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Big Social Cost in the High Price of Books

G. Lloyd Helm lives in Lancaster.

The other day I was in Barnes & Noble and an ugly fact came home to me. I can’t afford to buy books anymore. I used to pick up a book every week or two and was never without a paperback book stuck in my back pocket. Now buying a book is a major purchase.

Hard-bound books are averaging $25 apiece, and paperbacks are often more than $5 each. If you are making minimum wage, that boils down to four hours’ work for a hard-bound book. It makes me worry about the direction our society is headed.

The National Endowment for the Arts released a study in July that found the reading of literature over the last 20 years had gone down like an express elevator; only 57% of Americans read any book at all last year. Part of the reason is that there are thousands of young people graduating from high school who can barely read anything more complicated than “Dick and Jane.”

But even those who can read aren’t doing so, and it should be obvious even to those dunderheads in publishing that the price of books has something to do with that. When a kid, especially one who doesn’t read well anyhow, can go to a movie or buy a computer game for less money than it costs to buy a paperback, which one is he or she going to choose?

In the Middle Ages, when books had to be copied by hand, they were expensive too, and that meant that only the wealthy had them. Later, middle-class people began to have access to books, and suddenly the world grew richer in every area.

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If one has easy access to books, one can learn to do anything. Anything! Leave aside the hours of amusement one can get from a book; let’s talk about how quick, curious minds might read a book on the qualities of light and suddenly make a mental leap to lasers. Books have been the salvation of Western civilization. Now, between lousy education and prohibitive prices, it is no wonder we seem to be going backward. Are you listening, publishers? The future of America is in your hands. Don’t mess it up by being greedy.


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