In the Age of Screens (Part III)

Over the course of this week, we’ll be serializing an essay I wrote for the recent Non-Fiction Conference that took place in Amsterdam a couple weeks ago. If you’d rather not wait until Friday to read the whole thing, then click here and download a PDF version of the whole thing. Or you can click here to see all the posts.

Since I’m old and way too jacked into the literary scene to stand back from it and observe, I asked a bunch of my students a series of questions about the reading habits. I wanted to get a sense of what a reader as reader does. We (as publishers and people involved in the culture business) love to talk about being “reader-centric,” but we mean this in the aggregate. Readers as in thousands of them. What do they do? What do they buy? But when you narrow this down to a single person, all the findings of behavioral economics and neuroscience as related to decision making starts to come into play. Which could open up some interesting paths of thought.

The kids I talked to were recent grads and kids in grad school—the same people I think would be interested in Open Letter books, in “literature.” Well. First off, they read next to no book reviews. Not one of them ever bought a book based on a Twitter recommendation. Instead they rely upon word-of-mouth and serendipity. Each of them has a handful of “book friends” whose recommendations can tip the scales and cause them to actually seek out a particular book. Aside from that, they browse . . . they find the misfiled title (the ‘G’ author mistakenly placed among the ‘T’s), they occasionally Google their favorite authors to see if there’s something new available. They return to old patterns—favorite authors—and see what those people recommend. Overarching theme: they rely on people and chance.

This totally worked in the age of cluttered small bookshops with idiosyncratic collections and more eccentric owners. I was a bookstore brat. I memorized fiction sections and talked to the guys with the cardigans and tattoos who had read way more than I had. I took recommendations. I fell in love with bookstore girls. I remember losing my innocence when I entered a Waldenbooks and had the epiphany that there’s nothing special here. I remember my first experience of Barnes & Noble’s sterility. I remember the moment when I talked to a book buyer and realized that the pattern-shifting books just weren’t viable “for a store of our size.” I remember deciding that I had to get into publishing.

That moment has passed. Never again will a small-town Midwestern kid have the opportunity to peruse a hand-picked selection of literary fiction—one that might not appeal to the masses, but is dripping in cache and the cool of smartness. This is an exaggeration, clearly, but Saginaw, Michigan kids who end up interested in strange art will rely on Amazon.com—at least for the foreseeable future.

(There’s a larger story here . . . Unique, readerly bookstores are going to suffer a dark ages in the majority of America. Historically, the chain stores and then the online retailers destroyed a huge number of these outlets. And ebook sales have further eroded their margins, leaving small, nondescript stores the will never survive by selling the books their readers—who only want to read the entertainment everyone else is reading—want to buy, since those same readers can buy the same thing for less online or at a chain. The stores that will survive in the long run are the one that set themselves apart in terms of knowledge and content. And those stores can only exist in readerly cities and metropolises.)

Online Discovery Moment #3: One day I noticed that Tosh Berman, a bookseller at Book Soup in L.A., had given Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy five stars on GoodReads. Having run the Best Translated Book Award for years, and having dedicated my life to the literature beyond our borders, I felt like I should know this author. But no. No recognition at all. I marked A Splendid Conspiracy “to read” on GoodReads (and Facebook). The next day, I checked my home computer and Jeff Waxman, a bookseller from Chicago, had given Albert Cossery’s The Jokers five stars on GoodReads. Weird, no? So I marked that “to read” on GoodReads/Facebook and took my kids to forest by my house to run around and whatnot. Now, I’m a pretty unattentive parent, so as my kids did flips off the “ramps” in the woods and threw dirt at each other, I checked my iPhone for new messages. What I found: My friend Brad had seen my Cossery-related GoodReads/Facebook notices and copied part of Cossery’s Wikipedia bio onto my facebook wall. Cossery was a special sort of Egyptian/French writer who believed in “laziness.” A professional author, he wrote 8 books over 60+ years. Basically, he sounded awesome. I scooped up my kids—who were, literally, throwing clots of dirt at each other at the time—drove to Barnes & Noble, bought A Splendid Conspiracy, read it that night, and told at least 20 other people about his genius. Including a pair of girls in a local bar where I read the ending . . . They were both into books, into finding the weird, and he sounded right up their alley. So I loaned them my copy, which they hopefully enjoyed as much as I did.

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