Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Bookstores

I assume all of you have read Farhod Manjoo's takedown of independent bookstores in Slate. For the benefit of those who haven't, his argument boils down to this: by selling books for lower prices, Amazon has done more than any other business in America to foster reading. He goes so far as to argue that Amazon is the "only thing saving" literary culture. He also argues that bookstores are economically "inefficient:" because they spend money on utilities, rent and employees, small bookstores have to sell books at "a huge markup."

My response to his first point is that I think more credit is due to Oprah's Book Club than to Amazon for fostering reading in America. A talk show host with roughly 40 million loyal fans told them to go read Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, and Tolstoy, and many of them actually did it. At least one academic historian credits her with democratizing reading, enabling American women who had never thought of themselves as "literary" to experience the pleasures of reading and of talking about what they've read, and to learn that their opinions matter. Oprah has also been credited with the proliferation of book groups in the U.S. in recent years.

Furthermore, to log on to Amazon and begin shopping a person must be already interested in looking for books. I doubt that Amazon's mere existence led millions of Americans to think, "Well, since I don't have to leave the house to do it, I think I'll buy some books" (If that is the case, Americans are even lazier than I thought).

As for bookstores being "inefficient," they're probably no more inefficient than any other business that doesn't operate on the scale of Walmart. Small bookstores create local jobs and bring foot traffic to neighboring businesses. They enrich neighborhoods in myriad ways—far more than they would if they were just another boarded-up vacant retail space (which is the inevitable result of the Amazon/Walmart business model). And if Amazon's labor practices are an example of "efficiency," then I want nothing to do with it.

Manjoo derides independent bookstores for having "paltry selections" and "no customer reviews." But with Amazon you have to already have some idea of what you're looking for. You can't really browse the shelves with Amazon. There are no surprises waiting for you the way there have been for me in brick-and-mortar bookstores, like my adolescent discovery of Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem or my graduate student stumbling upon Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice.

As for the selections being "paltry," bookstores can place orders for titles they don't have. And as for the lack of "customer reviews," bookstores have staff recommendations, which Manjoo sneers at as akin to "choosing your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends." He's ignoring the obvious fact that people work in bookstores because they love books—God knows it's not for the money. The average bookstore employee is probably someone whose preferred leisure activity is reading. He or she is probably very well educated. Why wouldn't you welcome their book suggestions?

I will close with my childhood memories of an independent bookstore that was very important to me growing up. It was the unimaginatively named "Book Mart" in the even more unfortunately named Starkville, Mississippi. The store was roughly a forty minute drive from my home town. My parents were both avid SEC football fans, and by age nine or ten they realized I would never be one. So when they went to Starkville on a Saturday afternoon to watch Mississippi State football they would simply drop me off at the Book Mart and pick me up when the game was over. It seems shocking now. I can't even imagine the presumption that led my father to approach two owners of a business and ask them if they would babysit his nine-year-old son.

The Book Mart was owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Brown who were delighted to have me there. And the store was a wonder to me as a child. I never imagined there could be so many books in one place. And nothing about the Book Mart was "efficient." One of the top shelves was taken up with a third edition (published from 1788 to 1797) of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was never intended to be sold. It was just there. They also refused to charge students sales tax if they were buying classics such as Hawthorne, Dickens or Tolstoy.

Every time I was dropped off there, after chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Brown for a bit, I would collect an armload of books, walk to one of the alcoves in the back and sit on the floor reading (when my parents came to pick me up after the game they would buy me one or two of the books I liked). I wasn't very discriminating as a child. I devoured a lot of dreck: G.A. Henty, Rudyard Kipling ....but that store was also where I discovered Greek and Norse mythology, the Arthurian legends, and many other stories that meant a great deal to me as a child, and that even now I can't dismiss.

I became a sort of store mascot: regular customers would come in on a Saturday, find me in the back, say hello, and ask what I was reading. I even went so far as to venture my opinions on the business: I would take books off the remainders table and tell Mrs. Brown she should raise the prices. Invariably her husband would hear me and say from somewhere in the store, "I told you..."

