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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Lifestyles

Book Miles: How many miles to the bookshop? Three Score and Ten
Chris Mills


I guess I’m 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 can’t say that I have given the matter much consideration and I don‘t 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, it’s 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 that’s 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, it’s one idea, though perhaps a trifle too romantic a notion for many people.

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 world’s second hand bookshops are available at the click of a mouse. It’s 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 one’s collection. Of course books whizzing merrily across the Atlantic is nothing new as readers of Helene Hanff’s 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 isn’t 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. It’s 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 I’m not sure that my mathematics skills would be up to it...


© Chris Mills September 8th
Dublin
cdmillsratel@hotmail.com

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