Is Book Culture Here to Save Us From Late-Stage Capitalism?

First off, what “late-stage capitalism” really means is somewhat up for debate. I am far from a sociologist, but I interpret it as essentially the zenith of capitalism, where the will of private owners supersedes the needs of the general public; caitalism is so ubiquitous that it encroaches into areas where it doesn’t belong to sustain itself.

In an article for The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey wrote how it’s become “a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism,” citing things like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial as a prime example. In the same piece, Lowrey wrote how it “lampoons brands’ attempts to mimic or co-opt the language, culture, and content of their customers. Conspicuous minimalism, curated and artificial moments of zen, the gaslighting of the lifehacking and wellness movements.”

So what does late-stage capitalism have to do with book culture? To answer that, I’m going to hone in on several specific ways that the United States’s current version of capitalism is negatively affecting us.

For one, there’s the well-documented loneliness epidemic. Across age groups, people are having way fewer in-person interactions compared to decades ago. This is even worse for Gen Z. The consequences of such loneliness run the gamut from an increased likelihood of mental health issues like depression to increased risks of heart disease and dementia later in life. And while things like technology and COVID have affected our loneliness, pointing the sole blame at them doesn’t tell the whole story.

NPR’s All Things Considered discussed how around half of adults in the United States were battling loneliness before the pandemic began. A big reason for this is the death of third spaces. Third spaces are places that aren’t our homes or workplaces that provide “neutral gathering spaces where we can spend our free time.” These places — parks, community centers, libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, etc. — are generally free or low cost and benefit the community in more ways than just the products they offer. The peer-reviewed public health journal Health & Place defines them as places where “people meet to socialize, express themselves, and support one another. These ‘third places’ enrich social interaction, sense of community, and belonging outside of the home and workplace.” 

Health & Place also mentions how living in neighborhoods without these third places is associated with “poorer physical and mental health.” The dwindling number of available third places can be attributed to a change in market tendencies, like online shopping, but it can also be attributed to the pitfalls of capitalism. Price gouging, the overtaking of small-owned businesses by larger corporations, and gentrification are all responsible. 

That’s where bookish culture comes in. 

Susie Dumond wrote about the importance of book-centered third places, in which she explains how libraries and indie bookstores provide communities with neutral ground and a space for socializing and conversation, where people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and physical and mental abilities can congregate.

Gen Z and Millennials seem to have taken note. In a recent study, The American Library Association (ALA) found that these two generations are using public libraries at a higher rate than older generations have. Among the reasons for this increased usage go past soaring book prices: the study found that “more than half of the 43 percent of Gen Z and Millennials who don’t self-identify as readers have been to their local library in the past 12 months.” ALA President Emily Drabinski pointed to socialization as a reason even those who do not identify as readers visit the library.

It’s not just libraries that are getting more foot traffic. Book clubs are also experiencing a boom.

women of different ethnicities gathered around reading and speaking with each other

Though many book clubs these days start online, some move to becoming physical events. Women interviewed in this Refinery29 article explicitly state that joining book clubs have been a cure to their loneliness. The founders of the Soho Reading Series, have listed the appeal of their organization — with its consistently overbooked events — as being “easy, fun, and free.”

Replacing third spaces isn’t the only way books and bookish culture are preserving us. There’s a dearth of our real-life issues not being reflected in mainstream media that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In a viral video, TikTok creator @Jacqueleen speaks on the dichotomy of mainstream entertainment and real life, explaining how it can induce existential crises. Social media aids this disconnect by populating people’s algorithms and For You Pages with light-hearted content while literal atrocities and genocides happen worldwide. Book Riot Editor Danika Ellis noted how disorienting this juxtaposition can be when discussing BookTok. I noticed it myself when I was following the Grammys on Twitter just last month. In between tweets of pretty dresses and performances were calls for ceasefires and images of people with grave injuries. The documentary HyperNormalisation gets into the reasons behind this and points to the desire to gratify corporations. 

But one form of mainstream media that does reflect current issues, and that wrestles with our fears and anxieties in nuanced ways, is, of course, books. Dystopian books that skewer current policies and allow us to see the potential consequences of different, disastrous trajectories remain popular, and are even nominated for awards, as was the case with Chain-Gang All-Stars and Prophet Song last year. Where mainstream music, shows, and various online entertainment may feel like modern-day versions of bread and circuses, books remain a medium that reflects back to us our current reality, allowing us to sort our feelings, and maybe even inspire us to action.

Books may even be a big part of the solution to the prison industrial complex. With a wage ceiling of 52 cents an hour, and the existence of at least six states — Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansa, Texas, and South Carolina —  that don’t pay prisoners at all for their labor, the prison industrial complex (and its connections to major corporations like Target and Walmart) is considered by many as being one of the last bastions of American slavery. 

Access to books disrupts the absolute hold prisons have on their populations, though. In a previous Deep Dive, I explored how book banning in prisons is tied to slavery, and pointed to how uprisings that result from a fight for prisoners’ rights have been fueled by access to books by writers like Malcolm X and Karl Marx. 

All this said, books and bookish culture aren’t immune to the pitfalls of capitalism. There’s been plenty of discussion around the commodification and overconsumption of books and bookish things. Many point to the likes of TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube as platforms where a lot of this takes place, and I think there’s something to it. I also think that we as people who have been reared in a capitalistic society are accustomed to commodifying our hobbies and are maybe even engaging in a little retail therapy when we do book haul after book haul.

Whatever the reason, I don’t think the capitalistic aspects of these online bookish spaces outweigh the good they do. In a world that feels like it’s slowly eating itself, books and other components of bookish culture are preserving our souls.

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