Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Me, Bookstore Snob? ...Yes

This came about several days late, mainly because I was wondering if I could word the whole thing better. I'm still wondering about it now. Why send this to TMI? Well, thought I'd give it a shot.

I've included a couple of other links related to the story that I forgot about in the text below. The Internet reacted a lot faster than I thought to the Slate article.

Happy to be a bookstore snob
first published in The Malaysian Insider, 20 December 2011

"Independent bookstores are expensive, inefficient and don't deserve to be saved."

This snappy headline and the Slate article it was associated with nearly made a bookstore manager cry.

Jen Campbell, who runs the Ripping Yarns bookstore in the UK, is planning a series of bookstore-related articles in response to said piece by Slate's resident tech geek Farhad Manjoo.

What might have got Manjoo's goat was a New York Times article by Richard Russo (a little daisy chain going on here, methinks) that pivots the pro-indie bookstore/anti-Amazon argument on the notion that indies are bastions of literary culture, something which Amazon does nothing to promote.

Though he has criticised some of Amazon's allegedly egregious business practices, Manjoo argues that the company has done more for the literary culture than, perhaps, indie bookstores, which he considers "...the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologised local establishments you can find."

And he adds that although Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is "an easy guy to hate... 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."

It's quite an interesting piece, and Manjoo makes some cogent points. He's also right about other aspects of bookstore snobbery. Bookstore browsing or haunting, in my case, is a meditative experience, a source of comfort (or an escape) in bad times. Surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, I feel calm. Some days, being in a bookshop makes me want to write.

But his overall argument for Amazon as a better driver of literary culture reminds me of a news report back home that equates a high-income/knowledge country as one that publishes 27,000 books a year.

"Buy more books," they said. We are, judging from the crowds at a warehouse sale I attended months back. But books are meant to be read; how many of those bought books would be read in a month? Two months? And are these the kind of books that really work the gears in your head or merely cranium stuffing? 

Literary culture is more than just the book. It's the people (authors, editors, publishers, book designers, readers and critics) and the institutions (schools, universities, libraries, archives and yes, bookstores). It's the history; the book as we know it has been around for ages. To touch a physical book is to hold the tangible results of centuries of literary evolution, and the hard work of the people and institutions that put it together.

Even as the publishing industry moves towards digitisation, the inevitable loss of some of that will be painful to many. The death of George Whitman, for one, prompts one to ask: what will become of his storied bookstore by the Seine?

A piece of tech or a shiny on-screen user interface doesn't elicit that kind of emotion. Nor does the history of Apple or Steve Jobs gives one that fuzzy warm feeling. (No, I'm sure that buzz's just static electricity.)

Yes, you can still buy physical books from Amazon, maybe with discounts, if you're feeling all tactile and stuff about history and the romance of the book.

But the whole online thing feels cold to me.

The 24/7 convenience is great for long distances and hard-to-get books, but we already spend so much time online for other things, and we don't need another reason to stay wired and indoors.

Bookstores in general are hard to run. Indie bookshops, even more so. Which is why the people who run them are exceptional, especially when they're familiar with their products, the industry and the communities they serve. Some of them are out there, still soldiering on - which might explain why Manjoo's apparent dickishness has strummed more than a few nerves.

Slate readers would note that Manjoo writes this way at times, so the article doesn't necessarily reflect his character.

The extinction of the bookstore would just mean one less excuse to leave the house. However, it would also mean an end to one of the connections between the people who make books and those who read them - which are already fraying.

Education systems are deteriorating in some parts of the world, even as our collective attention spans crave faster, smaller bursts of entertainment. The business model of the big bookstore and the rise of the mega-selling superstar authors are partly to blame for the disconnect. Pushing big names out big stores in huge numbers does not necessarily indicate a growing reading culture - just more people buying books.

I'm aware that I'm arguing this from a mainly emotional angle. Perhaps with good reason. The need to express ourselves and the hunger for knowledge stems from passion. I don't go nuts at all the books I see on the shelves, but there's a certain connection I can make with it that I can't with a piece of tech.

Odd, considering my long IT background. But maybe not - it would explain the discomfort of the eight years I've been in IT.

Are indie bookstore lovers hopeless touchy-feely romantic about their weathered brick-and-mortar hangouts? Likely; in my case, "Hell, yes."

The digital transformation in the way we read and write books is unavoidable, but what is the publishing industry without the passion to write, package, archive and read through all that material? What could we publish or market without the urge to think, discover, dream, discuss and argue - and write or type it all down?

I believe it's the same kind of flame that burned in the bosoms of Jobs, Gates, et al - one can only be kindled by human interaction, conversation and sharing of ideas.

Technology like the Internet has certainly helped in bringing minds together and made sharing easier. But to say that online bookstores are better and more efficient at nurturing literary culture, well... wouldn't that be mistaking the medium for the message?


  1. Well said!

    I absolutely agree that literary culture is more than just the book, more than buying crates of books to furnish a bookshelf, more than digesting mountains of books within a short period of time. It is like you said, the people, the institutions, the history, the whole shebang.

    I find it sad that few educators understand this part of their language and literacy education training. I wonder what can be done?

  2. Educators (and editors) don't start out apathetic - it's how they were trained. Throw them into situations where all they've learned cannot be used but mocked as well...

    Also, the dots don't seem to be totally connected where our literary culture is concerned. Even if they were, the big picture doesn't fit into the national agenda. I think literature, like media, is seen more as a propaganda tool rather than a source of enlightenment.

    Those who give a damn about books and the whole literary ecosystem should have the chance to educate people about the subject. That would do for a start.


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