Amazon, bookstores, and me

This recent article from Salon points out that most people still find out about books not online but from physical bookstores, and so, as physical bookstores find it hard to compete with Amazon’s prices and go out of business, Amazon might be hurt, too.

I have loved bookstores since I first started going to them in high school — I’ve loved finding books at new-book and at used-book stores, I’ve loved sitting in them and reading, etc.

And I used to love buying books — more than I could really afford. But for some reason, I seem to be less interested in books these days, and I think there are a couple, intermixed reasons.

I’m really writing more than reading these days. Writing is what feels natural, like I have authentic energy to do it, and reading long works doesn’t feel that way. I used to really enjoy reading long works, but now I feel less inclined to read both long narratives (of fiction or nonfic) and long works of analysis or philosophy.

I want short texts, like poems, or brief nonfictions (an example by Charles Simic here) — not because I’m busy or my attention span is short, but because I’m not sure I see much value in length, in duration. I don’t know why stories have to take a long time (I don’t read, generally, to escape into a story); nonfiction histories and biographies feel like compilations of arbitrary ideas, and philosophies/”big idea” books seem arbitrary and pointlessly thorough — like the world’s shiniest turd.

The Simic piece prompts a new thought — I’m appreciating that piece for its lack of familiar structure. I’m tired of regular structure — I teach the five-paragraph essay to high-schoolers, and while it’s useful for them to know, it’s a form I want to avoid in my reading and writing.

And when I go to bookstores now, I feel like the books are dead, in a sense. They are works that are complete, that are no longer being edited (with some possible exceptions — Whitman revised “Leaves of Grass” extensively, for over 30 years, after first publishing it). In recent months, I’ve been wondering about how commerce drives publishing form — namely, why it is that most books are carefully written and edited, and then many copies are made — instead, I’ve been writing small, one-copy volumes. These books are texts I can make all at once, in a short time (an hour or so), straight from my mind, with almost no revision — in this way, these books match a writing process that has come to feel right to me: writing spontaneously, writing what comes to mind, writing without having an outcome in mind (I’ll have a filled book at the end, but not be sure what words or ideas or drawings will fill it). This is an aesthetic/artistic choice that has seemed valuable to me recently.

And the wonderful thing about the Interwebs is that, as a form, as a publishing possibility, it too allows for work to be written quickly and published quickly, and revised in an ongoing way, and shorter texts seem to fit well within a blog or other electronic format.

[An aside: As this article points out, e-books are still a fraction of paper-book sales, and

But we do read things differently when they’re on a page rather than on a screen. A study this year found that people reading on a screen tended to skip around more and read less intensively, and plenty of research confirms that people tend to comprehend less of what they read on a screen. The differences are small, but they may explain the persistent appeal of paper. Indeed, hardcover sales rose last year by a hundred million dollars.]

This is not intended to be an argument against books themselves, or against bookstores (where I spent many hours reading and finding books that shaped the mind I have now) — and I still own many paper books, and may publish my own someday.

But right now, I don’t feel the Amazon vs. bookstore thing needs to be a big deal. Books aren’t perfect, and why not question the assumptions of the publishers, of the writers, and of the readers.

2 responses to “Amazon, bookstores, and me

  1. I haven’t read the Salon article, so maybe I’m misinterpreting its argument, but I don’t understand why there seems to be an assumption that just because people learn about books from bricks and mortar stores right now that they can’t adapt to learning about books online in the absence of such stores. Are people going to stop reading just because they can’t browse the physical copies of a small selection of books (a tiny fraction of the books available for virtual browsing)? I doubt it. People will adapt.

    • Sure, people will find things online, but when I think back to how I discovered books that became important to me, many of them weren’t things I was looking for. Computers make it easy to find things one is searching for, but I’m not sure they make it as likely to find books, say, the way I found books in discount bins. (Like this one: http://books.google.com/books/about/Breakfast_at_the_Victory.html?id=A-4RAQAAIAAJ) I appreciate the opportunities Amazon grants us, but I also hope we keep regular bookstores (and in the rural area I live, I know of only 3 bookstores within a 60-mine radius, a Barnes and Noble’s, a small-chain bookstore, and an independent)

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