Thoreau's "Walden." Then, after he finished his bagel, he used page 81 as a napkin and left the book for a salesperson to reshelve. For me, it wasn't so much the issue of slobbery as what book lovers can get away with now.
After being away in Asia for three years, I see the rise of the American book superstore as a symbol of capitalism, living proof the First Amendment exists. But in the frenzy of consumption that the superstores create, simple respect gets lost in the stampede.
There was a time when books and magazines and the printed word were cherished and coveted. In ancient times they were limited to the elite and privileged members of society who were literate. There was also a time when people walked into libraries and feared the schoolmarmish librarian who seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. "No food allowed, no talking allowed," the signs said. As a result, my friends and I grew up regarding the library much the way we regard a church.
Now my local library, like others, has an indoor playground for kids, allows drinks, and the librarian seems not to notice the teenagers who eat and chat under the glare of fellow readers.
Likewise, bookstores have become places where toddlers can be left to play in the children's section. And thanks to the World Wide Web - where you can read magazines and newspapers for free, and superstores where you can lounge all day, I wonder who needs to buy a book or periodical anymore. One typical day at the superstore I watched as readers sat on the floor and at the tables and flipped through magazines and read entire books.
To the mere observer, the superstore concept is brilliant: Let consumers have as much time with the product as possible, they'll fall in love with it and pull out the credit card.
Well, call me old-fashioned, but this guy mauling "Walden" with his sticky fingers and the students I see copying books and magazines onto their index cards should be a wake-up call to booksellers across America that lines need to be redrawn. It's sad that people, especially young people, no longer respect the printed word, simply because they can get away with too much.
Living in Hong Kong and traveling through Asia, I came to miss the bookstores that I once criticized for being too massive and impersonal.
In Hong Kong I was left with small mom-and-pop stores where the magazines, wrapped in plastic, cost a fortune and where the books were locked in plastic wrapping. There were no tables, chairs, or cafes. My friends and I, the foreigners, were scolded by a bookstore clerk who caught us sipping coffee, and were thrown out by another clerk who caught us peeling away the wrap.
"Buy it or get out," she said. We were left without a choice.
It was worse in Shanghai when a librarian at the academy where my cousin works decided to close the reading room at 1 p.m. because she had a hair appointment.
When deprived of it, literature became sacred, and it was pure euphoria when I'd discover a recent copy of Time magazine and snap it up like a bandit.
So returning to the Barnes & Noble in New York seemed like heaven. The many floors filled with every book imaginable and every magazine fathomable took my breath away.
"Can I read this?" I asked a clerk who stared at me as if I was an alien.
"Of course, you don't even have to ask," he said.
When I did get my hands on the coveted book, I touched it gingerly, as if it weren't real. It's a privileged feeling few people will have if bookstores and libraries and other coveted places of literature loosen their reins too fast and too much.
*Amy Wu, who spent the past three years as a journalist based in Hong Kong, lives in Thornwood, N.Y.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society