The anti-independent argument

Tyler Cowen has an article in Slate that makes the case against independent bookstores. I, of course, disagree with him on multiple counts, but his argument is well worth reading. Cowen seems to write from the vantage point of someone who has little interest in small titles or publishing houses. I’m willing to bet that his assertion that “if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore” isn’t based on personal experience with a niche interest.

What’s disturbing about the essay, though, is that Cowen blindly accepts the decreasing attention span of Americans.

It was easy to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips. As a result, we tend to consume ideas in smaller bits, a proposition that (in another context) economists labeled the “Alchian and Allen theorem.” Long, serious novels are less culturally central than they were 100 years ago. Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts. Our greater access to books also means that each book has less time to prove itself. A small percentage of the books published account for a large share of the profits, thus setting off a race to track reader demand.

Somehow, people still read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and even some long books published in the last 50 years: The Recognitions, Infinite Jest, and Gravity’s Rainbow to name a few. Perhaps, Mr. Cohen isn’t aware of this. Cohen seems all too willing to accept current trends; perhaps, it’s because he isn’t actually a reader because readers, serious readers, are defined by their willingness to question what is normally accepted, to stand in opposition to the zeitgeist and say, “Everyone thinks this is good, but it’s kind of bad” or the inverse.

Of course, Cohen is correct in his implication that if independent bookstores are reacting to the cultural climate rather than creating it, they will most certainly be doomed.

There is the possibility that Cohen actually has read Tolstoy and Pynchon and Foster Wallace, and he’s just making big generalizations for the sake of being provocative. If so, it’s a shame because writing, as anyone who’s ever read those authors knows, can express deep moral ambiguities and raise difficult questions that go unresolved. In other words, it can do so much more than Cohen demonstrates in his essay.

One Comment

  1. evicious

    Yes, our attention span may be shorter, but longer books are definitely still being read. And I can’t stand the way that blogs are being used as an example for everything from self-expression to the demise of literature. I don’t remember the last time I read a blog post that made me cry and hope one day I can write something remotely like it.

    Aside from defending longer forms of prose, I think Cowen is missing the point when he says you are unlikely to find Arabic poetry at an independent bookstore. The key thing (at least for me) when visiting an independent bookstore is the experience itself.

    I want to visit a bookstore owned by individuals who have made a decision about what the store should be like. I want to buy books from people who love books, and I want people who love books to have their own space.

    So who cares if I have a better chance of finding Arabic poetry at Barnes and Noble’s?

    Independent bookstores need to figure out how to create a market that craves this experience and is willing to buy books in order to support and sustain this experience.

Leave a Reply

*