Why the green stuff is so important

Today’s shuttle launch coverage echoes back thirty years; the first space shuttle flight headed skyward in April 1981.  We know what NASA was doing then, but what about the rest of us? 

Flashdance didn’t screen until 1983, so we weren’t sporting leg warmers yet.  However, as Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding gown–July 29, 1981–demonstrates, enormous sleeves and shoulder pads were already in evidence.   (Those family album photos don’t lie). 

Also that year, the tragic collapse of the Hyatt Regency-Kansas City walkways made headlines, as did the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Supreme Court Justice and the end of the major league baseball strike.

Rubik’s cube, introduced here the previous year, had by 1981 inspired the publication of how-to books to solve it and thus salvage our pride.  Somehow, readers still found time to propel James Clavell, Martin Cruz Smith, and Harold Robbins to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List in mid-July.  

A glance at current fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists might suggest that we as a reading public feel more secure about ourselves (no diet or investment books on the nonfiction list!).  But that’s probably because we’re viewing those topics on our smartphones or e-readers.  Richard Simmons may still be around, but the publishing world is another, more cosmic landscape now.

I like to think of it in terms of lettuce.  Checking 1981 prices in The Value of a Dollar, I found iceberg lettuce going for about 44 cents per pound that year.  In those days, the appellation “iceberg” wasn’t necessary for most of us; it  was the only lettuce we encountered on a daily basis.   We’ve since learned that romaine, endive, escarole, etc. are more nutritious, tastier (many would disagree) and more stylish.  And the iceberg variety–chef-sanctioned or not–is still around, an expected staple in the produce section. 

Print books may be the iceberg lettuce of the publishing market.  E-book readers, iphones, and laptops are proving handy and functional.  We embrace these more exciting digital products, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want the store to stock our old favorite, too.  Individuals can (for now) take print volumes for granted, but booksellers and libraries are advised not to.

Oh, and (according to the NPR food expert I heard last week) guess what crunchy, pale-green sandwich staple is predicted to become fashionable again?

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