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.

Interview with the only person on the planet who hated The Goldfinch

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Interviewer:So. Vicki. You hated The Goldfinch.
Vicki: That’s correct.
Interviewer: Do you also murder small household pets?
Vicki: What?
Interviewer: You must hate humanity.
Vicki: No, I just…did not like this book at all.
Interviewer: Are you a secret Nazi?
Vicki: What? No! This interview became inflammatory very quickly.
Interviewer: I just find it hard to believe that someone doesn’t like one of the most-well-regarded books of 2014 so far. Donna Tartt took ten years to write this thing (probably wearing pantsuits the whole time), she sweated, she labored over Theo, just so you could have this thing to read. Do you have a soul?
Vicki: I gave it a real try, honest. I read over 600 of the 700+ pages!
Interviewer: You didn’t try hard enough. Donna Tartt died so you could have this book.
Vicki: I’m pretty sure she’s still alive and doing VERY well off her book sales.
Interviewer: The book is on Amazon’s bestseller list. It was hailed as a “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade” by Stephen King. “With a Dutch master’s attention to detail” by the Washington Post.  And a “stunning success, one of the most striking novels I’ve read in years” by some dude on Amazon.
Vicki: I know, I know, I know. I tried to get into it! I liked some of the characters! I liked Boris, the creepy Eastern European dude, and Popper, the dog. But I had to slog through every single page. But there is no feeling, nothing interesting, in ANY of the characters. I didn’t care that Theo’s mother died or that he was trying to get back to the East Coast, or about that stupid Goldfinch painting. I was just BORED. I was waiting for someone to die in a horrible fiery death again. Only if I didn’t have to read about Kitsey. KITSEY. STOP TALKING. SHUT UP KITSEY. I HATE YOU. I ALSO HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT FURNITURE, I DON’T CARE ABOUT FURNITURE AND I DON’T CARE ABOUT HOW DRUNK THEO GETS EVERY FIVE MINUTES.
Interviewer: You have no taste and you’re never allowed to blog again.
Vicki: But I LOVED her Secret History! I stayed up late at night reading it! I had high hopes!
Interviewer: You don’t know how to read English.
Vicki:  I’m not alone! I can’t be! PLEASE SOMEONE OUT THERE WHO HATED THIS BOOK.
Interviewer: The English-speaking Society for Classy Guys and Gals Who Read Pretentious Books on the Train hereby outsts you. Hand in your badge and your condescending smirk.
Vicki: I love that smirk. It’s how I know I’m better than  Danielle Steele.
Interviewer: You’re done.
Vicki: Am I allowed to read The Luminaries? Or my Yiddish book?
Interviewer: You can’t handle allegories, allusions, or explanations of art and society. You can’t empathize with characters, and you don’t understand the pains of real Authors. I hereby only allow you to read Dan Brown from now on.
Vicki: *quietly sobs in the corner*

Russian Jewish Romance

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My internet friend Alina (and frequent commenter here) wrote a short story for a romance anthology (which you can buy now, here).  (Disclaimer: I got a copy to read for free). Here’s the press release:

They say “write what you know.”  And that’s just what author Alina Adams (born Alina Sivorinovsky in Odessa, USSR) did when asked to contribute a short story for the anthology “The Mammoth Book of ER Romance” (Running Press September 2013).

Instead of sticking to traditional, all-American characters like she had for her previous “New York Times” best-selling books, including “Oakdale Confidential” and “Jonathan’s Story,” Adams created possibly the first-ever romance featuring a Russian Jewish heroine, whose decisions – in life and in love – stem directly from her non-traditional background and upbringing.

Adams explains, “I wanted to do something different with my story, “To Look For You,” and feature a character unique to romantic fiction.  Like me, Alyssa Gordon was born in the USSR, grew up in America, and never felt like she belonged completely to either place.  Throw in being Jewish on top of that, and I’d never encountered a similar type of character while reading romance.  I figured I might as well be the first to create one and explore how being a Russian Jew in the States affects who you fall in love with.”

I personally will never admit that I read romance novels, but this story is at the intersection of Russian Jews, hypochondria, perfectionism, war, and men who are really, really clean, which is probably why Alina thought of me.  There were a couple of things I was always really curious about with regards to romance writing, so I asked her:

… 

What I’ve been reading lately

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

I’ve heard a lot about Vowell and listened to an interview with her on this really great podcast a couple weeks ago, and decided to pick up Unfamiliar Fishes as a result. It’s basically the history book I would write if I had more time to research. She is witty (sometimes too witty) and nerdy about history. This one is about the annexation of Hawaii, which is a great book to read in the summer. I’m not done with it yet, but loving it a lot.

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Nassim Taleb

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From the Telegraph

Still my favorite philosopher/economist/misanthrope. Still agree with him on nearly everything.

Antifragile resembles a self-help book, though it is difficult to imagine any other self-help book as intemperate and cranky. The author is a tireless self-aggrandiser, boasting of his gargantuan reading habits; of being a weightlifter, ready to physically slap down detractors; and a gourmand, recommending fine wines and camomile tea to ease a troubled mind.

Here are some excerpts from press about him+ Antifragile:

Actually, Antifragile feels like a compendium of people and things Taleb doesn’t like. He is, for instance, annoyed by editors who “overedit,” when what they should really do is hunt for typos; unctuous, fawning travel assistants; “bourgeois bohemian bonus earners”; meetings of any kind; appointments of any kind; doctors; Paul Krugman; Thomas Friedman; nerds; bureaucrats; air conditioning; television; soccer moms; smooth surfaces; Harvard Business School; business schools in general; bankers at the Federal Reserve; bankers in general; economists; sissies; fakes; “bureaucrato-journalistic” talk; Robert Rubin; Google News; marketing; neckties; “the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature”; regular shoes.

And:

A reader could easily run out of adjectives to describe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.” The first ones that come to mind are: maddening, bold, repetitious, judgmental, intemperate, erudite, reductive, shrewd, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, provocative, pompous, penetrating, perspicacious and pretentious.

And:

He also comes across as a helluva personality: irascible, finicky, vain, prone to fits of pique at those who mischaracterize his ideas (uh-oh, better watch out), disdainful of journalists (double uh-oh), a weightlifter, too (this is your third and final warning).

On the other hand, he has habits I admire: He told the New Scientist he only goes to doctors if he’s really sick, he takes a dose of local water (a drop, no more) when visiting India (good for the immune system) and apparently he’s never been in debt

And:

You’re critical of various groups who claim to be able to predict and manage the future – which, in your opinion, has done the most damage? The most damaging group are economists; probably the most damaging individual is [former chairman of the US Federal Reserve] Alan Greenspan, and maybe also [current Fed chairman] Ben Bernanke and [US treasury secretary] Timothy Geithner. The reason I’m against the top-down state isn’t so much theoretical, but because of what I call having skin in the game – bureaucrats have no personal stake in their decisions. I don’t tell you what I predict; I tell you what’s in my portfolio. So economics-wise, I don’t want people to tell me what to do; I want to know what they’re doing.

And:

“Exactly!” says Taleb. Once you get over the idea that you’re reading some sort of popular economics book and realise that it’s basically Nassim Taleb’s Rules for Life, it’s actually rather enjoyable. Highly eccentric, it’s true, but very readable and something like a chivalric code d’honneur for the 21st century. Modern life is akin to a chronic stress injury, he says. And the way to combat it is to embrace randomness in all its forms: live true to your principles, don’t sell your soul and watch out for the carbohydrates