Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Book Shop

How we buy books has come under scrutiny recently. First with this New York Times article in response to's new app that allows you to price-check books in physical stores against their online costs. The article's argument was synthesized in a quote from Tom Perratta: "People have to understand that their short-term decision to save a couple bucks undermines their long-term interest in their community and vital, real-life literary culture." I don't find the idea of price-checking particularly horrifying. I've been comparing book prices in shops to those on the internet for years, although unless the price is significantly different (one must include shipping in these considerations) I'm willing to pay a few extra dollars at the physical store. The article provoked an rather rancorous response from author Farhad Manjoo in Slate, in which he argues (amidst disturbingly frequent usage of the term "cult" in reference to frequenters of physical bookstores) that Amazon "is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it's probably the only thing saving it." Manjoo's article in turn provoked a detailed consideration of bookstores' profit distributions written by Jarek Steele of Left Bank Books. Amidst all of this, it should be noted that American expatriate George Whitman, proprietor of Paris's famous bookshop "Shakespeare & Company," died this week at 98 and was touted as an icon of the twilight of the bookstore.

I don't begrudge people their Kindles, and I've used online bookstores often. I don't claim to know whether or the increasingly rare corner store dedicates more profits to authors or more dollars to the national domestic product. Frankly, books have never been about money to me, and that is the most profound disconnection between readers and those who see books as a product, a commodity, and a business.

Capitol Hill Books, Washington, D.C.

What all this shouting forgets is that the true potential of books and bookstores is not sales. Amazon is not a better promoter of reading simply because Kindle sells more ebooks. The relationship of (printed or electronic) book purchasing to book reading is debatable. Some of the most voracious readers I know buy almost no books, relying instead on public libraries. And bookstores do not always offer a "real-life literary culture." They certainly foster conversations among a select few who attend special events and readings, but in the end our interactions with books are rarely as public or performative as other cultural events like attending the theater or dancing at a concert. Reading (at least in our modern, post-parlor sense) is a solitary experience.

Some of my favorite (used) bookstores mimic this lonely adventure. Behind the counter sits a bespectacled old man, not especially friendly, keeping the door open to a shop that is a meandering labrynth of precariously teetering shelves organized subjectively but not strictly. This is the place where one finds treasures. Books you've never heard of but which speak to you with a primal intensity. The sort of place where you are overwhelmed by the pure physical volume of human thought and accomplishment. Where you come away with a bag full of books or none at all, but with your hands dusty and grey from the tangible interaction with the printed word. We live in a world where so much is accessible at the click of a button, where communities are often more virtual than physical, and where you can discover exactly which book matches your past preferences with algorithmic efficiency. But in the end, perhaps what we need is not an omnisciently precise hand to guide our reading. We will need bookstores for as long as we need mystery, impulsivity, discovery, and chaos. For as long as we are human.

1 comment:

  1. Any thoughts on buying a book at B&N versus the neighborhood bookstore?