Literary Theme Parks


Came across this 2007 article from The Guardian:

It used to be you knew a writer was properly installed in the canon when their books were dramatised by the BBC, or when Melvyn Bragg made a documentary about them. In tune with the new age we seem to have entered everywhere else in the arts, Literature 2.0 seems now to demand that a really great writer be translated into a really great day out.

Thus we now have Dickens World, the £62m attraction just opened in Chatham. Like any good theme park, there are rides to be taken (this one “through” Great Expectations), there’s Fagin’s own soft play area for the younger visitors, and Disneyish costumed actors at large in reconstructed streets.

This is clearly the way forward. It’s a lot more fun than boring old books, for a start, and ticks the box marked accessibility that everything from novels to art to education now must.

So I’m looking forward to seeing who’s next in line. There are the obvious candidates, of course: I would imagine Bardpark is already under construction, with holographic daggers you can actually see before you and a ride through Illyria where the train rattles in iambic pentameter.

The Tolstoy Experience could draw much-needed tourists to Moscow with chances to enjoy some of the great Napoleonic battles as paintball contests and thrill to riding a train over Anna Karenina, with real screams.

You can read the rest of the article here, but you get the drift. The barbarians of ravenous consumerism and instant gratification have sacked the super-ego and looted the imagination. The literary city has fallen, the dark ages have returned. The rantings of a fuddy-duddy, no doubt. Some luddite who probably still uses dial-up. I mean, really, what’s the big deal? I’m sure this Charles Dickens fella would’ve been consigned to the dustbins of history if someone hadn’t opened Dickens World.

The affront to our more cultivated sensibilities aside, are literary theme parks really signs of the apocalypse? Do they cheapen the written word or testify to its durability? Cormac McCarthy has said that he doesn’t think film adaptations of his books have any effect on the books themselves, that the books are the books and nothing can change them. Even with the thousands of professional and amateur adaptations and reinterpretations of A Christmas Carol, and even since the opening of Dickens World, the book itself remains a great read. That said, the article’s author does have a point…

But what about other forms of literary theme parks? Are Barnes & Noble or Borders really that different than Six Flags? And what about enormous independent stores like Powell’s World of Books or Elliott Bay Book Company? I’ve lost many wonderful hours wandering the stacks of both, and I love that bookstores can become attractions, but do they have to?

I don’t know what all of this means, what it signifies or portends. I know that I look for three things when I travel, or when I consider moving to a new place: a neighborhood coffee shop, a local organic grocer, and a good corner bookstore. I know that the loss of Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica and Dutton’s Booksellers in Brentwood felt like being gut-punched. Free market capitalists might say that if little bookstores were important to people they wouldn’t be folding like buck knives (of course, folks like Bill McKibben would probably counter that free market capitalism steamrolled past individual desires long ago). Others might say that online booksellers offer a wider selection at a better price, or that eReaders are so much more convenient. They’re probably right.

Here’s a quick bookstore story (I resisted calling it a bookstory). About ten years ago, shortly after my wife had started grad school in Boston, we drove out to Western Massachusetts with my family and stopped in a tiny town called New Salem. While looking for a park to wander through and picnic in we stumbled upon an antique bookstore. The elderly couple who ran it for decades were retiring, the store would close a week later. “Books are a buck each,” the woman told us. “Everything that doesn’t sell is getting donated to the library.”

The picnic was forgotten as we moved through the stacks, stuffing cardboard boxes like delinquent children at Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: a copy of The Iliad from 1882, a second edition of Faust, a complete first edition of Hawthorne’s translation of The Divine Comedy. A buck each. We must have bought a hundred. New Salem is a cute but hickish town without any real claim to fame, but a single bookstore will forever bathe my memory of it in amber tones.

James Howard Kunstler has written that he thinks the future will look more like the past than the present. We built far beyond human scale and the pendulum will naturally swing back. Personally, I think his vision is as likely as any other, and maybe more so. Technology has a way of skewing our expectations, of making us think flying cars are just around the corner. But will small local bookstores ever matter again? Is the shift towards global monoculture inexorable? If not flying cars, will we really all have credit card sized folding eReaders tucked into our shirt pockets by 2020?

Or, will something even more drastic happen? Will publishing follow in the footsteps of the music industry? Will people decide to slow things down, as Kunstler predicts, to spend Saturdays on the hammock with Melville? “Shop Local” movements are popping up everywhere, farmers markets are booming. Sonoma just became the first official Cittaslow in the United States. Maybe we’ll one day look back on literary theme parks not as cheap defilers of literature but as the last gasps of an out of control consumer culture clutching at straws. Maybe City Lights is helping hold down the fort until we temper our technophilia. Maybe instead of flying, more cars will learn to swim…we could float along with the top down on summer days, napping in the backseat with a good book splayed on our chest.

If anyone has any good bookstories to share, send ’em along. Thoughts? Comment below.

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4 Responses to Literary Theme Parks

  1. Every time I hear about the new bookreading devices, I can almost smell the bookstores burning. I hope for the best for my hometown icon Powell’s, but even if they enter the ebook market I can’t see it being good for their holy site in Portland.

    Re Dickens world, the real test, I’m sure, is: Are the beggars authentic, in style, age, and number? Victorian approximations of plumbing and sewerage would be another mark of serious multi-sensory educational intent.

    • josh grigsby says:

      I’m ambivalent about eReaders…I love the idea of a portable library, and I love that millions of trees might be spared. But the shift toward the virtual and away from the tangible that the digital revolution has generated concerns me. It feels like replacing one extreme with another.

      Do you know whether Powell’s owns their building(s)? Even if eReaders become the norm, I can’t see places like Powell’s (places that have developed into quasi-holy sites largely because they sell an experience, a way of life, in addition to books) collapsing unless they are forced out by unreasonable rents. I suppose a fundamental question in all of this is whether every type of retail should be judged by its economic self-sufficiency. Not sure what a viable alternative would be, but it seems that (like transit) some things are essential to quality of life regardless of their profitability.

      Also, good points re: Dickens world…not sure a nostalgic and antiseptic theme park is the best way to capture the Dickensian condition.

  2. Dan says:

    I just chatted the other evening with the owner of an independent bookstore. He retired as an historic preservationist builder a few years ago, and I get the impression that running the store is something that he enjoys doing. Maybe it turns a profit, or maybe it doesn’t. Still, the community is certainly better off with it there than without it.

    I also enjoy walking through used bookstores, but I have to admit that I haven’t spent enough money to necessarily help them stay afloat as a business. Sometimes they can be combined with a coffee shop or a music venue (a new bookstore just open in Charlottesville a few weeks ago that also has shows) to bring in enough customers.

    • josh grigsby says:

      I think you’re getting at the heart of why independent, community oriented bookstores are important: the fact that the retired historic preservationist you mentioned enjoys running one. The goal isn’t to maximize profits, but to provide a service. Coffee shops were once (and obviously sometimes still are) authentic third places, the daytime sibling of the neighborhood bar. But with one on every corner, and often others in between, many coffee shops have become anonymous vendors serving a transient crowd, their tables populated each by a single person with a laptop and headphones.

      Hybrid places, such as a coffee shop/bookstore/performance venue/etc., are more likely (in my opinion) to succeed as third places thanks to a greater variety of customers (and hence revenue streams) and more flexibility in terms of how they utilize a space. Maybe you’d be interested in keeping tabs on the new bookstore in C’Ville and reporting back?

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