Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In Lieu of a "Year-End List"

I answered a few questions for Oregon Humanities recently. While the inevitable spate of year-end "Best of" lists from the literary world get me dyspeptic, I can understand the urge to mark the calendar's closing with recommendations and anecdotes. For our purposes here, let this little Q&A stand.

What book did you read last year that you've recommended other readers read right away?

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle — Published last year by Seattle’s incredible indie wellspring Wave Books, Madness, Rack, and Honey is by far one of the most impressive, inspiring books I’ve read this year, or perhaps ever. Collecting fourteen gloriously idiosyncratic essays by Ruefle, an accomplished poet and teacher, this book is never theoretical or academic. Ruefle’s mind is thoroughly alive to the vivid pleasures and discoveries of reading, and her means of communicating her enthusiasms are ingenious. I’d call Madness, Rack, and Honey indispensable for anyone who cares for the art and experience of literature, and anyone who wishes for a broader, more constant conversation about it.

What book or books are you looking forward to curling up with this winter?

Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, Dag Hammarskj√∂ld’s Markings, Nicholas Roe’s new biography John Keats, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness.

Where do you write? Is it a single space? What does it look like?

For my workspace I’ve refurbished a tool shed in my backyard. It’s a kind of micro Cape Cod with rough, yellow-painted cedar sides and moss-covered, tarpaper roofing. There’s a small colony of sparrows in the eaves and, seasonally, bees in some exterior chinks — both of which lend the place a healthy atmosphere of industry. Inside, it’s all file boxes, stacks of paper, and bookshelves overstuffed with around 400 volumes, nearly half of which (to echo Thoreau) I wrote myself. There’s an L-shaped IKEA desk, a green-keyed Royal HH typewriter, circa 1960 (a boon to my process), and, on index cards tacked or taped up everywhere, hand-copied quotations meant to goad and inspire. A favorite of late comes from John Berger’s book Here Is Where We Meet:  
“You put something down and you don’t know immediately what it is. It has always been like that. ... All you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re telling the truth, you can’t afford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Drone Resistance: Why Buying Books from Your Local Indie Rather than from an Online Retail Juggernaut Makes Sense

Inklings Bookshop, Yakima WA

As noted in far too many media channels, a certain monolithic online retailer recently announced its long-term "plans" for same-day delivery by drone. 
(For a consideration of why this prospect — and all the attention paid to it — is downright silly, see Kate Messner on the failure of journalism. Moreover, may we all appreciate the aliterate irony operating at Amazon HQ by recalling the role of drones in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.) 

Shelf Awareness recently shared the above snapshot from Yakima Washington's Inkling's Bookshop. It's a real drone, and it now hangs above the store's front registers. Inkling's owner Susan Richmond told Shelf Awareness that the sinister machine serves

"as a conversation starter for our smart, independent employees who are far from drones. We have 12 employees on our payroll who live in the community, support the economy and pay taxes and are excellent at helping customers face to face." 

She added that the store is also using the drone "to highlight the fact that 95% of the books we order every day are in the store the next day around noon and the whole experience for our customer is bracketed by delightful exchanges with real human beings every step of the way."

As for Amazon, by now we know that its propounded fealty to "The Customer" is its justification for every inhumane, thuggish, monopolistic, and openly creepy move it makes (e.g. the drone thing). 

Ethics and fair-play be damned, the Customer and The Customer's happiness are everything.  

Well, an all-consuming loyalty to The Customer may sound fine in itself, but in this case, if inhumanity, thuggishness, monopolistic actions, and creepiness do not make us think better, let us bear in mind that  
1) we are bound to live more and more by the rules of whomever we enrich,
2) this particular mega retailer has repeatedly demonstrated a rapacious desire to wreak fundamental changes both cultural (e.g., controlling the publishing landscape thanks largely to the data accumulated through e-reading over the shoulders of its device owners) and economic (e.g., predatory pricing and tax evasion).
Amazon may boast that its prospective use of drones is simply a further expression of its benevolent regard for The Customer, but for people everywhere a claim so outrageous ought to prompt some essential questions. For instance: 
Do I see myself as first and foremost a customer? Or as nothing else?
How many people would see themselves this way?
Do I see my neighbors this way?
We are all much more than customers. We are citizens, artists, community members, mothers and fathers, teachers, tax-payers, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Hindus, and as such we can recognize that there are greater, more enduring values than rock-bottom pricing, short-term “customer satisfaction,” and, well, the blithe acceptance, in service to these things, of the invasion of drones into our neighborhoods.

(Deep breath!)

Anything that impinges upon the richness of our shared experience as a citizenry, as artists, as neighbors in a community inside local, regional, and national cultures — anything that serves to deplete these meaningful identities and dilute or pollute our common experience in order to render us mere “customers,” is a form of cultural and economic tyranny, and calls for resistance at once personal, mindful, and civic.

In this case, what better form of resistance than to visit your local indie, where you’ll find your fellow community members at work talking with readers face-to-face, placing real physical books into real readerly hands, and contributing to the quality and vibrancy of a real (drone-free!) neighborhood. 

As Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers put it in a holiday letter to readers: 

“You don't need a pie-in-the-sky technological Drone (perfect for indie skeet-shooting!) to help you with your last-minute holiday shopping this year. We — real human beings who have loved and sold books to you for nearly 25 years — are here to help you. Let us.”

All our finest indie booksellers around the country are echoing those sentiments. This holiday season, why not show them what kind of world you want to live in?

Find your nearest local indie via Indiebound

Warmest holiday wishes,

M. Allen Cunningham