International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Lifestyles
Miles: How many miles to the bookshop? Three Score and Ten
I guess Im not the only shopper who has stood in the supermarket
greengrocery section trying to take a responsible attitude to food
miles when buying the weekly fruit and veg supply. It works like
this. I try to operate a sliding scale where I begin with locally
grown produce then move as far distant as cost, necessity or desire
take me. But have I ever considered the miles a book may have travelled
before it reaches my hands?
Have you, dear reader?
Do any of us wonder how many miles that volume may have travelled from
printer to publisher to distribution centre and finally to retail outlet?
Well no, now I come to think of it I cant say that I have given
the matter much consideration and I dont suppose you have either.
But I did recently have something of a conscience twinge regarding my
book buying tendencies. The said tendencies involve both over the counter
and online purchasing of both new and second hand books. And the purchasing
has almost certainly logged up a large amount of book miles
over more years than I care to think about. But in my defence, its
not just my book buying habits, lots of other people are at it too....
Last week at work I blithely assured a customer that she could easily
obtain a book not yet published in Europe via our supplier in the United
States. She was very pleased and the order and deposit were duly placed.
We usually say that it will take a couple of weeks to fulfil the order,
which is probably fairly standard in the trade. Afterwards I began to
think about the way in which we now take for granted being able to order,
for instance, American published editions in the same way we take for
granted the availability of New Zealand Braeburn apples at the supermarket.
There is no need to wait for six months to a year (or maybe longer)
for a British edition of a book when your local bookshop can order it
directly for you. And thats without even considering the huge
possibilities (or do I mean temptation?) of ordering for yourself via
the internet. It is so easy to order that before you know where you
are, your virtual shopping basket is full. You could quite feasibly
order books from three different continents in one transaction should
you so desire (of which, more below). But should we be considering a
more eco-friendly way of book buying if at all possible?
We are encouraged to buy locally food-wise, which makes sense in many
ways as it helps local producers as well as reduces the miles food has
to travel. But are readers prepared to wait that bit longer for their
brain food and to reduce their carbon book prints? Is there
a better way? I hasten to add at this point that I have not as yet come
up with any world shattering answers to these questions; I am still
at the musing stage but open to suggestions. Patience being the only
obvious idea that I can think of in the short term - in other words
I could just wait for my book. I think the concept used to be known
as delayed gratification and it was generally regarded as
a Good Thing (as Pooh might have said). In other words, you, dear reader
will enjoy your book a whole lot more if you have had to wait at least
six months for it to be available. And just think how virtuous you can
feel about your newly acquired environmental credentials. It would also
strike a blow for the literary equivalent of the slow food movement.
After all, a good book should not be hurried. The anticipation of its
eventual arrival will make the reading of it all the sweeter. Well,
its one idea, though perhaps a trifle too romantic a notion for
So not only should we now consider our carbon footprints when flying
off to exotic foreign climes, and our food miles while at the supermarket,
we also should perhaps be thinking about the air miles some books clock
up before they plop through our letterboxes courtesy of DHL or some
such courier. I am here specifically referring to on-line purchasing,
I am guilty of this air book mile crime myself of course.
In my case I have to confess to giving in (but only occasionally, honest)
to the wicked temptations of Amazon and the like, mainly for used copies
not readily obtainable locally. The worlds second hand bookshops
are available at the click of a mouse. Its enough to make a dedicated
bibliophile completely oblivious to the thousands of miles that that
book will soon be travelling. Though it could be said that as second
hand books have had one useful life already, their new owners might
be exempted from too much censure. They are re-using a valuable resource
after all. It is true to say that web sites dealing in out of print
books are a boon for sourcing those elusive additions to ones
collection. Of course books whizzing merrily across the Atlantic is
nothing new as readers of Helene Hanffs wonderful 84 Charing
Cross Road will already know. Only in those days, (post war but
pre-internet) there was the undoubted charm of letters, brown paper,
string and postal orders. Somehow there isnt the same frisson
to be had scrolling down a list and clicking the mouse.
My personal (and imperfect) suggestion to the internet honey trap is
to attempt to apply the same type of sliding scale rule that I apply
to the greengrocery. If I can possibly order/buy something locally I
will do so. But in the second hand market sometimes price and condition
can skew my good intentions. And did I mention the cost of postage?
But what is the alternative to long distance ordering? Since it may
be perfectly feasible to limit oneself to locally produced tasty food
should we similarly limit ourselves to locally sourced books? Support
small local publishers and bookshops where at all possible? Some bookshops
have separate shelves devoted to local writers published by small presses.
Its always worth a look and you never know what you might find.
Maybe a future Costa prize winner. To take the local initiative further,
instead of greengrocery boxes with seasonal local produce we could have
book boxes from the local second hand bookshop. It could be quite exciting,
a way of discovering new authors and exploring different genres. Maybe
there could be themed boxes: crime, romance, classics etc. Perhaps this
is a business opportunity waiting to be started by an ecologically aware
book lover. And then again... It could be a fun idea to try for a while
perhaps, all kinds of serendipitous discoveries could happen but it
would have serious limitations I admit. We have perhaps grown too accustomed
to choice in our consumer lifestyle. Buying local is certainly an admirable
plan in general, but if there is something in particular required then
the idea may not work in practice.
One final suggestion: for those of us lucky enough to have friends and
relations abroad, trading on their good nature to bring books with them
is always an option. Travellers could offset their air miles against
a few book miles (taking into account an allowance for good will). It
could need a complicated quadratic equation though and Im not
sure that my mathematics skills would be up to it...
© Chris Mills September 8th
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