Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Penny Press! Atlantic and the TLS!

The prestigious old Atlantic Monthly (of late cravenly decamped from its home ancestral home of Boston) recently acquired our very own semi-feral super-genius Elmo as a subscriber, so their editorial board will no doubt have to look a little sharper in the months to come (we here at Stevereads are except from such precautions, since we were the ones to tempt the entirely-feral Elmo from the fens with a few sugar cubes earning his primitive gratitude ala Androcles and the Lion). The current issue is Elmo's first, so we couldn't help but read it with eyes ever-so-slightly vicariously refreshed.

Not all that an auspicious start, all things considered. The cover article - on who stands to gain financially from global warming climate changes - was no doubt meant to be frolicsomely cynical and on that ground (and all other grounds) falls spectacularly flat. Considering the fact that a) all those land-grabbing opportunities come hand-in-hand with unsurvivable winters all across northern Europe and unsurvivable summers all across the rest of the planet, and b) our own weekend getaway at Montauk Point - not to mention the homes and workplaces of our hapless friends at Boston, Waimea, Venice, San Diego, and Big Pine Key will be uninhabitable - considering these things, one is hard-pressed to divine the laff-quotient in an article that monetarily divvies up the sea-girt, sun-baked remains of a once-gorgeous world.

The piece's companion article on the crisis in Darfur was, unfortunately, similarly unconvincing - seeking as it did to shift the blame for that crisis off the shoulders of men and onto the vagaries of climate change. When you add to all this the fact that the title's most reliable standby, the mighty book-critic Ben Schwartz, chose this time around to utterly waste his precious column inches writing about some idiotic fashion book, well, you don't get a very favorable debut issue for Elmo.

Fortunately, for good or ill, Christopher Hitchens can almost always be counted on to generate interest of some kind, and this time around is no exception. This issue he reviews 'Cultural Amnesia,' a collection of literary essays by Clive James, and a thoroughly condescending job he does of it, too. James, an entirely better and more comprehensive literary critic than Hitchens has been in a good many years, is generously tolerated throughout the length of the review. Hitchens is very patient in pointing out all the ways James could have done a better job, and he ladles on the faint praise:

"In attempting to do this anthology justice, I am running the risk of making it sound more eclectic than it really is."

And how about this little gem, grubbed over by Hitchens:

"But in order to appear ungrudging, he [James] is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that 'the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.'?"

Well, yes, actually: apt and considerably neater than any formulation Hitchens has coughed up in his last four or five dozen literary pieces.

Having Christopher Hitchens review Clive James isn't exactly like setting a fox to guard the hen-house; it's more like setting a fox to guard a less drunken, more talented fox. Sour grapes on Hitchens' part are understandable, and this review is rank with the fumes.

But worse than that is Hitchens' sniveling, hypocritical cowardice. At one point he writes:

"It is men like Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus whom he [James] envies, while of course never ceasing to wonder (as we all must) how he himself would have shaped up when the Nazis came."

That parenthetical is SO sweet. Considering Hitchens' stance on any number of political issues in the past six years, we here at Stevereads don't consider the question of how he'd have reacted to the Nazis one of life's enduring mysteries. When Hitchens, at another point in the review, makes disparaging reference to 'high-sounding justifications for violence,' the irony was almost too thick to read through.

Irony carries over to the TLS too, and it reaches its sharpest point in the letters page. Recently, James Fergusson wrote a piece about the second-hand book trade, and it garnered this very straightforward, very sad response:

"James Fergusson may well know a lot about the second-hand book trade of yore, but where has he been for the last decade or so? As a bookseller myself, I wouldn't have thought it possible to write at such length on the subject over the last century and include just one cosily dismissive paragraph about the effect of the internet; in the mid-and late 1990s, you heard a lot of that sort of complacent plus ca change from booksellers, but I never thought I'd come across it again. The fact is that, in the half-decade before the millennium, modernity finally caught up with the second-hand book trade, and it took internet technology no longer than five years to liquidate the old order Fergusson lovingly describes. What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully effecient, a golden age for book buyers: instant access to virtually everything you want, a trade composed overwhelmingly of small-time amateurs who don't really need the money, prices in free fall and fewer than half-a-dozen points of sale that really matter, all on the Net. One hopes Fergusson's world of musty shops personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn't bet on it."

That's from Peter Lloyd, who writes from - follow along now - Little Bushant, Glascwm, Llandrindod Wells - and if anything he understates the matter, since he confines his remarks to the world of second hand bookselling. When the grim truth of the matter is that ALL bookselling is staring at its doom, in the form of the Internet. Customers in their uncounted thousands discover every day the convenience of simply ordering the books they want online - wait three days, and there they are, boxed up on your doorstep.

