I've seen an article bemoaning the end of the book about monthly for as long as I can remember. The most recent one is from Curtis Wright, who argues that the only players left standing in books are Google and Amazon, and that everybody else is just waiting to go out of business. Literature is dead, Oprah's book club just pushes endless waves of trash, etc etc. But why do we even need bookstores?
As far as I’m concerned, the book business deserves to die if for no other reason than that its business model is something out of the 1930s: send a bunch of loser Willy Lomans out as “reps,” people who don’t read and don’t understand the books they sell, and have them place the books on consignment, just as if they were old chairs that you were trying to unload at the local consignment store. As far as the bookstores were concerned, they were mostly purchasing decoration for their stores, so that it at least looked like a place to buy books. The few books that actually made money—celebrity memoirs, confessions of failed politicians, moronic self-help tomes, and jokey piss-jobs about not running with scissors—were profitably located on a few tables at the front of the store. Everything else was just ambience.
Certainly, the bookstore as a business model is imploding. Independent bookstores have been in a persistent vegetative state for decades. Borders went bankrupt this past summer, and I can't remember the last time I set foot in a Barnes & Noble. But bookstores, at least for Wright, are not just about moving paper from publishers to shelves, it's about centers for local literary discussion, for elevating the people above the tedium and banality of life.
Wait, bookstores are essential to literature? When I think of the great bursts of literature from the likes of The Lost Generation, the Beats, Golden Age Science-Fiction, I think about cafes, bars, 5th floor apartments, and odd little magazines, not bookstores. Writers write, they aren't hanging around in bookstores absorbing the ambiance and swapping sentences, they're off in the world engaged in the messy process of translating experience into the written word. Bookstores sites of distribution, not of production. Literature is not written in a bookstore, and does not need a store to survive.
Now, how about the production side? White bemoans the loss of the learned clerk who knew everything about what was in their store, and who could perfectly recommend a book, or the serendipitous find. Now, I've gotten some profoundly good advice from clerks (thanks, Borderlands-SF!), but I've also wandered lost through endless heaps of indistinguishable books, unable to tell which ones were good or bad, ultimately landing on a trusted name I already knew. And not to be blindly technologically optimistic, but at this point, computers are really good at being recommendation engines. Pandora Radio has better taste and more diversity than my 250 GB music library. Amazon recommendations are often pretty spot on, and come with a host of reviews and opinions that you can't get in a bookstores.
If literature is about starting a conversation, we might be right to feel that we've lost something, not being able to see what books other people are reading on the subway, or have on the shelves in their house. This public space is lost. But what do we really get from this most mass-market of shared experiences? What use is it knowing that everybody is reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? White might not like, but the public sphere is data-driven, and these days data is online. For the past year, I've put every book I've read on Goodreads, crossposting perhaps a third of those reviews to Facebook. This is far more exposure than sitting out by the cafe reading some embarrassingly illustrated scifi novel word ever get.
White goes on to decry the potential of an Amazon information monopoly. But the idea that publishing can be monopolized in this day and age is absurd. A monkey can self-publish on Amazon, and get paid. Professional writers may have some valid concerns over the pricing structure, and their relative lack of power in this relationship, but then again, it would be hard for writers to become more destitute. And if you don't like Amazon, grab some web-hosting and throw up a pdf. Or just participate in the massive para-literatures around fanfiction. I'm not going to claim that fanfiction is art, but its certainly words, and more than that it is people engaging with a text, incorporating bits of it into themselves, and sharing stories in a shared universe. It is a literary conversation.
So perhaps literature is dying, if you define literature as something produced by writers, editors, publishers and critics for the good of the elite masses. But that incestuous cycle's artist failure is self-evident. How many books are both Nobel prize winners and best-sellers? Any guesses as to how many of these books will be read in 100 years?
The bookstore is dead. Fine, we don't need it. Literature is irrelevant, but it's okay because we have our own language and our own text. Long live the written word!