Today on NPR’s Morning Edition, co-host Don Gonyea interviewed Granta editor John Freeman and one of the co-founding editors of Granta en español, Valerie Miles, about Granta 113, which features work from 22 of the best young Spanish-language novelists. When Gonyea noted that a third of the “literary stars of the future” were from Argentina, Miles cited that country’s rich literary tradition, which has produced masters like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and many more I probably should know but don’t. But Miles went further:
A lot of it has to do with the fact that Argentina is a country with a very long and strong literary tradition…But it also has to do with the fact that it has wonderful bookstores. Some of the really great and really important publishing companies that ran away from Franco’s Spain ended up in Argentina, and it’s very exciting to see what’s going on there.
This is a good reminder that bookstores are more than just capitalist enterprises. They are also cultural storehouses that safeguard a society’s literary tradition, and incubators of future generations of storytellers and poets and critics. Or they can be. I went into a Christian chain bookstore last week and it felt more like the midway at a carnival than a bookstore. More space had been allotted to ridiculous Christian t-shirts, kitsch, and cheap toys and trinkets (many of them made in China) than to books. (The bookstore also seemed to have an entire shelf devoted to Ronald Reagan.)
I’m not saying bookstores shouldn’t be subject to the same forces of profit and loss as other businesses. I’m saying there may be more at stake than first meets the eye. Preferring a brick and mortar bookstore – preferably an independent shop, where the booksellers are passionate, knowledgeable, and opinionated, where bookselling is something akin to a calling – might be a vote for the future of American literature. The little kids rummaging through the Testamints might be the next Mark Twain, William Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor – if we only give them the chance.