There are two factors missing from this new world, Peter Lloyd or no Peter Lloyd.

The first is the odd chemistry of your odd, ungainly, soon to be extinct book clerk. The Internet has no analog to having an obviously knowledgeable clerk gently scoff at your pretentions (be honest now, all you out there: how many of you have felt this particular goad and had it STAY with you long after, maybe even had it change what you read, although of course such scoffing is entirely wrong for the book clerk to do), or the enthusiastic recommendation that cuts through the cant of a dozen bad high school teachers. Really good book clerks (a phrase that sounds strange these days in and of itself) can change the way you read, and that's an entirely magical thing no 'customers who bought this also bought' can even hope to duplicate.

The second thing is serendipity. Plain old serendipity! You're prowling the bargain-carts at the Strand or the Brattle, you're crawling along the indoor shelves of ANY bookstore, second hand or otherwise, when you find something you had no idea even existed, something you then pull down and pour over and decide you want very much, in fact can't live without.

Serendipity. All of us here at this website have felt it: the chance finding of one book while looking for another, the gems discovered when you had no idea you were looking for them, and all the other permutations we're all so familiar with. Take away physical bookstores, and you take away that all-important element.

No doubt the idiosyncratic love of book-buying will survive the removal even of that element; perhaps some simula-program will come along that will digitally reproduce the alcoholic free associations of serendipity. We here at Stevereads are inclined to doubt it, but we stand, as ever, ready for posterity to prove us wrong.


beepy said...

Oh, Steve... you left out the joy of holding the book in your hand, feeling its weight, reacting to the way the pages turn, the smell - the glorious smell of some books - all these things enter into my decision to buy and read a book as much as word of mouth, the cover or dust jacket, the blurb explaining what the book is about. Many a time I've seen a book that I wanted to read and thought "Ugh, I'll wait and see what the paperback is like. Maybe I can find a decades old edition that will please me more." Even at the public library I rate the multiple copies of a book by the pleasure that I will have holding one while reading it. I'm guessing that the internet will never figure out a way to provide me that experience.

Sure, sure, your average bookbuyer may not care. Okay, doesn't care. But I'm an optimist. There'll survive a bookshop here, a bookshop there to cater to those of us willing to turn over half our paychecks each week to the book gods. And you and I will be behind the counter.

Sam said...

And then there's the toy-store-like visual stimulation that comes from wandering a bookstore, even (or in some mays most of all) a Borders or Barnes and Noble, when you're fairly sure you can't buy anything. Surely window-shopping isn't a totally dying pasttime? Eyeing the new releases with their fancy cover designs, poking around the display tables, to see what classics are being promoted (there are always surprises) or what the higher-ups have deemed "Back to School Reading" or "Beach Reading," to see what's still popular and what's consigned to its single-copy niche in its section in the stacks.

One thing that may buoy bookstores is the ascendance of coffee-shop culture. When new bookstores are packed you sense it's because people like to grab a book or magazine from the endless shelves and drink a latte. Mostly such people are reading Glamour, I guess, but even so! What if used bookstores started carving out niches for couches and an espresso maker? Would that be a sign of decadence and collapse? I always wonder that more don't try it--people regularly give whole afternoons to pleasant coffee shops and would become lifelong book browsers just due to proximity.

Kevin Caron said...

Sam is onto something here - I've always felt (having worked at a few great ones) that the struggle and decline of the Mom & Pop store has to do with a falure to brainstorm, to use their imaginations, to come up with crafty ways to improve their sales and/or the sales experience of their patrons. David is smaller than Goliath, but he's quicker, smarter...

steve said...

Sam - why would you say that at a Barnes & Noble you're fairly certain you 'can't buy anything'? Because just generally retail books are overpriced?

steve said...

There's one overriding reason why used bookstores don't have coffee lounges: their stock isn't returnable. At B&N and Borders, if some idiot spills a latte all over the latest Anita Shreve, it can be returned to the vendor for a refund. At a used bookshop, all they could collect would be an insincere apology.

beepy said...

What about couches in a used bookstore without the coffee? I can picture myself curled up on an old couch in a dark corner (just one tiny reading lamp) of The Boston Book Annex on a rainy day. Mmmmm, heaven.

Sam said...

Right, too expensive--sometimes I'll buy a new release that I'm fairly sure I can't get elsewhere, but otherwise I try to find the book used (or check it out of the library, if it comes to it). Paying 15 dollars for a paperback always sours the pleasure of buying the book, especially if I think I can get it used with a little effort and patience.

Given that the used bookstore bought the Anita Shreve paperback for 50 cents and charged $3.75 for the latte, it might risk such a loss. But the bigger trouble is that serving coffee might also create the danger of coffee-burn lawsuits. Give Beepy a Lay-Z-Boy in the Book Annex and I'd guess, knowing her ruthless cunning, she'd be shortly suing the store for harm incurred from dust inhalation. Damn you, Beepy! Destroying Mom and Pop cornerstores in your lust for filthy lucre!

