Saturday, January 18, 2014

Texting While Washington Burns

Why People Don’t Buy Books

At Mayday we’ve noticed a decrease in book buying, and we’re always speculating on the answer to the question, “why?”  Of course there is not one answer.  A ‘movement’ bookstore needs a movement, or at least ‘movements’ – or even ‘movement.’  In U.S. politics there is little – it is at a glacial pace right now, bubbling slowly underground, dispersed and inconsistent.  In the U.S. still the ‘quantity’ stage.  A victory by Ty Moore might have changed the profile of socialism and radicalism here in Minneapolis, but it fell just short.  This might be the main answer.  Nor are there any left book blockbusters coming out, like Zinn’s “People’s History” or Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism” or Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”  Klein is coming out with a new book on the environment and mainstream environmentalism, but I’m sure that is not going to change the tide.   

Then there are the monopolistic practices of Amazon, which, while not making a profit as such, has used that to drive paper and hardback book prices down to very low levels.  They also provide a nationwide exchange for resellers.  Amazon’s low prices are intended to drive brick and mortar stores out of business, and they have virtually succeeded.   It is no secret that monopolistic capitalism is the primary monster behind the destruction of smaller outlets.  Just count the closed bookstores around town.

Then there is cheap downloading of books, offered by Amazon, Barnes and Noble and others.  You can get a cheap copy of any book existing as an almost invisible digital file on your drives, all for $10 or less. Books without copyright are free.  While the quality of this experience suffers from that of a real book, quality is no longer valued in a digital world dominated mostly by portability.  Even our discounts of 15-20% cannot beat that.

Then there is the surfeit of books.  There are more books coming out now that at any time in history.  Only more sophisticated readers can sift through this avalanche. 

The U.S. Department of Education says that 32 million U.S. adults can’t read or have great difficulty reading – 14% of the population.  The problem here in the homeland of money is actually getting worse.  Chris Hedges looked at political speech and, based on vocabulary,  showed that recent bourgeois politicians like Bush and Gore spoke at a 6th to 7th grade level – i.e. to a nation of 12-year olds.  Hedges insists the real illiteracy figure is 20% - 42 million adults and beyond that, 50 million who read at a 4th-5th grade level. These are the exact people who need a revolutionary view the most.  The Bolsheviks solved this through film and that is perhaps where things have to go for some people.

Then there is the ugly truth that even for people that read, older people and younger people are reading less.  Visuals have completely replaced reading for what I call “a-literate” people.  Cable, television, DVDs, movies, video downloads, internet streaming, documentaries, U-Tube – images instead of text.  It’s easier!  Even internet reading is truncated - microscopic Tweets or IMs, short blog posts or reviews of a book suffice.  The profusion of tiny portable cells or tablets over table-top computers makes reading long pieces more difficult.  That is the ‘medium’s message.’  And the ‘medium’ is getting smaller and smaller.  

Or book clubs?  Most do not read political material, and if they do, they do not last long.  The founder of the Labor Party, Tony Mazzocchi, started reading groups in his local as one of his first acts.  How many locals or unions have reading groups now?  A 'labor movie' night has just started at the Minneapolis Labor Center, which is certainly better than nothing, but it does not involve reading.   

The other part is the gradual degradation of American culture through commercialization.  The internet has made a vast profusion of knowledge available.  Everyone can now be an amateur reporter, an analyst, a historian.  However the sheer volume can hide the wheat from the chaff.  Again demanding more work, not more cute animal pictures.  An ‘active and aware citizenry’ is actually a negative factor for those who rule an economy and politics dominated by monopolistic cultural, economic and political organizations.  They don’t want it.  So entertainment or infotainment is the new drug of choice – besides liquor and god, of course.

Or take our ‘higher’ educational institutions.  Mayday is very close to the West Bank campus of the U of Minnesota.  Being close to a campus, you’d think some professors would recommend the store, or send their students to buy books at it, given the university’s role as ‘the beating heart of knowledge.’ Or that intellectually curious student might flock to something off the beaten path. Au contraire.  Given the overall right-wing state of the professoriate in fields like philosophy, political economy, English literature, history, political science, even women’s studies and Afro-American studies, we see very little slop-over from academe.  The most ‘left’ departments like geography are almost invisible.  Disappearing employment is the primary or only concern in academe, not knowledge, and unless it gets you a job in corporate America, well … let’s go have a beer.

Then there is poverty and inequality, which are increasing.  Books are not getting any cheaper, while wages are decreasing.  Some have even claimed that paper books are ‘luxury items’ and should become even more so, with expensive covers and many added features like pop-ups and audio inserts.  So a cheap download can be a substitute, or no download at all in conditions like this.  Even with discounts, used and marked-down books, reading actual paper books cannot survive without work.

If you do an analysis of the shelves of a store like Barnes & Noble downtown, you will see them over-filled with self-help books, pop psychology, religion, spirituality, Christianity, shelves of genre, cookbooks, picture books, fad books.  Their normal ‘book’ fare is overwhelmingly mainstream - there is almost NO overlap between Mayday’s stock and theirs.  If I may say so, the books at Mayday actually reflect a higher intellectual level than the general stuff at B&N, which ‘should’ attract some people.  But in an anti-intellectual society where being really reality-based is suspect, that might be a curse.  Yet Mayday has survived thanks to the intense loyalty of many movement people in the Twin Cities. It attempts to provide a community space where readers can actually talk and meet.  It also has a surprising amount of visitors from other cities and countries.  Then there is a trickle of students and young people.  Without all these folks, it would have gone the way of so many other actual bookstores.  We thank you for visiting.

P.S. - Good News!  In April 2014, figures came out that tracked an INCREASE in independent bookshops.  It is nowhere near the height, but the implication is that the cheap digital file and the uber-capitalism of outfits like Amazon are pushing people back towards real books and real bookstores.  Localism in action, I guess.

Red Frog, Craig & the Gang
January 18, 2014


AA said...

The difference in price between Amazon and Mayday isn't that great as Mayday routinely discounts by 15-20%.

B&N stocks whatever will sell (which these days is not much and the desperation is almost palpable). To be fair, I pick up my copies of "New Left Review" from there as Mayday doesn't stock them. They also stock "Monthly Review" and I've seen Harvey's "A Companion to Marx's Capital" there as well. But it's true that the majority of the stock is anodyne pap written for a middle-brow readership.

With regard to Mayday I've always been struck by the disconnect between what's on the shelves and the regulars who turn up there. I've tried for years to get a book club going. Virtually no interest. On book club meetings that have taken place in the past, people turn up not having read the book and some turn up -- no names -- just for free pizza and beer. With this kind of anti-intellectual pseudo-left frequenting Mayday, is it a surprise that sales have never been robust?

There are many fine books on the shelves right now that could form the basis of meetings -- Mirowski's "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste" and Graeber's "Debt" come to mind. Such meetings would push up sales.

Red Frog said...

Well, if you want to start a book meeting, try it. Pick a relevant book - the first one might be good - announce a time and see what happens. I think many people are so burdened with activity and with other reading that they don't have 'book group' time. But you never know, as there are serious readers around the Mayday.