Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Books not t-shirts!

There is an online petition whose text reads as follows:

Caltech used to have one of the very best scientific bookstores in the country. Three years ago the Caltech administration, without consulting faculty and students, decided to close it down. Not only the bookstore was important to the faculty in their research and to students for the selling of textbooks and other reference books, but closing down the bookstore in one of the most prestigious universities also sends a terribly wrong signal to the general public and the community. We increasingly live in a time where anti-scientific and anti-intellectual feelings and attitudes are on the rise, and where cultural and intellectual values need the strongest possible endorsement from our centers of scientific excellence. Caltech had a model bookstore that delivered to its community of scholars and to the general public the best of our scientific and technological culture. Despite requests from the faculty and the recommendation of the appointed committee, and despite a promise from the administration that the bookstore would reopen, three years have gone by with no credible sign of its reopening. Its place has been occupied by a travesty of store selling t-shirts and flip-flops. Tell Caltech: Books not t-shirts!

I urge all to add their signatures to this petition who agree with the statement that a world-renown university without a hint of an academic bookstore is a tragic sign of a very worrisome anti-cultural trend that is taking hold of even the places that should stand firm in defense of intellectual values. You can sign the petition here:

Caltech Bookstore Petition

The petition is by no means restricted to members of the Caltech community. It is of direct interest to anyone who values books and values culture and who understands the importance of having a place where one can browse real books and make those precious random serendipitous encounters with unexpected books, encounters that have the power to ignite our creativity, to spark a new direction of thought, unexpectedly.

People these days easily object that one can buy books online and Amazon has better prices. Sure thing it often does, but in order to buy something there you need to know which book you want to buy. The automated generator of recommendations works rather poorly and, especially when it comes to the scientific literature, the possibility to browse the whole text and not a selected handful of pages from the introduction makes a crucial difference. There is more: in a physical bookstore books are arranged on shelves according to some criterion of proximity, which (except for literature, where it is often nothing else than the alphabetical order of the author's name) often is arranged to reflect proximity of content. This is what often produces new mental associations and leads us to new encounters and discoveries, in ways that are impossible to reproduce in online retailers of physical and electronic books.

I can supply from my own experience at scientific research a large collection of examples of ideas that became research papers that were generated by random encounters with books in physical bookstores. This is why, whenever I visit a university or a city anywhere, the very first thing I check out are the bookstores.

The US have seen the recent collapse of the Borders national chain of bookstores. They were quick to blame the economic crisis, the competition of the online stores like Amazon, and the rise of the e-books. That all of these may have contributed is likely true, but they completely failed to see one other major cause: in the last few years the quality of the books available in Borders stores around the country has consistently gone down the drain! What can beat the online competitors is not a mediocre lousy bookstore with more expensive prices, obviously, but a high quality and highly selected bookstore that offers the alternative to the online stores where you have to sort through endless crap to get to find in their catalog the valuable books (which you will never find unless you knew already exactly what you were looking for). This is what Borders utterly failed to comprehend. Not surprisingly, when their stores began to liquidate, the "good quality products" (the few serious science titles, the philosophy and linguistics section, the best picks in the literature, the Oxford series of the Latin and Greek authors, the Criterion Collection DVDs, foreign movies, etc) where gone within hours, while the piles and piles of unsellable crap they filled the rest of their stores with stayed on the shelf up until the moment when they started selling it off at more than 80% discount. I have observed this happening in exactly the same way at several different locations I had the occasion of visiting in different parts of the country.

What this says is clear: the public (at least in the US) is becoming more polarized, like the whole of American society. The few who read are those who are highly educated and want high quality products. Those are the ones a bookstore can live off, because they are those who buy books frequently. The others don't read, period. There is no point having large bookstores filled with crap that can be found in every magazine stand in any regional airport, and which can easily be located online at lower prices, but it does pay to have smaller, very high quality, somewhat more specialized bookstores that aim at a particular kind of public (which exists, at least in the proximity of any university campus, or in any sufficiently urbanized area).

Those who claimed that the book is dead are mistaken. The book plays a fundamental role in culture and learning and in the fostering of our intellectual curiosity and pleasure, as much now as it ever did, but it demands attention and intelligence in the handling of its distribution and selling. Intelligence is exactly what the big chains like Borders lack, and what the bureaucrats that administer universities are also sadly deprived of.