Years later when I went to college in that same town I would visit the Book Mart and it still had a little of its old magic. It's where I discovered John McPhee, Walker Percy, John Irving and many other writers. They don't mean as much to me as they once did, but they were steps to something better.

I look back on the Book Mart, and the Browns, and I feel grateful.

I will never feel that way about Amazon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quote of the Week

"That's one of the things that I like about him—because he's consistent since he changed his mind."
--Christine O'Donnell endorsing Mitt Romney.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Week in Food

The forty-eight hours late edition....

Forget Greek debt, the collapse of the Spanish housing market, the implosion of Irish banks....Norway has a real problem: a butter shortage.

What's the real story on that olive oil you bought?

You call that a KitKat? This is a KitKat.

Amphorae: They're not just for wine anymore.

Admit it: you've wondered about this.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's in a Title?

I learned today that a novel that won last year's German Book Prize, Tauben fliegen auf, (Pigeons Fly) is always referred to in the English-speaking press as Falcons without Falconers. It's a savvy decision on the part of the novel's Anglophone publisher—Falcons without Falconers sounds much more intriguing than Pigeons Fly. I have no real point to make about this other than to share my bemusement at how book titles change when a book is translated into another language or published in another country. The most famous example is Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, (In Search of Lost Time), which appeared in English under a title lifted from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, Remembrance of Things Past.

And a book doesn't even have to be translated for a title to change. Beat to Quarters, a 1937 novel set in 1808 on board a British warship, was
originally published in the UK under the much less martial title The Happy Return (the only reason I even know of this book's existence was that it was one of my dad's favorite novels). The 2004 Ian Rankin novel Fleshmarket Close was published in the U.S. as Fleshmarket Alley on the assumption that the original title would puzzle Americans (in British English "close" means dead-end street).

However, the most interesting title changes occur when a book is translated into another language. Stieg Larsson's books provide interesting recent examples. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo originally appeared in Swedish under the lackluster title
Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women). The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was originally Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Castle of Air that Exploded).

But my all-time favorite title change pertains to a Spanish health book I stumbled upon at work, Cuerpo radiante (Radiant Body), which originally appeared in English as Dr. Jensen's Guide to Better Bowel Care.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Meaning of Herman Cain

Well, it's over. The Hermanator has left the Republican race, and it's time to assess what his candidacy actually signified for this country. For a brief period after Obama's election, commentators loved to use the phrase "post-racial America." Well, we're not quite there yet, but Herman Cain's candidacy was another step in that direction.

However, Cain's candidacy was important not simply because he's a black man. Black men have had the public eye before in this country, and even aspired to high office. Frederick Douglass was the first black American to achieve national prominence, and he was truly extraordinary: a self-educated man who founded and edited his own newspaper, and became a successful author and public lecturer. Martin Luther King was one of the most eloquent speakers in American history, a man of outstanding courage, and a brilliant political strategist. Thurgood Marshall was a gifted lawyer who successfully argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court before his own appointment as a justice.

In other words, in the past a black man had to actually be intelligent and capable to be in the public eye—arguably, be better than everybody else. But Herman Cain doesn't know where Libya is, doesn't realize China already has nuclear weapons, thinks "Cuban" is a language, and demonstrated that he and his staff are absolutely incompetent at damage control.

And he was the Republican front-runner for president.

Just like Harold and Kumar showed us it's okay for Asians to be slackers, Herman Cain showed us it's okay for a black man to be an ignorant jackass. Without belittling Herman Cain's accomplishment in bringing us to this point on the long road to racial equality, he did have some help along the way. First there were all those white guys who showed us it was okay to be an ignorant jackass and still run for vice-president and president. Then there was that black guy who showed us it was okay to be an ignorant jackass (and somebody who abuses power to get sex) and sit on the Supreme Court.

We've come a long way.

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