Remembering John Updike on Books & Bookstores

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When John Updike died at the end of January, the book industry lost not only one of its greatest writers, but also a true devotee of independent bookstores. In 2006, at a BookExpo America Book & Author Breakfast filled with more than a thousand industry professionals, Updike paid homage to the most important influences on his development as a writer and reader.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author began by addressing booksellers as the "salt of the book world" on the frontlines toiling in "lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk." He remembered fondly the bookstores of his youth in Reading, Pennsylvania -- the Book Mart, at Sixth Street and Court, and Berkshire News, on Fifth Street. And, referring to bookstores as "citadels of light," Updike recalled his college days at Harvard, where he "marveled at the wealth of bookstores around Harvard Square," and his later days in New York and then New England.

The transforming effect of technology on books and libraries, he warned, was a "pretty grisly scenario." Updike expressed concern for the loss of the physical book and the effort behind its creation. "Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web," he said, "but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed, and juvenile."

Updike closed his presentation at BEA with a plea to those he considered most invested in the fate of the paper-and-ink book: "Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

"So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity."

An adaptation of Updike's address is available in print in the New York Times online archives and as a podcast on the BEA website.