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Week of 27 March 2023

Week of 27 March 2023

On Thursday some twenty students came to the Reading Loft for a discussion about bookselling and the physicality of books. The students were from a Masters programme at a local university.

In preparation for this session, I took the practical advice of Professor Tommy Koh on public speaking: come up with three points. With that in mind, I thought of the three common responses I hear when I tell people that I am a bookseller.

  • Response 1: Isn’t everyone reading ebooks now?
  • Response 2: Isn’t everyone buying from Amazon now?
  • Response 3: Nobody reads now

Response 1: Isn’t everyone reading ebooks now?

This line is usually delivered with a mix of cynicism and pity. Emotion aside, what they are really asking is: ‘What is the value of physical books?’

Well, simply put, a book is a physical thing while an ebook is not. Humans are hard-wired to interact and manipulate things. A book has heft. A book takes up space. An ebook can disappear in the maw of your electronic reader, or get lost in the deep dark recesses of your Dropbox, but once a physical book takes up residence on your bookcase, in your bag, or your to-be-read pile, you cannot ignore it.

And because we interact with books physically by turning its pages and marking it with a pencil, and take it to places with us, we imbue books with meaning, significance, and context. The more meaning, significance, and context we attach to something, the more likely our brains remember, learn, make connections, and form extensions. As a piece of technology made of just paper, glue, and ink, the book is fit to purpose: it gets the job done with minimal fuss and disruption, yet causes just enough inconvenience to make their presence count. Think of the music lover and his record collection. Music streaming services are instantaneous and convenient, yet the time spent setting up a record to be played on a turntable and holding (and admiring) the record cover with its album art makes music that much more personal and significant.

Physical books have value and should remain valued by society if we want to continue benefitting from a piece of technology that remains unequalled in its capacity to store and transmit information to literate peoples across time and space.

Response 2: Isn’t everyone buying from Amazon now?

What people are really saying is this: ‘What is the value of physical bookshops in the age of Amazon?’

People need bookshops and they need to be in book-lined spaces. For it is in these spaces that people can experience — simultaneously — solitude and community. They are alone with their thoughts, ruminating; and they participate in community by engaging in dialogue with authors that are summoned when their books are read. As Jeff Deutsch eruditely argues in his In Praise of Good Bookstores, the primary function of a bookshop is to provide a space for people to browse and to discover books.

When I was making this point, one of the students remarked that surely the main function of a bookshop is to be profitable. I replied that bookshops masquerade as businesses, that our main concern and intention is the promotion of literacy and reading. Once that intention is put in order, the business side of things should fall into place. Another student asked if I had ever contemplated closing the business, since so many other bookshops have folded. I replied that yes, that thought did cross my mind several times, especially in the early years. The retail business is an anxiety-perpetuating enterprise, but once booksellers realise that they are merely using the apparatus of commerce as a means to achieve the goal of a literate community, then bookselling becomes a way to lead a life of meaning. With that realisation, calm and purpose covers over the rough and tumble of commerce.

Another reason bookshops have value is precisely because we value readers, authors, and their books. I cannot say the same about Amazon because their business practice is to under-price and discount books so that they can sell other more profitable merchandise, like socks, to its users. Amazon not only devalues books, but it disrupts the entire book industry for its own profit-driven ends. This brand of turbo-capitalism and its systematic exploitation of humankind’s intellectual heritage, not to mention the degradation of labour in its warehouse and delivery services, has propelled the owner of Amazon to wealth few in human history have dreamed of. While evidently hugely successful for this latter-day Ozymandias, exploitation is an imbecilic way to make a living. As Ruskin says: ‘Perhaps the most insolently futile idea that ever beguiled men is that wealth can be gained irrespective of the consideration of its moral sources.’

Further, the pedagogy of Amazon-style commercial practice has been so culturally pervasive that everyone has internalised Amazon’s discount logic: to pay full price for a book is an affront. For more information, see Danny Caine’s How to Resist Amazon and Why: The Fight for Local Economics, Data Privacy, Fair Labor, Independent Bookstores, and a People-Powered Future. Danny Caine is a fellow bookseller at Raven Book Store in Kansas.

And yes, Amazon’s monopoly has led to the demise of many bookshops. But the deeper reason bookshops are closing is because we no longer value bookshops.

Response 3: Nobody reads now.

What they are really saying is: ‘What is the value of reading?’

According to the philosopher Frank Furedi in his book Power of Reading, reading is in decline because society no longer values truth. Post-modernism, with its dismantling of received wisdom and expert authority has committed epistemicide, a term Abdal Hakim Murad coins in Travelling Home. Indeed, an epistemology that dismantles truth cannot be called an epistemology. It is no wonder that we are collectively trapped in our silos, looking out at the world not with confidence, but in fear.

How do we recover this valuing of truth and regain some semblance of an epistemology? As Prince Ghazi writes in A Thinking Person’s Guide to Our Times, we have to start reading again. Reading teaches us to think logically and sequentially, to weigh competing arguments, to build on existing knowledge, and to synthesise new information. A society whose members are habituated to reading, and are able be still while paying attention, to follow a chain of thought (or narrative) to its conclusion, is a society capable of great things. A society of people who read, will be a society that responds — not merely reacts — to the challenges of the age.

This is the value of reading.

Top title of the week

  • Write the Quran

Read this week:

  • We’ve Lost the Plot, Megan Barber, The Atlantic, March 2023
  • Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here’s the Evidence. Jon Haidt, After Babel, Feb 2023
  • After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell
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