The familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told – long ago by Aristotle, more recently in our American context by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – but it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words “public” and “private.” In the 1950s the word “public” connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); “private” was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s. “Private” now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), “public” becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).
Every year I go to the annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale. Three years ago I posted some thoughts on the experience where I referred to the sale as “both fun and a bit depressing.” That was my feeling again this year.
The fun part was the same. It really is heartening to see so many people, especially so many young people, lining up to buy books. I know that in the grand scheme of things these crowds don’t add up to much, but they still give one hope.
The depressing bit was something new. For a while now I’d been hearing of cellphone apps that allow you to scan the bar code on a book and pull up prices, either from some online bookseller or price aggregator. This year’s book sale, however, was the first time I’d seen these in action. At the table where I was spending most of my time there were three individuals simply going through everything: pulling a book out, scanning the bar code with their phones, looking quickly at the screen, and then either putting the book in one of their boxes or tossing it back on the table. They worked very quickly, able to do all the scanning and scrolling functions on their phones with one hand while pulling the books with the other.
I get that the used book trade is a business and that this is what apps are for: making things quicker and more convenient. Still, the way these guys worked a table, like the filleters working on the line at a fish processing plant, was depressing. Here was the digital economy moving in, jackal-like, to further cannibalize the remains of our culture. Its foot soldiers were robotic. Quite obviously they didn’t have any interest in the books they were methodically scanning. I’m not sure they could have told you what section of the sale they were working at the time. They were just doing data entry.
But while whatever program they were using to get a quick price check might serve as a rough guide, the fact that they didn’t really know the merchandise meant they were probably missing out on a lot. A couple of years ago I found a book at this same sale that I picked up for a dollar. I later saw it advertised online for over $800. And it wasn’t a copy in as good shape as the one I got! (By the way, it really was just curiosity that led me to check out what it was going for online. I didn’t resell it. I still have it sitting in my “to-read” pile.) The thing is, I found that book on the third day of the sale, after the book scouts and used-book buyers had already been through.
The same thing was happening this year. I thoght the book scanners were missing a lot, whatever their app might have been telling them. This made me think of something David Mason, a veteran used-book seller, had to say in the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries:
Supposedly the great equalizer, the internet is in fact the worst offender against informed judgment . . . An experienced dealer looking at internet entries nowadays often finds five to ten copies of a book offered by dealers they’ve never heard of before they see names they know and credible prices. It takes just one ignorant fool putting a ludicrous price on a book to give other ignorant fools something to copy. They usually price their own copy ten percent or so less, assuming they’re being clever, when what they’re really doing is adding to the general ignorance. The blind lead the blind into the bog of imbecility, all of which makes the internet a dangerous cesspool.
Sadly, I don’t think anyone cares about the internet being a cesspool as long as it’s a profitable cesspool. The question is how well, in a business like this, such an approach really works.
From Who Owns the Future? (2013) by Jaron Lanier:
What will books be like once Silicon Valley has had its way with them?
A lot of people will pretend to be commercially successful authors, and will put money into enhancing the illusion. Most of these will rely on family support or inheritance. Gradually an intellectual plutocracy will emerge.
From World Without Mind (2017) by Franklin Foer:
Our great writers cared about money because they needed it. They needed it to feed their families, and so that they could devote themselves to fulfilling their creative selves. Without pay, they would have been consigned to day jobs, unable to fully apply themselves to their prose. Apologists for Amazon like to sneer at the writerly caste, a hermetic club that dismisses outsiders who aren’t part of the gang. Yet history shows the alternative to professionalized writing. A few geniuses from the lower rungs of the class structure would manage to produce lasting art, despite the distant odds. But writing would largely survive as a luxury for those who could afford it, a hobby for the wealthy – for the trust fund babies, the men of leisure, those with resources to follow their economically irrational passions.
My review of Elise Levine’s This Wicked Tongue is up at the Literary Review of Canada site. I spend a lot of time talking about her choice not to use quotation marks. That’s something you see writers doing more these days. Sometimes it works. I think Levine’s approach is effective in that it fits with what she’s doing more generally.
From The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (1993) by John Lukacs:
Near the end of the twentieth century — indeed, near the end of the so-called Modern Age — two dangerous circumstances threaten the world. One is the institutionalized pressure for material and economic “growth” — contrary to stability and threatening nature itself. The other is the existence of the populist inclinations of nationalism — contrary to a greater and better understanding among peoples, often debouching into barbarism. One is the thrust for increasing wealth, the other, for tribal power. One issues from the presumption that the principal human motive is greed; the other, that it is power. To think that the former is morally superior to the latter is at least questionable; but to think that the progress of history amounts to the triumph of money over force is stupid beyond belief.
One day during all this unpleasantness, I sat down to have lunch with Flora MacDonald and seek her counsel.
“Why do your people hate the CBC so much?” I asked.
“My people?” she replied.
“Yes. Your people, your party, the Conservative Party.”
“They are not my people. They are a different party from the one I was in.”
“But you must have some insight into why they hate the CBC so much.”
“Oh, Richard,” she laughed. “Don’t think that you’re special. They hate everything.”
“Yes, everything. That’s what they do. They are haters.”
Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my notes on two adaptations of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner, the first an Italian production and the second American. Despite being the sort of material that I would have thought highly adaptable, neither film is a great success. The Italian version is, however, not without some interest.