Monday, June 13, 2011

The Internet Can't Compare to the Grand Custodians of Literature

The ever media shy and elusive Margaret Atwood made an appearance in the Wall Street Journal, in a story about her appearance at Book Expo America. What with Book Expo Canada long dead and buried, it's one of the last venues where the books in all their forms and market tested glory are sprayed at an adoring audience.

The most memorable bit -

She described the “serendipitous experience” of walking into a store and picking up two or three unexpected books. She said that unlike the Internet, bookstores provide a filter for customers – they are a modern-day version of hand sellers (earlier, Atwood described how she sold her own first book by going from bookstore to bookstore). Bookstore employees read and make informed guesses as to what their customers would like.

She is so right. The internet is totally unfiltered, so it's just, like, totally impossible to get a personal book recommendation the way those grand old (*sniff*...sorry...nostalgia gets the better of me) librarians used to. Why, I will always remember that one time, in my entire life, when a librarian I knew recommended a book to me. It was such a good book. Yes it was. It was about incest, death, and the tragic loss of innocence of a 12 year old boy.

No, it's not like there are any book blogs, or reviewers out there who passionately engage with their readers about books that have caught their imaginations. I was so used to walking into a Chapters or Indigo and spending a good thirty minutes to an hour with a staff member, discussing my reading wants and needs, and standing there in awe as these noble $10 an hour curators of great literature went out of their way to find the books that were best suited to me.

Oh, wait. Check that. That's just my imagination getting too active. Come to think of it, outside of handwritten book recommendations on the shelves of the science fiction bookstore Bakka in Toronto, not in a single bookstore I have ever entered in my entire life (and I have indeed been known to haunt my share) has there been a friendly staff member who has come up to me to guide me deeper into the worlds of imagination. They'll happily guide my hand into my wallet, but that's where the interaction always begins and ends.

Like everyone else I know, I'd peek at the jacket, hear about a book from a friend, or maybe read about a book in the paper, or (later) online.

Atwood describes an idyllic fantasy that never was. I mean "bookstore employees read and make recommendations?" Since when?

Invariably, whenever I have gone to a clerk to ask something for a recommend, this is the conversation -

"Can you recommend any authors similar in style to (author x)?"
"What genre?"
"Fantasy, I think."
"Fantasy section is over there" Waves a hand vaguely toward the back of the store.
"Oh, uh, okay. How about authors comparable to (author y)?"
"Mystery section is over there" Waves a hand vaguely towards the back of the store.

Sigh. This bullspit just never ends.

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