Monday, June 16, 2014

The Old Book Peddler, Doing Well by Doing Good

It's like losing your virginity: you always remember the first time.

I grew up in small towns and rural areas, and the nearest dedicated bookstore was about twenty-five miles away in South Bend, Indiana.   ("Dedicated," that is, as opposed to racks of paperbacks in the drugstore or supermarket, or the newsstand in one town [where, as a teenager, I saw but didn't buy a copy of Richard Amory's Song of the Loon] or an office supply store in the same town that had some Modern Library hardcovers.)  I have a murky memory, from the age of perhaps eight or nine, of my mother taking me downstairs into a basement full of metal bookshelves and letting me pick out two books.  I think it was a bookstore in South Bend, but I have no idea which one it was.  I chose a Berlitz children's book teaching Spanish through a bilingual telling of Little Red Riding Hood and a Tom Swift book, one of the later series by "Victor Appleton II."  I think it was Tom Swift and His Jetmarine, but after more than fifty years, that detail is gone; if I recognize it, it's by the cover art.

When my family traveled, which we didn't do all that often, we went to Chicago and saw the museums. When we shopped in South Bend, it was mainly at Sears, and children weren't allowed to wander off by themselves to look for more interesting stores.  The first South Bend bookstore I found, when I got a job nearby in 1969 at the age of 18, was only a couple of blocks from Sears, but it might as well have been in Europe.  It was small, on a corner across the Post Office, and it had bohemian pretensions.  There I first saw books by Ginsberg, Genet, Purdy, Henry Miller, and many others.  But then I must have found this place before I was eighteen, because I began reading Miller during my junior year of high school.  Oh well, the chronology isn't all that important.

More important to me when I was growing up were libraries, both public libraries and school libraries, which I used as much as I could.  It wasn't until I started earning my own money that I could start to accumulate a personal library.  Since then, bookstores have joined libraries as vital resources in my life.  I immediately recognized them as places in which I felt at home.  For several years I lived above an independent bookstore in downtown Bloomington, and so it became routine for me to stop in daily as I came home from work to see what was new and chat with the owners.

With that as prelude, consider an article from Esquire magazine's website, "How to Quit Amazon and Shop in an Actual Bookstore" (subtitle: "And why you damn well should") by one Stephen Marche.  Marche begins by summarizing the current conflict between and Hachette Publishing:
Amazon has managed to offend the actual writers whose books Hachette publishes, including Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, and JK Rowling. That wouldn't matter so much if one of them wasn't Stephen Colbert. He has promoted stickers that viewers can download from his website, which read, I DIDN'T BUY IT ON AMAZON. Amazon has responded by telling customers that anybody inconvenienced by the battle with Hachette should buy books elsewhere. 
Well, that's fair enough, isn't it?  It's the free-enterprise system that supposedly made America great.  And despite the staggering hegemony of online purchasing, there do remain "elsewheres" from which one can buy books.  If a brick-and-mortar bookstore isn't close at hand, there are even online alternatives like Barnes and Noble or Powell's.  Even with the high price of gasoline these days, people are still shopping at malls, many of which have some kind of bookstore within their boundaries.  The tricky part is getting people to patronize them, and that seems to be pretty tricky.

Marche continues:
Unfortunately, by now, purchasing print books in a brick-and-mortar building is something of a lost art, like taking snuff or drinking brandy after dinner.
Indeed?  I've become intensely skeptical whenever anyone talks about lost arts, or for that matter compares the present invidiously to a better past.  I want to see evidence that things used to be better.  So, in this case, when was buying books a commonly practiced art?  (The other examples Marche gives, which I suspect are half-facetious, are hardly a loss and probably were never that widespread in the population to start with: in context they signify an anxious craving for class status that we're better off without.)

My bet is: Never.  Americans are probably more literate, even if only minimally, than we ever were before in our history.  Granted, with the continuing assault on public education, that's an achievement which may be in danger, and it may well be that, as in so many other areas, the US is behind other developed nations.  But before, say, World War II, most Americans didn't finish high school, and despite popular fantasies that every child finished third grade able to read highly advanced text, there were many who didn't finish third grade.  Nor were they readers.  It's proverbial that most American households had a Bible (often an expurgated "family" Bible) and perhaps a complete Shakespeare (also often bowdlerized); it's also proverbial that a country boy like Abraham Lincoln had to work hard to find more reading matter.  Sure, cities had bookstores, but in the days when the vast majority of the population lived outside the cities, I can't imagine that skilled bookstore browsers were more numerous than they are now.

