Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Amazon, indie stores and elitism among readers

A couple of weeks ago, Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist at Slate, published one of those "Behold and click upon my courageous unconventional views!" articles that the online magazine is famous for. Manjoo took aim at the popular wisdom (at least among the literati) that Amazon is the Devil to the saintly and struggling local, independent book store; that all those one-click purchases made at the online behemoth are acts of literary heresy by stupid and selfish people who care more for low cost and convenience than the preservation of literary culture. Majoo wrote:

All of which is to say that 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. Read more...

Now, that bit about longing for the demise of the local independent bookstore? Typical Slate inflammatory nonsense. But for different reasons, I'm becoming uncomfortable with the genuflection to indie bookstores and demonization of Amazon and big book retailers. I think that too much of the discussion smacks of classism and a desire for the right sort of people to hold on to literary privilege. Consider this point from David Plotz on the December 16 episode of Slate's Political Gabfest Podcast:
"All you need to know to defend the independent bookstore...If you think of it as a transactional question...Of...Where can I get a good book? Where is it cheaper? Where can I have a reading experience? And am I buying more books if I buy them through Amazon? Then, sure Amazon and the chain stores are a much better deal. They're much better. You get more books for your money. You're likely to buy more books...
That is not the question...The point about independent bookstores and local bookstores has nothing to do with how well they do with supplying you with books. The thing about them is that we live in a world of undistinguished space...and sprawl and that independent bookstores are anchors of a particular kind of life...a particular kind of urban community life that is incredibly valuable and is not measured in dollars. If it's measured in dollars, it has an extremely high value and we should be grateful. We should pay twice as much for books at independent bookstores. 
When you have a strong independent bookstore, as when you have any strong local retail operation...that you create communality...you create a density...you create an exchange of ideas and a pleasure in community that you don't get in other places. And that's why people..a certain class of people...like to live in dense urban spaces that they can walk around to and pop into." [Emphasis mine]
He goes on to remind co-host John Dickerson that
I'm also willing to accept that that's a form of prejudice that, John, you and I have. We were raised to get pleasure in being in a book store...to enjoy the smell of it and so forth...and other people may not have that. Listen.

This is what lurks around the edges of some responses to Manjoo's article--that a desire to give a certain class of person a place to hang out in their hip, urban neighborhoods is more noble than making it easier for the masses to read and discuss literature. Besides, plebes don't understand the smell of a good bookstore anyway. If they did, that would be more important to them than book cost and convenience.

This is such a privileged and narrow point of view; and I say that as a longtime voracious reader who desperately wants brick-and-mortar book stores--the big and small--to survive.


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