Following on my post from yesterday, which was following on Richard Russo’s op-ed piece, which was following on Amazon’s “Price Check special,” today Slate’s tech guy, Farhad Manjoo, has his own piece about Amazon and indie bookstores—one that has seemingly pissed off everyone I know.
If there’s one thing to say about this, Manjoo brings the provocation right from the get-go: “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”
That sound you hear is the sound of 99% indie booksellers exploding simultaneously. And for that last 1%? Check this:
I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
Yep. “Crushing that precious indie on the corner.”
Before getting in to Manjoo’s argument, I just want to highlight some of the terms and phrases he uses in relation to bookstores and their fans:
“most mistakenly mythologized”
“frustrating consumer experience”
“no customer reviews”
“no reliable way to find what you’re looking for”
“dubious recommendations engine”
“difficult to use”
“my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist”
“hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists”
“allegedly important functions that local booksellers”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a bookstore must’ve stole Farhad’s girlfriend at some point in time. This is vitriol, or in schoolyard parlance, them’s fightin words.
Manjoo’s anti-bookstore argument mostly revolves around price—the idea that you can get 2 books on Amazon for the price of 1 that you can get at the local bookstore, and jumps from that to the conclusion that the only reason bookstores sell books at list price is because they are riddled with inefficiencies.
He does at least try and understand why some people like bookstores:
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
Cause yeah, the experience of visiting a store like Talking Leaves in Buffalo, NY or Square Books in Oxford, MS is pretty much the same luxurious experience you get in any of the 304 Whole Foods locations littered across our country. Exactly.
But this starts to get at Manjoo’s prejudices and where he’s really gone astray . . . More on that in a second, first, here’s one last damning quote about the (non-)value of bookstores:
Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up . . . folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
What this all boils down to is Manjoo’s unabashed desire to operate like a rational consumer. If the goal of every entity—business, consumer, etc.—is to “maximize surplus value,” then you should try and wed yourself to the principles of neo-classical economics, in which the free market determines the price (there’s nothing preventing bookstores from discounting, and thus increasing demand), and it’s your job to only purchase things in which you get the biggest bang for your buck. It is absolutely 100% economically irrational to purchase a book you’re willing to pay $30 for for that $30 if there’s a $20 version available through means that don’t entail a lot of opportunity costs. This is the primary consumer advantage for online retailers. It’s just as easy (or even easier) to buy the Steve Jobs bio via an online retailer than it is to drive to a store and buy one, and that way you’ve accrued surplus value.
OK, fine. Tech people and stock brokers and MBAs and some Slate writers think like this and want to live like this. Two things: first off, people don’t behave rationally, especially when it comes to price, and secondly, there are hidden opportunity costs in this scenario that relate to community.
Manjoo, in a myopic fashion that is stunningly boneheaded, equates the “buy local” movement with bookstores supporting local authors. That is foolish and beside the point. One of the primary purposes of bookstores is building a literary community. Sure, you can point to readings (which, unless it’s Richard Russo are generally attended by 10 readers and a few homeless) as a physical representation of this, but it’s actually something much larger. A good independent bookstores is a place where you know you can interact with people who read as much as you do. It’s a safe haven for the literati in a world that’s increasingly rationalized and scary. It’s one of the few physical spaces where you can talk about literature and art after college.
This all sounds sort of dreamy and pollyannaish, but bear with me for a few sentences . . . In a way, a good bookstore is the equivalent of Cheers. Sure, I could buy a six-pack for less than half of what it would cost in the bar, but I wouldn’t get to chat with my favorite bartender, laugh with my friends, or check out the pretty people. OK, this is maybe as shitty an analogy as the Whole Foods one, but the “value” of a store like Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI, is the social experience AND the book selection. Manjoo’s focus on cushy chairs and shit belies the gross materialism that underlies his entire worldview. (Which helps when you talk about tech, I suppose. And explains some of that social awkwardness thing.)
