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The Habits of a Modern Bookbuyer
A lot has to happen before a person buys a book. To paraphrase John Ruskin, people will stare at even a great book for a long time before they (very cautiously) drop the price of a single dinner on it.
Looking over a few of my recent book purchases, I realized something. It is silly to talk about electronic versus print, or the Internet versus paper media, as if they were somehow adversaries. For the most part they are allies.
Let me give you two examples. My taste in books might be odd, but I suspect the pattern is fairly common.
A friend mentioned The Republic of Letters to me as a good literary magazine. I searched for it online and poked around until something caught my eye. It was a review of a recently translated French novel called Madame Ba by Erik Orsenna, a writer I had never heard of.
The book's narrator was a Malian woman trying to get a visa to visit her son to France, and she tells the story of her life through her answers to a tedious official immigration questionnaire. This sounded fascinating to me. Unfortunately (and predictably), the translation wasn't available in America.
I looked on Amazon to see what else Orsenna might have written, and a book came up called La Grammaire Est Une Chanson Douce (Grammar Is a Sweet Song). It was a storybook in French, exploring the world of grammar while celebrating the structure and beauty of the language, which I can still sort of read. A friend of mine had just been to Mali and was learning French seriously, and I thought she might like it, but I wasn't sure if the book would be engaging for adults, or even readable for people at our fairly low French literacy level.
I stopped in at Schoenhof's, the foreign language bookstore in Cambridge, and it turned out they had several copies. I read the first few pages and realized that it was not just readable but absolutely captivating, and also contained some beautiful watercolor illustrations. Sale!
My friend loved the book (she even searched out a French edition of Madame Ba), and I got my own copy as well.
All of this took about half an hour. But if any of the links in this chain had been missing -- the Republic of Letters putting its archives online, Amazon grouping together all of Orsenna's work, Schoenhof's being close to my house -- the book would probably never have been bought.
Another example: a writer who liked my blog sent me a galley of his new book, and it explored some of James Lovelock's ideas (Richard Branson is a fan). So I got one of Lovelock's books from the Boston Public Library and it referenced Edward Goldsmith's huge book on ecology, The Way. I looked at a website devoted to Goldsmith's work, read the Introduction to The Way on Google Books, and decided I wanted to read it.
I knew it was unlikely that a regular bookstore would carry it (it's published in America by the University of Georgia Press), so I went online, checked out a few sites, and found a good used copy which arrived a few days later.
Libraries - websites - regular stores: they are, I suppose, competitors in a way, but all of them still work together to create new interests and ideas to pursue. Only one of them got my money in each transaction, but they are all slightly more likely to get it in the future (or a donation in the case of the library) because they helped me find out something useful.
If any one of them were to be driven out by the others, I think the remaining parties would suffer, because there would be fewer ideas in the air and it would be that much easier to snap the thread that leads to a sale. So maybe we should stop talking about these sources of knowledge competing with each other and celebrate their working together.