Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Are bookstores necessary?

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Earlier this week, Slate’s Farhad Majoo published an essay, in response to Richard Russo’s recent piece in the New York Times, on why it makes more sense for readers to buy books on, rather than local bookstores. Manjoo makes a lot of sound points—Amazon offers better prices and a much wider range of choices, meaning that you can buy two good books for the price of one at an ordinary bookshop—and I don’t intend to try and refute him here. (Plenty of others have done so already.) But as much as I love my Amazon Prime, his article still rubbed me the wrong way. Ultimately, I think I’m irritated by his assumption, which he presents without any particular scrutiny, that shopping in bookstores is an inherently irrational act, like voting or visiting an ashram, that people do just because it makes them feel good. It’s this paragraph, in particular, that annoyed me:

I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.

As someone who loves going to bookstores more than just about anything else in the world, I’m irked by this condescending tone, which implies that bookstore browsing is a quirk Manjoo is willing to tolerate in others—like being a LARPer, say—but secretly finds faintly absurd. As what Majoo might term a “bookstore cultist,” I can testify that browsing isn’t just something I “fancy”: it’s an essential part of being an intellectually curious person. For those of us who depend on new ideas for a living, there’s a definite utility to browsing among physical books, to the point where the failure to browse even puts us at a disadvantage. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned countless things while browsing that I never would have found in any other way: a small but crucial subplot in The Icon Thief, for instance, revolving around the Black Dahlia murder, was inspired by a random discovery in a half-price bookshop. Bookstores and libraries are simply the best places in the world to think and dream. And I can’t do that online.

Some of Majoo’s other points fail to hold water as well. “If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends,” Manjoo asks, “why would you choose your books that way?” This conveniently overlooks a couple of facts. First, the universe of books is far wider than those of movies in wide release, so a personal recommendation does carry some weight, as it once did at video stores. Second, and more importantly, we do choose our movies based on what theater owners recommend, albeit indirectly—the movies playing at my local art house theater are only a small subset of the independent or specialty titles out for release at any given time, and have been invisibly curated for us before we even set foot inside. This kind of curating, for better or worse, is also what good independent bookstores do. When I visit the Book Table in Oak Park, for instance, or the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, I’m guaranteed to see something interesting—like the new edition of Pale Fire, say—that I never would have found on my own.

Of course, I’ve made even more serendipitous discoveries at used bookstores, or the Strand dollar bin, implying that the best curator of all is random chance—and in a form that has no economic advantage whatsoever for the authors involved. Even worse, when I see something interesting at a local bookstore, I tend to do exactly what foes of Amazon’s Price Check promotion have complained about: I’ll check the prices available elsewhere, usually on my phone, and ultimately buy it online or get it from the library. As a reader and browser, then, I’m a mercenary: I’ll browse in one place and buy in another, or buy a used copy that doesn’t benefit the author at all. Obviously, I have mixed feelings about this, and the occasional purchase of a new book at a local bookstore doesn’t do much to assuage my guilt. My only hope, as a writer and browser, is that there are enough irrational book lovers of the type Manjoo derides to keep these bookstores alive. Without them, an intangible but real part of our culture will be lost. It has nothing to do with economics. But it’s very rational indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

My Kindle misfire

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I resisted buying a Kindle for a long time. Part of it was price, part of it loyalty to the idea of printed books, but over the past few years, my resistance began slowly eroding. The first sign of weakness, mostly innocent in itself, was when I started using the Kindle app on devices I already own, and while they haven’t come close to supplanting physical books in my house, for certain specialized uses, they do have their place. I ended up reading close to half of Swann’s Way in two-minute chunks on my phone while riding the train, for instance, and before my recent move, when I couldn’t justify adding more books to the pile that would soon need to vanish into boxes, I bought several recent releases in digital form. And while I’ve since mostly gone back to printed books, there seems to be room for their electronic counterparts in my life as well—and especially for my wife, who commutes to work on the train every day.

On Friday, then, inspired by the recent price cut, I ordered the $79 version of the Kindle. I was expecting to get it on Tuesday, but yesterday, I heard a mysterious rustling outside the house, and when I checked the front porch, there it was, lying on the welcome mat like an orphaned foundling—Amazon Prime works in mysterious ways. I brought it inside, turned it on, and with considerable anticipation, tried to link it to my existing account. And tried. And tried. Because no matter how often I entered my username and password, I got nothing but an error message. The same thing happened when I tried to register it online. And the instructions onscreen were frustratingly vague, with a menu of options that changed from moment to moment for no particular reason. (An aside to Amazon: just because Apple can ship its products without an instruction manual doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do the same.)

Finally, after half an hour of fruitless effort, I gave up and called the customer hotline. After speaking briefly with a representative at the help desk, who seemed equally mystified, I was transferred to a “Kindle specialist,” who after forty minutes of remote tinkering told me that the Kindle would have to be returned and replaced by another. Why? For unknown reasons, it wasn’t syncing correctly with Amazon’s database—she claimed to have never seen anything like it before. I grudgingly agreed to await my replacement. Then, a few minutes later, she called back to say that she’d tracked down the source of the problem: the Kindle had been delivered two days early, before the shipment had even been reflected in the system, so I was told to sit tight, keep the Kindle plugged in, and hope for the best. (Amazon Prime is often bewilderingly fast and awesome, but in this case, it evidently tore a hole in the space-time continuum.)

At last, more than six hours after my initial call, I received an email telling me that my Kindle had been properly synced. I checked it, and it worked. Within a minute, I was playing with it, sort of happily, and yes, it’s a nice little device. Yet my feelings toward it have been somewhat soured by the experience. Books, after all, aren’t supposed to be a mystery: once you’ve learned how to read, they’re an invisible medium, with as little mediation as possible between you and the author’s vision. The Kindle strives mightily to recreate that seamless experience, but even at its best, it isn’t quite the same—and when it falls short, it falls hard. When printed books fail us, as the one we love best inevitably do, they fail in tangible ways: the spines crack, the pages yellow, the margins are discolored by handling. A failed Kindle, by contrast, is just a hunk of plastic. And while my Kindle misfire was eventually solved, I can’t help but wonder if the universe, in some small way, was trying to send me a message.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2011 at 9:52 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

Tagged with , , ,

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