There's also a tradition of working-class self-teaching, including lectors who were paid to read to their coworkers on the shift, sometimes fairly ambitious and challenging material.
La lectura (the reading) provided an education for the workers, but it also caused friction between the workers and the factory owners. Beginning with the first time a lector took his seat in an Ybor City factory in 1886, owners saw them as a negative influence on their workers. Lectors were blamed for the workers' growing socialist views, slowdowns and strikes. Yet the workers revered the lector.
How this all balanced out I don't know.  For now I'll just stress that the small towns I knew in the 1950s and early 1960s had no bookstores of their own.  One town had a very good public library, but we didn't live there after I was 8 so I mostly couldn't use it except to read on the premises; the other, smaller one, was adequate to keep me busy for years, as were the various school libraries.  In school I was one of the best readers, and diagnostic tests showed by the eighth grade I was reading at a twelfth-grade or college level -- but I was unusual.  Most of my fellow students hardly read at all as far as I could tell, though I did manage to incite one friend to read The Catcher in the Rye.  How many of them read books now?  From what I can tell, hardly any -- but neither did their parents.

Before we moved out of town, my mother belonged for a while to the Doubleday Bargain Book Club, but not past the trial period.  We had the books she got then, which included a three-volume collection of children's literature that I eventually read all the way through.  (One day in kindergarten I began giggling during nap time; I explained to the teacher when she scolded me that I was thinking of the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff from that collection.  I had to bring the book to school with me the next day and read to her from it to prove my claim.)  Once at around this time my father brought home a box of books, most of them book-club editions, that I suppose he'd been given by a co-worker.  Since they were grown-ups' books, I didn't find them interesting at the time, but later I read several of them.  Those were pretty much all the books we had at home.  But while we lived in that town, I had the library.

Speaking of book clubs, Marche complains:
The real problem with Amazon isn't that it's strong-arming Hachette; it's that it leads readers to buy books that they've already heard about. When you pick out a summer novel for yourself online, you're going to pick the book that everybody else is reading, almost automatically. But the book that you want probably isn't Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It probably isn't another James Patterson. A good seller in a bookstore is infinitely superior in every way to a personalization algorithm.
Ah, the algorithms.  Amazon's "recommendations" have led to me to quite a lot of interesting material, but that's because, as Marche says, they work from the kind of books I already have in my Wish List.  But it is not true, in my case and I imagine in others', that Amazon's algorithmic recommendations only point me to books I already know about.  Very much the opposite.

Mostly I do not buy books from Amazon, but from third-party dealers on the site.  But those listings and purchases are evidently grist for the algorithms.  Since I already have a long history of reading widely, the algorithms have a broader base of data to work with than they would for someone like my coworker who reads almost nothing but mysteries and romances.  Would she follow up on a good bookseller's recommendation to try something out of her usual territory?  No, she would not.  She reads for pleasure, as I do; but not, as I also do, to stretch my mind and learn. (Which, for me, is pleasure.) She reads hardly any nonfiction, and the fiction she reads is quite circumscribed.  Would she have read more nonfiction before Amazon existed?  I doubt it.  A recommendation can only work for you if you're interested in following it up.  A good bookseller, knowing my coworker as a customer, would not recommend to her Eric Foner's Reconstruction, Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, or Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality.  Such a bookseller would point her to more books in the vein she's already working.  The proverbial bookseller or librarian who points a child to a book that opens up new horizons exists, but he or she learns to spot the rare reader who might be receptive to the suggestion.  (And even then, I bet that most kids who receive the recommendations don't follow up on them -- we hear from the few who did.)

Before Amazon, there were book clubs.  The Book of the Month Club offered one middle-brow selection per month, selected by a board of advisors, plus a small back catalog of other works.  (Those of a certain age will recall the introductory offers, like the Durants' multivolume The Story of Civilization.)  The monthly selection would arrive in the mail unless you opted out.  No doubt BOMC broadened the reading habits of many people, but how much?  Was it any better, despite the guiding hands of Clifton Fadiman et al., than Amazon's algorithmic recommendations?

Marche's suggestions for browsing and buying physical books are largely good.  It's the context in which he puts them that isn't so good.  I'm worried myself about the loss that may follow from the digitization of reading, but I'm skeptical of my worries.  As Samuel Delany remarked some years ago:
It's the same thing with the physical books on the shelves. Anybody who does actual research in a library knows that you look on this shelf and then you turn around and you look on this thing, it's not related alphabetically; it's not related subject-wise; it just happens to be the book you need. And if you don't have the physical propinquity of the way the books are arranged, you're going to miss out on this opportunity, and this limits the kinds of research gems that can come up.
As books from the stacks in the university library I use are moved to the auxiliary facility to make shelf space for more acquisitions, I worry about the loss of this kind of serendipity.  But then I remember that in traditional research libraries, the stacks were closed.  You filled out a form for the material you wanted, and the librarian brought it to you -- just like the "new" model.  Open stacks are evidently an atypical situation (and one for which I'm very grateful myself).

I also suspect that new forms and methods of browsing, and of serendipity, will arise as more and more material is disseminated to the Web.  Those who are interested are also inventive; but they're also a minority, and probably always have been.  A more fruitful challenge might be thinking of ways to get more and more people, especially young ones (get 'em young!), comfortable in libraries and information exchanges in the first place.  That will become more important as the war against public education and public resources generally advances in the years to come.  Whining about an imaginary past of brandy snifters and bookstores won't do any good about the real barriers to general literacy that will be erected and must be torn back down.