All That We Leave Behind

Monday, March 28, 2011

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I've been pondering degradation lately—the breakdown of systems, of decay and dissolution.  I wonder if we're really, finally coming to that point of losing something vital in our country.  

This train of thought was born from two seemingly unrelated occurrences: the downturn of book sales across the nation and a photo collection I ran across recently of the demise of Detroit, Michigan.  

First, let's take Detroit.  These images haunted me and gave me more than a moment's pause.  On first look, they are sadly beautiful.  There is a grace to decay; that inexorable slide into nonexistence.  But then there is the realization—Detroit is turning into a ghost town.  In the 1950s, it was the 4th largest city in America.  One perspective is that Detroit's decline is largely due to the fact that so much of our labor is being outsourced, and so many of the goods we purchase now come from outside our nation's borders.  We've sold our soul to China.  Unfortunately, I don't think that's too far off the mark.  

Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against China in a historical sense... but they do disappoint in their current state.  Such a rich history... such beautiful culture and art... and now the only thing we see from them is the oppression of their people, and plastic, poorly made crap from Walmart.  How depressing is that?  This is the country we are in debt to... we, the “Leaders of the Free World,” are financially beholden to a country whose politics we (as a nation) diametrically oppose.  All in the name of “they can make it cheaper.”  They undercut the world by using cheap labor, cheap materials, and lax (if not entirely nonexistent) health/safety/workmanship standards.  It's to the point that, though I'm no economics expert, I'm pretty sure our economy would collapse if we stopped getting our cheap crap from China.  Whatever would McDonald's put in the Happy Meals?  Wherever would we get our computer parts and Levi's?

Just to humor me, take a look around your house and see how many of the things you own were Made in China.  If you'd bought that same item Made in America, it would've cost more... so, we go with the Chinese version.  It might not last as long (meaning we'll have to turn around and buy another one in a few months or a year... probably another Made in China model, 'cause it'll be cheap) and it might have been made by someone whose wage is a pittance of what we pay our burger flippers here in the States, but hey, it's cheaper, and that means we can buy two for the price of one!  The really hilarious thing about all this is, while our people are being laid off right and left, and places like Detroit are on life-support, you might not be able to find an American-made version of this whatsis if you wanted one... because China has the corner on the stuff-that's-made market.  

We've entered into a lose-lose situation.  Well, I take that back.  China is winning.  China and Charlie Sheen.  Hooray for tiger blood.

And then there are books... books that a lot of people have stopped buying, apparently.  I learned about this when all the Borders stores started closing in my town.  Granted, Borders made some mistakes and didn't really plan their business strategy too well, but I'm seeing reports of book sales falling for Barnes & Noble, too, and they're supposed to be doing just fine.  A friend of mine brought up the point that “everyone's going to Kindles now.”  This actually scared me a little.  

I'm trying to imagine a world where people... especially the lower middle class and lower class, can afford to buy Kindles or any other e-book reader on the market.  I've looked on these devices all go for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 - $300.  

Have you ever been poor?  Are you poor now?  I have been, and am pretty close to that at the present.  I remember the days when it was worse, though.  When I was on food stamps and then WIC and suddenly very aware of what government assistance won't pay for.  Things like toilet paper and cleaning supplies.  Things like Kindles.  It's been nigh on 14 years for me now, but not so long ago in the grand scheme of my life.  I can tell you, if I was there now, there's no way I'd be able to afford something as grand as a Kindle.  I wouldn't even be able to afford this laptop I'm typing away on, which is infinitely more useful than a mere e-book reader, and which, in my current financial condition, was procured by the skin of my teeth.  But I could probably afford the occasional paperback. 

So, let's say my friend's prediction is correct... let's say it's all going Kindle.  Are actual, physical books going to become as “vintage” as tape cassettes?  Or CDs, for that matter?  All the used CD shops in my town have gone or are going under.  Nobody buys them anymore.  It's all mp3s.  Are books going the same way?

Some would say this perspective is paranoid, I suppose, and normally I'd agree.  But it doesn't look that way to me anymore.  It looks a little like the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening still.  It makes me wonder how many people all of this technology is leaving behind.  

There are nights when my son has to use the internet to do his homework.  Not all the children in his school come from families who are “making it.”  Do they all have internet at home?  There's always the library, I suppose, but it gives me a sinking feeling, all the same.  

And, sure, there will probably be used books available for a long time to come... online, if all the traditional bookstores close up shop, but you can't buy things via the internet if you only operate in cash.  Many, many “disadvantaged people” (such a pompous term, but it does the trick) do not have credit cards or even bank accounts—therefore no bank cards—with which to make these internet purchases.  Why?  The reasons are various and sundry, but I used to be one of them, so just take my word for it, ok?  Perhaps you can't imagine a life without plastic money.  Or, perhaps, you can.  But it exists, either way.  And, I daresay, that portion of the population is growing, not dwindling.