The reason bookstore lovers advocate for bookstores rarely has to do with the actual books available. We all know that we can find anything we want in quicker, easier ways that cost less money. The reason people sign petitions to save St. Mark’s is because of the enjoyment you get of people watching there, or chatting with Margarita about crazy Russian writers and the East Village poets. Things are learned in bookstores and in interactions that are not able to be learned in online experiences. And for some people, that value exceeds the $10 that you could save buying Steve Jobs online. This isn’t true for all people, but it is for some. Like, as he admits, Farhad Manjoo’s wife.
Anyway, to parallel yesterday’s post, here are three ideas:
1) If you value this community experience and feel like online retailing (especially the big-A) will eradicate it like polio, you should try and find ways to help your local retailers and rail against the online stores. This is the route a lot of booksellers take, and it is an admirable one based on beliefs. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes in the end, since technology is molding society and our values, but it’s an option.
2) You can give up. Buy books online and use that extra $10 to meet your bookish friends at a local pub. Invest in anti-depressants and Match.com subscriptions. Pray that you become part of the 1% even as you watch hyper-capitalist companies suck your surplus dry in ways so insidious that you think you’re actually signing up for them.
3) Maybe there’s an evolution that could take place. The U.S. Government and other municipalities should make it easier for bookstores to become nonprofits or get grants or find ways to support their base costs. Maybe bookstores and libraries or museums or cafes or bars or other community spaces could join forces in creating spaces for post-grad thinkers to share ideas and passions and books and whatever. The idea of a bookstore a la 1990 starting up in any mid-sized town and surviving is difficult to imagine, but there are always places like Writers & Books and whatnot that can combine bookselling with writing with the love of books with the idea of desiring social interaction.
Oh, and as a friend (who is also writing about Manjoo’s “boneheaded” article) pointed out just now, this article reeks of link bait. Manjoo could be gaming us all, hoping we get pissed so that the read rate on his articles spikes leading to more money for him to spend on $.99 books at Amazon, thus maximizing value.
I’ve written in the past about the $9.99 ebook and my belief that supply and demand is the most important factor in arriving at this price point. Over in Slate, Jack Schafer argues that a side-effect of publishers trying to increase ebook prices (because they’re afraid that a cheap ebook will cannibalize the expensive hardcover market, cutting into their already diminishing profit margins), will be a huge rise in piracy:
What has kept illegal e-books from taking off? First, all the electronic reading gadgets on the market are subpar, if you ask me, making the reading of books, newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes painful. The resolution is poor. The fonts are crap. The navigation is chunky. Not since the eight-track player has modern technology produced such a heap of garbage. If you’re looking for the reason e-books constitute just 1 percent or 2 percent of all book sales, stop the search. Second, the hassle factor is too great. Only a student or a deadbeat with a lot of time on his hands is going to want to search the Web and scour the torrents for, say, a free, bootlegged copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Telephone Booth Indian. It’s as tedious as fishing! Third, not all bootlegged e-books are created equal. On finally finding that free book you so desire, you may find yourself wishing you had purchased the legal edition: Your bootleg may be filled with typographical errors, thanks to the slipshod application of optical character-recognition software. If a nicely produced Kindle version of The Telephone Booth Indian that doesn’t have to be monkeyed around with can be easily nabbed for $9.99, which it can, why bother breaking the law to obtain an inferior edition for display on a rotten device? It’s like using an acetylene torch to loot a kid’s piggy bank. [. . .]
So far, few consumers think books should be free—a fact that I attribute to the klugy Kindle and its affordable Amazon store. I conducted an informal census of friends and associates who read lots of books, and I found none who partake of the bootlegged variety. But that could change in a matter of months if the book industry insists on 1) jacking up the price of e-books and 2) withholding potential best-sellers from the e-book market. Cool devices that make electronic reading painless are just around the corner, and the e-book market is about to explode. If publishers insist on pushing prices too high and curbing availability, consumers could rebel—as they did with the sharing of MP3s—and normalize the trafficking of infringing e-books.
Although I’m personally not a reader of Scandinavian crime fiction (unless you can somehow count Jan Kjaerstad’s trilogy in that group, which is closer to a leap than a stretch), I find the debate between Nathaniel Rich and Larissa Kyzer about why these books are so popular pretty fascinating.
