Slate on the death of independent bookstores
Tyler Cowen weighs in with an article titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For?" and subtitled "Not much." The basic claim of the article, near as I can make it out, appears to be that we're not really losing much when we lose independent bookstores.
Despite my knee-jerk strongly negative reaction to such a claim, I was willing to consider that there might be an interesting argument behind it, so I read the article. And after reading the article, I still think there might exist an interesting argument to that effect, but Cowen sure hasn't provided one.
(More specifically, I still think it's conceivable that the death of the independent bookstore may not be disastrous to the reading public; after all, the independent movie theatre is largely gone, and though that's sad, it hasn't meant the death of independent film. Nonetheless, I remain very sad at the passing of independent bookstores, for a variety of reasons from the sentimental to the practical to the political.)
Cowen first raises my hackles by claiming that "Patronizing [independent bookstores] helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case"; it may help him think that, but literariness and offbeatitude are not my reasons for liking independent bookstores. He goes on to say, "There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans [...] and indie cinema[...]. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest"--a statement that blithely conflates delivery systems (bookstores, movie theatres, record stores) with the content of the art they deliver.
But what really got my goat enough to make me want to post about it is this bit:
The real change in the book market is [...] the reader's greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude. [...] It was easy to finish Tolstoy's War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips.
~Yeah, I remember those days. I think they were in the 1950s, or maybe the 1920s. If I remember right, in 1925 there were a total of about ten books in the world, and Tyler Cowen kept hogging the only copy of War and Peace. I got stuck reading Don Quixote four or five times out of sheer boredom, 'cause there really wasn't any other form of entertainment in those days besides reading, either. There were basically no other options--it was read one of those ten books, or sit staring blankly into space twiddling your thumbs.~
~But these days we have so many options, and readers are so impatient, that no reader would ever read a 1500-page book like War and Peace. For example, if a modern Russian writer were to write a 1500-page debut novel, there's no possible way that it could sell out within four weeks, because modern readers would never forgo all their other options. And surely no modern reader would even consider embarking on a series that will be over 3000 pages long when it's complete, much less a series that's over 8000 pages long and counting.~
~Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Cowen!~
(Sarcasm marks courtesy of Jim Moskowitz, Samuel R. Delany, et alia.)