Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 30, 2009

you do this, you do that

Rachel Cooke writes, “Amazon does not set the synapses crackling the way the sight of a pristine shelf of books does: it does not surprise you, nor does it fuel book hunger. You click on what you came for, and then you leave.”

One of my most common frustrations in reading evaluations of recent technologies of reading/writing/information is the tendency of almost all parties — technophiles and Luddites alike — to assume that everyone responds to these technologies in the same way: precisely the way the writer does. When Cooke visits Amazon she clicks on what she came for, and then she leaves; but I don't. Amazon doesn't fuel her book hunger; but it fuels mine. (Almost everything does.) Maybe we can't all just get along, but surely we can all stop universalizing our quite individual experiences.)


  • I, for one, have never had a cashier at a book store offer me free shipping if only I spent $11 more.

  • I agree with you, both in particular about Amazon and in general about writers over-universalizing their experiences. At the same time, though, these private experiences matter, and increasingly have to be talked about publicly, because, for example, an experience like Cooke's will not be preserved unless she holds it up, defends it, and asks other people to do the same. I do think writers need to invoke the universal to an extent so that these conversations don't simply devolve into "to each his own"-type discussions. The problem is how to do it well, and it's an extremely difficult one. I think you have to just say, this tendency is something that is accessible to everyone, and then attempt as carefully as possible to articulate what that tendency is about so that others can understand it even if they don't primarily operate the same way. I'm being very vague and general here, I know, but I'm thinking in particular of Walker Percy's writings on modernism and signs, and to an extent Daniel Boorstin's writing on images, though Boorstin (at least in The Image) suffers to an extent from the problem of false universalism, as well as basic monolithism.

    (And Micheal, every book store I've ever been to has offered me free shipping no matter how much I order.)

  • I agree, Alan. Amazon's "People who bought this book also bought" section has made me go on too many clicking sprees.

    In fact, my experience is the opposite of Cooke's, which proves your point about universals, I guess. When I lived in India (not too long ago) and had no internet as well as access to only a couple of good libraries, I would spend time browsing the bookshelves because that was the only way of getting acquainted with interesting books. Now with the web and Amazon, since I hear of interesting books every second (literally) and can look them up immediately, I rarely browse the bookshelves in the local library, I am much more directed, I only look for books I have heard of. This is not conscious, it's just what I've observed myself doing. But that is just my experience, I guess.

  • You know, Ari, when I go to bookstores they don't charge me for shipping either — but that's because they make me carry the books to my house myself. Can you believe those people?

    I don't think we have a long enough track record with online book shopping — or maybe just not enough data available to us, given Amazon's near-Apple levels of secretiveness — to know what kinds of shopping habits it will breed. Maybe most people will be like Cooke, maybe most of them like scritic. We just don't know yet. Or I don't know yet.

  • Michael Straight said...

    The problem with reading articles by Rachel Cooke is how it always makes your foot start tapping uncontrollably until you start humming old Stephen Sondheim tunes and craving pecan waffles.

  • Everybody knows that, Michael — why don't you try adding something that distinctive to your experience?

  • Almost all my purchases from Amazon have been books. Plenty of them! I often go to buy one and come away with two - something apparently works - the ease with which Amazon recalls my credit card details certainly helps.

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