If you love books, leave Amazon alone


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I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, near a small library that always smelled of old book pages and cookies. The main entertainment in the town was going to the mall on Friday night to gawk at other people going to the mall on Friday night, and the main reading demographic was people who liked butter sculptures and Quaker Steak and Lube.

I liked being melodramatic and learning Italian.  My weird didn’t mesh with the normal for my area.

As a result, I spent hours in that library, both as a reader, and later as a volunteer shelver,  and it is responsible for introducing me to the series of books that has remained in the top five books I have read in my lifetime: His Dark Materials, as well as hundreds of other books that I can’t remember.

When I started trasitioning from the children’s to the adult section, though, I realized I was starting to come up on the limits of my little backwater-town library.  The adult section had hundreds of copies of Danielle Steele, Jan Karon, and anyone else who had either flowers or women’s half-obscured faces on the cover, catering to the audience who wanted most of the books.

But, there were zero copies of books I really wanted, books I had heard about somewhere and wanted to see for myself. I saw T.H. White’s The Once and Future King on a suggested reading list and wanted to check it out, but the only copy was always either lost or on reserve. It was impossible to get the latest Isabelle Allende, and you could definitely get whatever was on the NY Times Bestseller list, as long as you were willing to wait at least eight weeks. Eight weeks for a book. Agony!

Some books, I was able to buy at the new Barnes and Noble  that opened at the mall when I was in high school with allowance or birthday money. Some books, I found by accident at the wonderful used bookstore near my house that has since long shuttered.  But I couldn’t buy all the books, and I couldn’t find all the books when I wanted them, and by the time I did find them, I’d forgotten about them.

By the time I started my professional life and started reading seriously about books and literature on the internet at places like The Paris Review, The Morning News, The Millions, The New York Book Review, HTMLGiant, I felt  I was missing a huge part of my Western literary education.

Part of this is because all of these websites are snobs.

But part of it is because, if you live in the outer ring of popular culture in the United States, you are just not going to have access to the same kinds of books and knowledge about books that people in huge cities do.

Clay Shirky writes about this in a great essay:

After devoting half a paragraph to the central fact of Amazon’s history — they are better at making books available to readers than anyone else in the world — Packer drops that line of thought. If more people having access to more books is a good idea, it becomes harder to argue on behalf of Little, Brown. The readers in Podunk towns get a cameo and are then banished from the conversation. (As usual.)

Access to books was poor for anyone who lived in Podunk, because in the twentieth century (and the sixteenth, for that matter), keeping books in stock presented the same problem as keeping shoes or pots in stock. They had to be created in advance of demand and delivered someplace for sale. The limitations imposed by physicality and geography are so normal that people rarely mention them, but they create persistent barriers to access for anyone other than well-off urbanites.

This is not entirely the fault of my tiny town library, which provided a lot for the budget it was given to work with, I’m sure. It is the fault of my local Barnes and Noble, which stocks much the same things that my library does: whatever appeals to the middle majority in the suburbs of Philadelphia (lots of books with cursive titles and blurry pictures of women in bikinis on the cover.) That’s what sells.

It is also the fault of people who are trying to sway public opinion by  saying, and have been saying loudly for the past couple years, that Amazon is killing the book, and against people who say Amazon is unfair to readers.  All of these people live in big cities, where it is impossible not to find good books. I am always amazed when I go to The Strand, or Kinokuniya or Powell’s,  just how much literature and news about literature is available to people in huge cities. In Philly, we have the Joseph Fox bookshop, which is good, but tiny-tiny, and I’m always half-afraid it will close.

If you want access to good books, it used to be that you had to hear about them from some list and wait for them to come to your library or backorder to your store. Now, all you have to do is be able to find it on Amazon. I have never had as much access to literature, for as low of a price,  as I have with Amazon, and I am in love with this experience, and these people are trying to diminish that for me.

I’ve been able to buy a used, obscure copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for $4 from someone who was clearly done with it for years. Instead of waiting for months while The Magician’s Land bestseller circulated through my local library, I had it on pre-order. It came on my birthday. I read it that day, and Mr. B picked it up two days later.

Being connected to literature, to physical books, and to people who talk about books is one of the greatest joys in my life, and Amazon has given it to me. I am happily (Mr. B, less so) drowning in books at my house right now.

If you love books, publishers are not your friend. They are gatekeepers, and they make money by being so.  Amazon is no angel. It also makes money from squeezing the hell out of economies of scale, low distribution costs, and all that stuff they teach you in MBA classes.

But.

But.  Just as books serve as a portal to a different world, Amazon currently serves as a portal to books. Publishers and bookstores can afford to cull the books they offer, thereby limiting what’s available to the public. Amazon can’t, because its whole business model is that it’s everything to everyone.

As a result, Amazon has created a broader, richer experience for readers who live outside of New York City, this one included.