Sunday, June 12, 2011

eBooks Don't Narrow Your Mind - A Response to Nicole Krauss

The novelist Nicole Krauss thinks eBooks narrow your mind. Better, she argues in the pages of The New Republic, to patronize the independent bookseller, “a curator… who selects, edits and presents a collection that reflects his tastes.” There, patrons “explore a highly selective and thoughtful collection of the world.” “A bookstore search,” Krauss concludes, “inspires serendipity and surprise.”

I think Nicole Krauss didn’t grow up in Parsippany, New Jersey. To put it politely, we didn’t have the bookstore she describes. We had three QuickCheks and precisely zero booksellers. (A Barnes & Noble appeared much later. Krauss would hold it in contempt.). We had Willowbrook Mall, ten miles away. A NJ Transit bus brought those too young to drive and those too old to drive to Bamberger’s front door in a hair over 75 minutes.

At the mall, one found either Waldenbooks or B. Dalton’s. There one might peruse a modest selection of periodicals, most of which featured buxom young ladies draped on, over, near, or along motorbikes of fearsome size and power. In terms of actual books, well, the experience inspired neither serendipity nor surprise.

I’ve visited beautifully curated indie bookstores of the kind Krauss describes, including most recently this gem on the North Carolina Outer Banks. But I also recall how the help at Shakespeare & Co. at 81st and Broadway was, to put it gently, snobbish, and how even there most of the time the book one wanted wasn’t on the shelf.

The reality of how one encounters, selects, and even discusses eBooks need not resemble Krauss’s caricature. Krauss likens the eBook marketplace to the Internet writ large, “an unfathomable multitude… [that will] almost always deliver to the user the bits that feed her already-held interests and confirm her already-held beliefs.”

The future of reading?
Krauss’s point here is that if one buys Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be, Amazon will suggest you might want to try something from Glenn Beck but not Jon Stewart. As a result, you, the poor, unguided reader, will be doomed to a life philosophy informed by The Christmas Sweater.

Tosh! The eBook marketplace puts more tools in the hands of more readers to discover more good books. Readers of intellectual curiosity will use these tools to search out and engage with challenging texts. Readers who lack that curiosity will not, whether online or at Left Bank Books. 

Krauss ignores several aspects of how print and e-marketplace can work together. Periodicals like The New York Review of Books, Book Forum, and yes, The New Republic feature page after page of book review essays and advertisements for serious new releases. (Check my blog roll for TNR’s daily book review service). Within a minute, one can purchase—or sample the first chapter for free!—nearly any new release, including scholarly university-press tomes. No bus required. No “we can special order it for you in 1-3 weeks.” No snide, underemployed NYU grad informing you that Slavoj Žižek is an important thinker.
Amazon and to a lesser extent other eBook retailers offer surprisingly robust online discussions of the books they sell. In my experience the quality can be decent, comparing favorably to the conspiratorial worldview of the slightly dotty near-centenarian who offered me a liverwurst sandwich on the Willowbrook bus so very long ago. I invite you to read my Amazon reviews of books about Alger Hiss and the Weimar Republic.

More on Krauss’s essay in a future post.

PS‒ I can’t link to Krauss’s text because TNR keeps its print content behind a paywall. But I note in passing that you can’t buy The New Republic at B. Dalton but can subscribe on your Kindle.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. Krauss's essay was an anthology of anti-internet cliches, presented in a cloying tone that made it painful to finish. One wonders why TNR even published it.