So I wonder... I wonder who we're abandoning in all of this “progress”... is it ourselves?  I wonder, and I worry. 


GingerGirl said...

I think that there will always be tangible, paper books...but I do fear that they will become the items of the upper class...leather bound tomes that are artfully engraved but, tragically rarely read. I resist buying a Kindle or other such device, because I like the feel of the pages, the smell of old books, the crinkle of the turning page.

When I buy a vintage book, with the worn leather, and the occasional note in the margin, I feel a connection with the past, and I wonder which of my books will end up in another's hands long after I have passed from this world.

There is a continuity in books, a tangible sense of passing time. I long to have more books, more pieces of the past to hold on stock up these snippets of history, just in case...just in case the worst happens.

rusk said...

I like the library. I have no need to own the books and I like the concept of a good public service. As for the decay, there will always be rebirth. Take a look at Camden, NJ. I remeber standing in the street looking at City Hall - "I dreamed of a city - invincible".

Sarah Franz-Wichlacz said...

while i agree that the pendulum is swinging, and the powers that be seem to *want* to keep the masses ignorant, and make them more so (this is a good example of that).... defunding those programs that help the "lower" classes get out of their situations, i believe it is a pendulum... it will eventually swing back. how long that will take i don't know, but it's gotta... everything is a cycle, this doesn't mean we can't fight to make this swing less intense, but it just has to get better eventually... as for books, i could worry that they are disappearing, but i can't help but think (perhaps it's wishful thinking) that there will be a way to get them to the ever-increasing poor... i have to.

Liz said...

What a thought-provoking post.

A friend and I read every label on any merchandise that we look at. It's depressing how difficult it is to find made in Canada/US products. I think, in time, peak oil will bring things back to this side of the ocean. Hopefully some manufacturing facilities will still be standing.

This same friend is also an avid reader...of non-electronic books. Her fear is censorship. If a govt decides it doesn't think its population should be reading Tom Sawyer then, poof, gone forever. Scary.

firespark said...

Well, it took me long enough to get back here and respond, but I love all these comments! It feels like a conversation, which makes me deliriously happy. :)

GingerGirl - yes, I think, I *hope* there will always be paper books around. I can't imagine a world without them. I think, if nothing else, there will always be people like us who hold on; those brave invisible soldiers who keep the traditions going as well as they can, for as long as they can.

Rusk - I think it's awesome that you let the library be your go-to source for books instead of feeling the need to own them yourself. Libraries are such an important part of our civilization, especially for the underprivileged and those who don't care to waste storage space on something the library will hold onto for free. ;) I love my library, too. And, yes, there is always rebirth... the cycle keeps on turning.

Sarah - I'm with you on this. I know it always gets worse before it gets better, so long as we are aware that something *needs* to get better. I will have hope, because I know we're not the only ones here talking about this sort of thing (ideas spread for we monkeys on our island), and will keep fighting the good fight. :)

Liz - yeah, this not being able to buy stuff made "here" (wherever your "here" is ;) has bugged me for awhile now because it's a sign of how disconnected we have become with our place, how far removed we are from what we own, what we support, but I think the move to take back our towns is starting to take hold. And I'm sure peak oil will move us even further in that direction. But it's starting now, on small scales, with the local food movements and with those who buy from local artisans and do-it-yourselfers. There's still a long way to go, but every little bit helps. If we can remember how to be a community again, we will eventually take back our towns.

And, censorship. Wow, yeah. That's always a terrifying thought. Very Big Brother, and probably not as fictional as many would like to believe. There's a big push here from the American Library Association every year to participate in "Banned Books Week," during which you are encouraged to read and discuss banned books. If she's not already involved with this, your friend might want to check it out and see if there's some way she could contribute to the cause. Here's a link to their site:

Emily said...

a friend of mine lived in detroit for a while, working as an intensive housecleaner (cleaning up after hoarders.) imagine that. she held on to a lot of abandoned relics she came across, including a fascinating old photo album full of depression-era shots. i think it would be so interesting to tour detroit's ruins...depressing as hell, but amazing.

i'm for hard-copy books, too. i only buy used ones, though, or check them out from the library...don't know quite where that puts me as far as supporting the medium.

Anyes said...

Such a thought provoking post, I could not help but have mixed feelings looking at the decaying beauty of the Detroit's buildings and knowing the hardship people living there mus have gone through and still are...
Thank you for coming over and following :-)

juliababyjen said...

Very nicely said!

I do have a Nook. It was a Christmas present, I personally don't have enough extra money to be buying things like that. I like it for the cheap kind of paperbacks that I always end up giving away later. But I still buy books. I love Borders, but I am in favor more of the small, local bookshops were you can buy used books. Those are always the best!

You would really like the book I was talking about, "Matched." The Society has censored everything from our current society, and has left only 100 songs, 100 stories, and 100 poems for their citizens to know. Can you imagine? Cutting down all of the books out there to only 100???