Sam said...

But really, I think together we could devise the parameters for a great used book store, one that provided everything we liked in book shopping and was commercially viable. Beepy would want couches and comfortable chairs. I would want to add the cafe corner with lots of small tables and a wireless connection. Steve would want...well, himself behind the info desk. I assume everyone loves a big front porch of dollar carts. I've always felt that trade paperbacks should be half-off (even if they're old and marked 35 cents, the way Half Price Books does it).

What else? Let's play SimBookstore.

beepy said...

Ooooh, SimBookstore. How about windowseats overlooking a garden? No music playing to "enhance" my shopping experience? Cats? Definitely cats.

steve said...

A basset hound for every lap. And ambulances on call.

steve said...

I agree with most of your points, Sam, but only because I too am card-carrying used book shark. You yourself have been with me when I spurned something at $3 because I was sure I could find it at $1! But two things bear pointing out about this:

1. It's FUCKING INSANE behavior, as anybody in the entire world would agree who WASN'T a used book shark


2. It's not available in most of the country, sane or in. A thirsty reader living twenty miles north of Wichita Falls isn't going to have the option to prowl the Strand dollar carts. That reader is either going to go online or else pony up that $15 for a trade paperback.

steve said...

Some notes toward my own Simbookstore:

* the store buyers would REFUSE any book that's been used past the point where it can be enjoyed by anybody else. So I wouldn't ever again experience the burst of joy that accompanies finding some long sought-after title only to have it crushed a second later when I see that the book's spine is broken, or pages are falling out, or it's positively radioactive with neon highlighting. Such books should have no resale potential - they should just be thrown away, rather than sit there tormenting me.

* the staff should be laid back most of all friendly. As opposed to the staff you tend to find in used bookstores, who are OPENLY SCORNFUL. At a certain used bookstore I know, the current staff is VICIOUSLY UNFRIENDLY to every customer. True, such behavior can be instantly pitied and forgotten, but it does sour the experience a little.

* A used bookstore is the ONLY environment in which I would sanction the presence of a cat - to keep down the presence of page-nibbling mice, although to be fair, all the used bookstore cats I've met have actually been pretty nice people.

* bargains, like Sam says. Lots of bargains. Can't STAND hoity-toit overpriced used bookstores. It would irritate me a lot LESS to pay $15 for a new trade paperback than to pay $7 for a used copy of the same thing (see FUCKING INSANE behavior, above).

* naturally, from my standpoint, generous credit for sold books. Can't stand the used bookstores who try to imitate college bookstores by NAKEDLY RAPING you when they make an offer on the bag of books you just lugged across town. Likewise can't stand the buyers who make a Kabuki-like display out of how picky they are, taking one book out of thirty, or maybe, if they're feeling generous, two.

* Stores wouldn't be so damn prissy - sometimes, when I'm alone (or close enough) in a dim corner, I like to take out Lil' Steve and show him the books. You wouldn't BELIEVE how reactionary used bookstores can be to this harmless fun. Talk about banishment eternal!

Gianni said...

I don't even think $15 dollars is all that much for a paperback, but the fact that $15 is an AVERAGE price is a little off. The average price of books have risen from $13 to $15 for trade paperbacks, $7 to $9 for Mass Markets (small paperbacks for the unenlightened) and from $20 to almost $30 (!!) for HARDCOVER books. And this is in a world where bookselling is a very successful enterprise, where superstores are basically competing against themselves and big publishing companies are few and far between. People have now equated enjoying the bookstore to what you get at your local Barnes & Noble (Or Barnes & Nobles as the unwashed often refer to); Popular titles, a cafe to sit down, music and DVDs, and - of course - the bathroom. The vast majority of people have never THOUGHT to go to a used bookstore, especially since most titles they want are brand new or in the news, and why should they wait to find it used when everyone's reading these books NOW? Life is too short! That's basically what it equates to now. People want these books now because in a year or so, they won't want to read them anymore, whether it's the Kite Runner or some book on factories in the US where some family visited but you don't remember the name or author. The real losers here are your expert booksellers, the ones who REALLY work hard to help you find this crap. They are few and I believe some are a little primitive in their basic social skills, but they are practically alone against the throng of hordes working with AND against them as they just try to do what they can to put the right book in the customer's hand.

Gianni said...

'Lil Steve? I think I just lost my lunch

beepy said...

Don't worry, Giani. Li'l Steve is just my guinea pig.

