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Original Essays

Even Prophets Have to Shop

by Thomas Hine
 

Many authors, including me, spend much of our lives in denial of the reality that we live at the mercy of the retailer and the impulse buyer. Even when we criticize our oversold, overstocked, overspent society, we are willing to make an exception when our own books are concerned.

Whether we recognize it or not, all of us who write about consumption, shopping, and commercial culture do so as participant-observers. We can no more distance ourselves from the delights, temptations, and excesses of the marketplace than the flounder can distance itself from the ocean. Indeed, we are more fully implicated in the commercial world than most: Not only are we buyers like everyone else, but we have products ? our books ? to sell as well.

Shopping for books, most writers and booklovers would argue, is different from other sorts of shopping. While you could conceivably be inspired by looking at washing machines, wallpaper samples, or pajamas, books are most likely to prod your imagination and your intellect in exciting new directions. Books are quirky, and sometimes exasperating; we respond to them more as people than as products.

Nevertheless, shopping for books is a form of shopping. Sometimes, as in recent years when books became the first product sold successfully on the Internet, bookselling is at the forefront of commercial innovation. Most of the time, shopping for books has been much like shopping for any other item. Indeed, what distinguishes books from other goods is that they are among the least essential consumer items. There is no book you absolutely have to read. So it's not surprising that many books go unread.

Authors have long viewed the failure to purchase their book as a personal insult. In first century Rome, the writer Martial, who knew that merchants in the provinces recycled unused scrolls to make containers for other goods lamented that his works were fated to become "wrappers in lands far away." And only a few years after the invention of the printing press, merchants in Germany were regularly using leaves from unsold books to wrap their goods. This was an important development in the creation of the paper packaging industry, but not a happy one for authors.

The selling of books has always been a lot like the selling of clothing, which is not too surprising because both are important tools people use to construct their identities. Before the nineteenth century, it was rare for clothes to be sold ready-to-wear, or for books to be sold ready-to-read. One needed to get the clothes made, and the books bound. Our contemporary idea of browsing and discovering things began with used clothing stores and used bookstores. One of the latter, in late eighteenth century London, boasted a stock of hundreds of thousands of volumes.

The technological and social innovations that came in the early nineteenth century, such as inexpensive rolled paper and widespread literacy, encouraged booksellers and publishers to standardize editions of a particular title and attempt to sell large quantities of finished books. Magazines that serialized novels by Dickens and his contemporaries helped create a market for books, but many people viewed bookstores as intimidating and snobbish places.

The department stores that emerged in the second half of the century often had large book departments. Unlike in many bookstores, large areas were given over to open display and the customer was allowed to explore, just as they did in the areas of the store where clothing was sold. This model eventually spread to bookstores themselves. Still, the idea of selling books along with other sorts of merchandise is one that has been rediscovered again and again, as in the mid-twentieth century when paperbacks colonized drugstores and news stands, and in the late twentieth century when hardcovers became mass market items at Wal-Mart and other retailers.

Writers' participation in commerce doesn't mean we cannot be critical of the world of buying and selling. In fact there's a market for such writing, even if it doesn't ultimately change things.

I suppose my earliest role model as a quixotic commentator was the character of Peter Churchmouse in a series of mostly-forgotten picture books by Margot Austin. The eponymous hero of these books was a social critic of sorts, who always ended his tirades with the words "Fuss! Fuss! Fuss!" Yet somehow, even as he complained ? in verse as I recall ? he managed to charm his natural enemy Gabriel Churchkitten, who invariably told him, "I could listen and listen and listen and listen." The mouse's words made the cat forget, for the moment, that his job was to rid the church of this rodent pundit. Even as a small child, I understood Peter's future to be precarious, the praise he received intoxicating, and the whole situation very, very interesting. (I suppose you can ruin a child with a book.)

In my own work, I rarely condemn commercial culture. That's not because I think that everything about it is good. Rather, I think that it's important to understand the role it plays in our lives and the deep needs it attempts to satisfy. I believe that understanding how powerful forces work is a first step toward dealing with them. Consumer culture is perhaps second only to gravity as a force that affects us all. If we understand its attractions, perhaps we won't fall for everything that comes along. Furthermore, I don't feel comfortable playing the role of Old Testament prophet because, as long as I am enjoying the comforts of contemporary bourgeois life, decrying the behavior of others like me would seem hypocritical.

In Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis struggled in an interesting way with this dilemma. The novel's message is that a mass-production economy was producing unreflective people with mass-produced consciousnesses. And yet, Lewis was honest enough with himself to note that many of the products of this system — such as Ford cars and well-fitting underwear — improved many people's lives, including his own. Material progress may produce bad ideas, Lewis suggested, but that didn't mean he was going to go without the real progress they embodied. He wasn't willing to change back to the bad old underwear, and he knew it wouldn't make any real difference if he did.

My own conviction is that people's minds aren't manipulated all that easily. When we're seduced, we usually conspire in our own seduction, to meet needs we feel, though often can't express. I am fascinated by commercial culture, because it provides so much of the glitter, excitement and eventfulness of life. And I am sometimes saddened by it because the rewards it offers are so shallow, while our desires are so deep.

Humans may be weak at times, but we're not stupid. Critics of commercial culture often speak of shoppers as powerless dupes. But deep down, we know they're not. If they were, it would be easier to get them to buy our books. spacer

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