Friday, November 15, 2002

Life without Amazon

Jill, Noah and Mark discuss, bookstores and search-engines. Noah is concerned that the little bookstores which are the life-blood of our academic culture will fall due to Amazon, Mark sees it as a way to avoid Barnes & Noble monopoly, and Jill writes of her childhood when her parents let her choose freely from book catalogues.

I feel like an alien. What planet do those people come from? I grew up in a fairly large Norwegian city, with a couple of established and well-stocked bookstores, but that didn't do a thing for me. When I could get the money for the bus-ticket, my hunger for books drove me to the library. The heart-blood of Norwegian academia is there, in the library, and not in the tiny little exclusive culture-elite book-stores which I agree, yes they are cute and charming and probably really useful to the people who live close to them.

In a world where academic thought happens outside of cities such as Washington, New York, London, Paris or Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Bruxelles, cute small traditional book-stores aiming their selection at fashionably shelf-browsing scholars with more cultural than economic capital just isn't an option. To the kids who grow up with parents who use book-stores to buy christmas cards and paper plates, the little book-store in Michael Ende's Neverending Story is as much part of the fantasy world as Fantasia and the Child-Empress. Academics who work in remote little colleges in remote little countries speaking obscure little languages know perfectly well that dream and pretend all they like, they need to use other sources, other ways to search for books and papers.

Jill describes how her Cambridge-educated parents would use one particular bookstore and their catalogue to order their books. Different similar solutions is the life-blood of Norwegian academia. And I suspect more than that: it's been the reason why there is some kind of Norwegian academia. That, in conjunction with the exellent and hard-working research libraries at all universities and colleges and a wonderful system of public libraries, with book-boats and busses to the areas of Norway which are so remote they don't have their own library.

I think it would be sad if the dream of the little dusty bookstore run by the old, scholarly owner who caters to a sophisticated audience of intellectuals should become nothing but a fantasy. However, from this part of the world it doesn't belong in the daily life of academics, but on their list of important sight-seeing goals alongside galleries, museums and the Zoo.

Noah points out that there's a large difference between a and the, as in the lifeblood and a lifeblood. The alert reader who checks out links will find that Noah uses a lifeblood and that I quoted him incorrectly. Perhaps Norwegian academia is anemic because we don't have those little book-stores, just barely surviving on the transfusions we get from libraries? Interesting point for the quality reform, I'd love to see the right-wing education minister throw an other billion into the budget to support small academic bookstores close to all academic teaching/research institutions...

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