Friday, July 8, 2011

On the Difference Between Commerce and Culture in the Bookstore

Free-form Friday

Meghan Cox Gurdon published a follow-on piece, titled "My 'Reprehensible' Take on Teen Literature," discussing the reactions to her earlier  complaint about the seemingly overwhelming darkness in the YA section of the bookstore.

Both pieces sparked a lot of discussion, with opponents saying Gurdon was calling for censorship and ignoring the therapeutic value of such books.

Amid the hullabaloo (or is it a brouhaha), people seem to have forgotten the difference between commerce and culture. Put another way, we like to think that books are about culture, but we have them because of commerce.

It would be nice to get the industry, both publishers and book stores, to commit to providing a variety of culturally relevant voices, but thanks to the ghost of Adam Smith and his invisible hand, it won't happen.

You see, market driven economies are very good at oversupplying a perceived need. (That's why three Lambada movies were released within weeks of each other in the '90s.) The moment something seems to be gaining popularity (I'm looking at you, Twilight) authors, then publishers, and finally book sellers rush to that part of the cultural spectrum in the name of being responsive to readers (and shareholder's) needs.

And every one of those commercial players (authors, publishers, booksellers) is complicit in creating a kind of cultural imperative that says some combination of, "This is what everyone else wants, you should too," and "We think this is more important than other stuff."

The mother Gurdon described (in her first essay) who popped into the bookstore to find a book for her thirteen-year-old daughter walked into the YA section and discovered she couldn't simply pick something from the shelf because it's likely to be full of horribleness.

Therein lies the real problem: book buyers.

As readers, we have bought into the conceit that publishing is a cultural institution when it is, in fact, an industry. There are people who read everything on the bestseller lists who neither know nor care whether the laundry soap or soft drink they prefer is the market leader. We chant, "Buyer beware," to ourselves when we go into a car dealer, but it slips our minds when we go into the bookstore.

Readers need to take responsibility by voting with their wallets in the commercial arena of the booksellers for the kind of books they believe will yield the greatest cultural benefit.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /


  1. Good advice. My wallet says no more Vampire books.

  2. For me, purchasing a book is a big deal. I research before buying. I either buy a book based off of a reliable source or from doing research: the best books of the year, the literary winners, etc. I also know where to look for good books at my favorite bookstores. Knowing your bookstore is important.

    I agree with this post wholeheartedly. For best cultural experience, stay away from a majority of best-sellers.


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