Just before Thanksgiving last year, I was visiting friends in Ann Arbor and I popped into Shaman Drum, one of my favorite bookstores, for old time’s sake. One of the things that I noticed afresh was the small, but well-chosen corner of literary magazines by the door. The display itself makes an effective statement about what the store stands for: exciting literary voices from all over the world. My bookseller-sense reflected that the low price points also make magazines an attractive add-on purchase in these tough economic times, so I filed that idea away to copy later.
I bought a copy of World Literature Today because it looked cool, smart, literate and evoked all the reasons I pursued a degree in English in defiance of any logic and all advice. Happily, it was a cool, smart and literate read, with plenty of intriguing reviews, an enjoyable article on great bookstores to visit around the world before you die by Jeremy Mercer, author of Time Was Soft There (sorry, I couldn’t find it online — you’ll have to order the Sept.-Oct. ’08 issue if you want to know where they are) and a fascinating interview with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian born writer who lives in Rome and captures both sides of Italy’s immigrant problem in his award-winning novel, Clash of Civilizations of an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. I read the interview on the plane on the way home and ordered the book a couple of days later after I went back to work. Two days later I had the book, and read it in two sittings.
Clash of Civilizations is fabulous: funny, poignant and full of the little touches of detail that assure us the writer knows the community he describes. The plot centers on the murder of a bigoted Italian man living in an apartment building. Everyone has their suspicions, everyone looks askance at the local immigrant community (whose individual origins few can place) and everyone agrees that one man is above suspicion, the pillar of the Italian ideal, Amedeo. The joke — which the author lets the readers in on right at the start — is that Amedeo is not Italian, he’s an immigrant like everyone else, but he’s assimilated so perfectly on the outside that everyone thinks he’s Italian, just from a different part of the country than them. Of course, on the inside, it’s a very different story.
This timeline is probably more or less a publisher’s desired result when they set their publicity department the task of generating buzz and planting stories about a book. I read the interview, I bought the book and I read it (and now I’m blogging about it — bonus). But I wonder, if I was the in the habit of reading on my iPhone at the time, would things have progressed differently? If the plane had yet to takeoff when I first read the interview, I could have whipped out the phone and bought the book there and then, and perhaps read it (or most of it) on the flight home. The ROI for the publisher would have been the same: one more book sold. But would the ROI for me have been the same?
Each step along the way increased the degree of my interest in reading Clash of Civilizations. I had the wait a couple of days before ordering the book, I had the pull out the magazine, write down the title and then search through the database to see who had it in stock before I could order it. I then waited a couple of days for the book to arrive, allowing the anticipation to build. Finally, I got the book, read it and loved it. I wonder if less effort was expended, would I have just enjoyed it and moved on the next thing to catch my attention, forgetting the story pretty quickly? The old way of book shopping — browsing aisles, clipping reviews from papers, scribbling titles down on soggy beer mats, carrying same around in your jacket pocket for a week before hitting a few bookstores in search of an in-stock copy — might be inefficient, might be time-consuming, but it’s fun; and, I must wonder if the minor obstacles and short wait actually makes us that much more receptive to the book once we’re ready to read it.
As I learn more about ebooks, I understand that the advantages of enabling near-immediate purchase — more impulse sales, lower physical costs — are attractive and plausible, but I wonder if the old saw about getting what you pay for will come into play. With less time invested and fewer obstacles overcome to attain the book you desire, will it — no matter how well written — be a little less fulfilling or memorable than a book you’re invested more time, effort and thought into obtaining?
World Literature Today — well worth a subscription
There is No Gap, a blog by Karl Phort, owner of Shaman Drum