I do have to object though to your remark about great booksellers having little social skills. I think that the great booksellers have good social skills; they can work a customer like nobody's business. (Think of our Steve...Big Steve, that is) It's the mediocre hanger-on booksellers that lack the social skills, although they know their books. Most booksellers have neither quality, however.

beepy said...

To clarify my previous comment. Big Steve has social skills. He just lacks manners. Which means while he is charming a customer into buying some obscure classic, he might just grab their tush.

Gianni said...

I simply meant while great booksellers can have great influence on a customer as to whether to purchase the book in their hands, just that their skills there don't necessarily translate well into the rest of society.

Sam Sacks said...

It's not insane to have your book-shopping experience depressed and reduced and sometimes terminated before you enter the store by high prices! I'm not railing against Barnes and Nobles here, and I understand the situation of poor tumbleweed-watching Wichitans (although I'll bet a head of steer there's a Half Price Books or Bookmans in Wichita). I'm just speaking an unhappy truth.

Most people can't REALLY book shop in a Barnes and Noble, the kind of bookshopping all book lovers always want to be doing. You can buy one, maybe two books. Buy a third and you've paid the same amount as a nice night out on the town, which most people can only afford once a week at the most.

It's the same for music lovers--no music lover is satisfied buying two CDs at Virgin or Best Buy. Two CDs, $35? That only get's the craving going. Hence the unstoppable demand for file-sharing.

Without pinning any blame for the prices, the sheer fact of the prices makes shopping retail as often a stymieing experience as an enjoyable one.

Sam Sacks said...

No bag check in our used bookstore.

And we would have a thriving internet sales system going.

Sam Sacks said...

And geez, Steve, you're an awfully surly Bookstore-creator; your wishlist is just full of cantakerous restrictions.
...Kind of like a real God.

Gianni said...

Ooh, don't make that comparison. Steve's ego can only get so big.

beepy said...

Sam, I have this concept I refer to as "book dollars." I discovered a few years ago that I was more than happy to spend 60 or 70 dollars in a bookstore but when I go into a clothing store, I resent like hell having to spend that on a skirt or a pair of pants (freakin' cloth, for pete's sake.) So every time I'm faced with spending money, I stop and think "Would I be willing to spend this on books?" If the answer is yes, then I go ahead and buy.

As for several books costing the same as a night on the town, compare the hours of pleasure gained by each. A few hours on the town vs. days or weeks with the books. The choice is clear for me.

beepy said...

And for our SimBookstore, the person behind the counter should be sitting on a stool, wearing glasses (whether needed or not), and reading a tattered copy of something. Reading this book in one little pool of light coming from a reading lamp. And wearing a vest.

All Sam's modern internet stuff can happen in a well lit back room, manned by a staff of bright young go-getters, who come and go through the back door when no customers are looking.

Jeff E. said...

I think the term you're looking for there Beepy is "elves." The internet side of the store shall be run by elves.

Y'all seem to be describing the Book Barn of Niantic, Connecticut to a tee. Coffee, buys almost everything (and for a decent amount of credit), cats (also goats, but no one piped up about the ideal bookstore having goats (it should)), lounge chairs (outdoors), old guy w/glasses at checkout, affordable, lots of dark corners for Steve to whip out his hamster when no one is looking.

The only knock I'll throw at the Book Barn (hey Kevin, wanna see a Banishment Eternal break the sound barrier?) is that damned satellite store in downtown. The main Book Barn already has 8 freaking buildings, but I still have to get in my car and drive to their other location to get all my Book Barning done. It's an annoying anti-climax to what should be a religious experience in used book buying.

beepy said...

Yes but the Downtown Book Barn has guinea pigs. Woot woot!

steve said...

Didst thou diss the Book Barn???

Has thou gone MAD?

Kevin Caron said...

But Jeff - the annex is the only place where they carry comics! Which is pretty annoying, come to think of it - all that space in the Book Barn Proper, and I have to hang my head and drive up the street for lowly comic books (trade paperbacks, not 'pamphlets'). And while their selection of comics was pretty dismal, I did find a Keith Giffen adaptation of a Robert Bloch story that I'd never heard of, and I'm a bit of a Giffen nut. I also had a priceless exchange with the clerk at the counter that would take too long to explain here.

The whole time I was pouring through Book Barn Proper most recently, I kept thinking, my god, how much better this would be if floating avatars of the whole SteveReads crew, from Steve straight on down to Sebastion (with the RM thrown in for laffs) were there, like Obie-wan Kenobi's ghost, eagerly pointing out gems...

That's what I want at the dream used bookstore. Y'all.

And cats.

Sam Sacks said...

Kevin's right--field trip!

(Or maybe someone should get a time share in Niantic.)

Jeff E. said...

You can put me, with a coffee and a book, in the lounge chair under the big tree between the main house and the goat pen.

Preferably right this second.