First off, here’s the core of Rich’s explanation, which he articulated in this Slate review of the new Stieg Larsson book:
What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell’s corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.
Well, Kyzer takes great exception to that in her L Magazine piece:
One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.
She then goes on to offer a different explanation:
It’s then more accurate to say that Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.
Both are rather interesting articles, and I’m sure many others will weigh in on this as well . . .
Farhad Manjoo’s recent piece in Slate offers a unique take on one of the advantages newspapers have over the Kindle—the ability to convey information through design elements:
Every newspaper you’ve ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day’s stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.
For instance, look at page A25 of the national edition of Thursday’s Times, which contains four stories: a big piece on the Obama administration’s decision to fire a federal inspector general; a smaller story on the administration’s plan to replace members of the White House bioethics panel; a piece about asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont.; and a small wire-service story about Sen. Roland Burris’ inconsequential meeting with an Illinois state prosecutor. A newspaper skimmer can get through this page in less than two minutes. The IG and bioethics stories are obviously the most important, so you dip into those for about 45 seconds each. Then you spend about 15 seconds on the asbestos story, followed by five seconds on the Burris item, which is just five paragraphs long. Going like this, you can easily get through the whole A section in less than a half hour.
Getting through these same stories on the Kindle is much harder and more tedious. First, they’re out of order. When I scrolled through Thursday’s national section on my Kindle, the shortest and least newsworthy of these pieces—the Burris story—came first. Worse, because the Kindle gives every story the same headline font, the list item doesn’t clue you in to the story’s slightness. The only way to know if a story merits your attention is to click on it. But clicking is time-consuming—the Kindle takes a half-second or so to switch between a section list and a story, and another half-second to switch back. This sounds nearly instant, but it’s not; the delay is just long enough to change the way you read the news. Now, instead of skimming, you find yourself reading the newspaper as you would a book—when you find a story, you stick with it until the end. You trade breadth for depth: In 30 minutes of reading the Kindle, you get further into a lot fewer stories.
Of course, the fact that you can actually subscribe to the paper for $9 to $15 per month through the Kindle DX (in contrast to the $770/year it cost to subscribe to the print version of the Times) is a pretty appealing counterargument . . . Still, this is an interesting moment of interplay between technology, design, and the transmission of information.
Last week, I worried that Horace Engdahl’s comments about American literature and the Nobel Prize would result in a bit of an anti-foreign literature backlash. And as Edward Gauvin pointed out in the comments, it’s starting . . . From Adam Kirsch’s article at Slate:
All of these criticisms are, of course, true. But the real scandal of Engdahl’s comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy. It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become. [. . .]
What does distinguish the Nobel Committee’s favorites, however, is a pronounced anti-Americanism. Pinter used the occasion of his Nobel lecture in 2005 to say that “the crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless” and to call for “Bush and Blair [to] be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice.” Doris Lessing, who won the prize last year, gave an interview dismissing the Sept. 11 attacks as “neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as [Americans] think,” adding: “They’re a very naive people, or they pretend to be.”
It would be nice to think that the Swedish Academy was not endorsing such views when they selected Pinter and Lessing or the similarly inclined José Saramago and Günter Grass. But to prove the bad faith of Engdahl’s recent criticisms of American literature, all you have to do is mention a single name: Philip Roth. Engdahl accuses Americans of not “participating in the big dialogue of literature,” but no American writer has been more cosmopolitan than Roth. As editor of Penguin’s “Writers From the Other Europe” series, he was responsible for introducing many of Eastern Europe’s great writers to America, from Danilo Kiš to Witold Gombrowicz; his 2001 nonfiction book Shop Talk includes interviews with Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, and Primo Levi. In his own fiction, too, Roth has been as adventurously Postmodern as Calvino while also making room for the kind of detailed realism that has long been a strength of American literature. Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there’s no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes.
More on Nabokov’s last and maybe-about-to-be-destroyed novel/novel-fragment, The Original of Laura, from Slate:
But the essence is this: Dmitri says he reached a decision after an imagined ghostly conversation with his dead father—one in a far different key from Hamlet’s talk with his dead dad.
“I have decided,” Koval quoted Dmitri, “that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, “Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?’ “
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .