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I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo's op-ed (above) taking on Amazon's thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo's piece — which was widely passed around — I realized that he'd made a critical and common mistake in his argument.

Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon's promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.

Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a "real-life literary culture," as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, "doesn't care about the larger book-selling universe" and has no interest in fostering "literary culture."

That's simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading and even writing new books.

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store — whether it's your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall — offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you're looking for and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you've read; your local store recommends what the employees like.

Bookstores are economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities and a brigade of book-reading workers aren't cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup. A few times a year, my wife — an unreformed local-bookstore cultist — drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I'm always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books.

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).

What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of "local" literary culture. There is little that's "local" about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers' market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore's shelves don't have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells — mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan.

And if you're spending extra on books at your local indie, you've got less money to spend on everything else — including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city's museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers' market. Each of these is a cultural experience that's created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn't.

But say you don't care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it's easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they'll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo's rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering "literary culture" — they serve as a "gathering place" for the community, they "optimistically set up … folding chairs" at readings, they happily guide people toward books they'll love. I'm sure all of that is important, but it's strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.

And that's where Amazon is unbeatable. So, sure, Amazon doesn't host readings and it doesn't give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest bestsellers. But what it does do — allow people to buy books anytime they want — is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it's probably the only thing saving it.

© 2011 Slate

Online literary light 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 5:40pm]
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