If you love books, leave Amazon alone


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.  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.


Nassim Taleb



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.


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.


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


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.


“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


How a real show about nothing would go

Photo from here.

Every Saturday, 1:12 PM, every Uzbek-style restaurant in any city in America.

—Oh, Ludochka! That was such a great meal. I’m licking my fingers!

—I know! Wasn’t it, Verka? Those shashliki.  That kartoshka! Mmm. *reaches for the last of the plov* This place is the best.  Now what were you saying about your son?  He’s done with pharmacy school, right?

— Yes, Mishka just graduated, but he decided he doesn’t want to be a pharmacist! Can you imagine! After $100,000 of our blood, sweat and tears, he decides he doesn’t want to be a pharmacist! He quit after his first week! He could have told us that before we made him take the exam.  And now what girl is going to look at him?  It’s not stable!

— What a horror. What a horror. (Uzhas, uzhas.) Remember when he was small and you stayed up with him all night when he had a fever?  So many nights spent…and this is what you get back! What an ungrateful swine.  So what’s he going to do now??

— Oh, God only knows.  Ludochka, don’t even talk to me about it.  My nerves are all destroyed. *takes a strong sip of tea* How’s your Dashenka?

—Oh, she’s not bad. Not so great, either. You know that art history major I told her not to get? Well, she’s going for it, anyway. What is she going to do with an art history major? She’s going to be an art expert right back in her old high-school bedroom, that’s what.  Ten years. TEN YEARS I’ve slaved away at this job as a programmer so she can have a good college education. Her father and I came with nothing. WITH NOTHING. All for her.  And how does she repay me? Wit this! This art history.

—Be strong, Lud’ka. Be strong.  Maybe if we have them marry each other, they can live in one of our houses and be ungrateful swine together. *nibbles on the last of the bread*

*waitress comes with the check*

—Ready, ladies?

*waitress puts check down on table* *both women look at it like wolves look at prey* *waitress leaves*

—Oh yes, I believe we are. *gets out credit card*

—Verka, what are you doing?  *also gets out credit card*

—I’m paying for lunch, Luda! And I don’t want to hear another word about it!

—Verka, no. There’s no way you’re paying for lunch.  You have a whole family on your shoulders again, you have Mishka to worry about, let me do this one thing for you.

—Luda, no. I’m perfectly capable for paying for myself, and that’s it. *grabs check* Besides, you brought the wine. That’s it-Vsyo!

—Vera, no. Listen to me.  Remember how last time you paid?  Now I owe you. That’s it. No arguments. *grabs check and starts to look at it* Vsyo!

—Lud’,  nu come on. Don’t hooligan.  *hits her lightly on the hand* Let me just pay for this, you can pay for the tip.

—Vera, don’t even talk about it.  Look at how you’re acting. A grown woman. I’m paying for lunch. *puts credit card in check holder*

—Luda, you are impossible.  *takes credit card out, slams it on the table, puts her credit card in*  I am PAYING for your lunch, and that’s it.

—*takes check, takes credit card out, and pays entirely in cash* If you want, you can leave the tip.  I’m paying, and that’s final.  I don’t even want to hear another word about it. Vsyo.

*waitress comes by* Are you ready?

*Luda hands her the check, smiling* Yes, we are

*Vera is deflated*

—Ok, but I’m paying for the tip, and that’s it. Look at how you behave. Embarrassing! You won’t even let a friend enjoy her meal.  Next time, I’ll pay.  And I’ll bring Misha.

—And I’ll bring Dasha.




The recession is over

Put down your Economists and Forbes magazines. They’re lying to you.  I’m here to tell you that the recession is over.

How do I know? The movie trailers for upcoming films in the next couple months are getting better and better.

Movies are a risky investment, kind of like a start-up, and the movie industry is brutal.  Each movie is a separate company:

Studios have no problems finding finances, if we’re talking about the major studios. With the studio movie, such as “Wall Street 2,” which is coming out, it goes into production in September and it comes out in the theaters April 23 — so it’s only six months that the money is at risk. If you are making an independent movie, it may be years before the movie gets released, so you have to borrow the money for a very long period of time. And no one wants to lend you this money, except at high rates of interest.

Movie studios, one of their great arts is basically taking the risky movies and using other people’s money, and taking movies that are less risky and using their own money. The movies that are most risky, dramas and comedies — because with comedies, you don’t know if you’re going to get foreign rights and how they’re going to play abroad — they try to sell them to hedge funds or to equity investors or to production companies that want to get in the game.

If you’re with a big-time company, you could invest millions into a crappy movie, only to see it flop, which is fine, but how many of these risks do you want to take?  So if the economy is bad, you stick with safe bets like remakes, sequels, and terrible god-awful movies based off video games and..board games. Here are some of the movies of the past couple years; See if you can notice a trend:

  • Men in Black 3
  • Battleship
  • The Hangover 2
  • Cowboys and Aliens
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II
  • Spy Kids 4
  • Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
  • Cars 2
  • Jack and Jill (from Adam Sandler)
  • War Horse
The trend is that they’re all reliable. We already know the first one did well, so we make more and more and more. In the case of Adam Sandler, he always turns enough of a profit to turn out crap movies.  In the case of action movies like Cowboys and Aliens, there’s a chance they could flop, but they’re so mindless and stupid that you’re guaranteed at least a baseline audience. Or, we know the director, as was the case with Stephen Spielberg in War Horse, and we know people will pay for him.

If you are a risk-taker, you go for movies you know won’t cater to the lowest-common denominator AND you use big-name actors, who you have to pay for.  This means you have to seek out capital that isn’t frozen-up with scared investors.   Movies take years to make.  So right now, we’re seeing movies come out where the capital was set up a couple years ago.  This means we turned the corner sometime in 2010-2011. And now, finally, we’re out of recession.

And out of the shitty movie cycle and into beautiful, thought-provoking, lovingly-made films.

Because here’s what we have coming up:

Brave, the Pixar version of my best-selling book about Scotland. Just kidding.  But really, who would go to see a movie about some Scottish girl, even if it’s by Pixar?  They’re taking a risk with this one in assuming I’ll go 10,000 times.

The Great Gatsby. “We know Americans don’t and can’t read, but we’re still going to try to recreate this great American novel in theaters and take a huge risk on it. To lessen the risk, we’ll make it in 3D. Americans love that.”

Les Miserables. Musical about the French Revolution…and Wolverine has to sing? AND it’s operatic?   HUUUUUGE risk. (Even though it is my favorite musical of all-time)

The Hobbit. Only LOTR fanboys care about this one. Again, a risk, especially given how much it was held up in production.

And..Anna Karenina.  If Americans don’t want to read American books, how the hell are they going to watch this? Oh yeah, Keira Knightley.


See you at the movies.