Back in the late 80s early 90s Borders and Barnes & Noble were the large chain bookstores that would enter a town, neighborhood, borough, or what have you and put the smaller independent bookstores out of business. They had a plan, a good design, and books at a reasonable cost. The internet was not used by the general public, and Amazon was barely an idea. This worked for them because they could offer the public good books, at a good cost, with coffee and a place to sit and read.
Back then people complained and lamented about these larger chains putting the smaller independent bookstores out of business. Hollywood made a movie about the situation—You’ve Got Mail. Borders and Barnes & Noble thrived. New stores opened, some in places we’d never heard of. Then along came the internet, and with it the ability to get books to anyone, anywhere despite their location. A game changer to say the least.
Amazon enters the scene and slowly sneaks up behind these large chains until toward the late 90s, it was then the internet took off. The popularity of the internet has steadily grown since the late 90s and Amazon grew with it causing these larger bookstore chains to change their game. Borders waits too late to enter into the new arena of technology, causing their demise. But, Barnes & Noble jumps in and attempts to keep up. Enter the eReader and digital books.
In an attempt to maintain business Barnes & Noble does several things during the 1990s and 2000s. First, they change the look, feel, and aura of all their stores. Large cafes are added to almost all the locations. Second, employees are slowly relinquished of their ability to think. The corporate offices sends to each store the plans of where everything should be placed, a job that used to be in the hands of the bookseller. Third, a website and Nook is developed to keep up with current trends in technology.
All these factors have a certain amount of success, but those companies who began with the internet and developed with the growth of it’s popularity are now a serious contributing factor to the downfall of these large book chains.
I mentioned all the above to now give you my thoughts on this latest announcement inside the corporate world of Barnes & Noble. Len Riggio, the founder and chair of Barnes & Noble wants to buy back the company. But wait, Riggio wants only the stores and website, not Nook. Why?
Well, Nook is a great product. I’ll go so far as to say it’s one of the best tablet/eReaders on the market. However, Barnes & Noble simply cannot afford it. It cost way too much money to be in the tech industry, an industry that changes at an eye-blink pace. Barnes & Noble, a 3 to 4 billion dollar company, has been attempting to compete with several 50 to 120 billion dollar companies. Granted, Barnes & Noble has done a bang up job with their Nook, and Microsoft has recently helped fund Nook, the digital industry is inundated with competition (e.g. Google’s Nexus, Apple iPad, Kindle, etc.) and ultimately Nook is bleeding the company to death.
Moreover, book sales in the U.S. are still strong, Riggio knows this, but Barnes & Noble is on the decline. It has been for a little over 5 or 6 years now. So, he must cut costs in order to save his baby. That means cutting stores. Will this help in the long run? I don’t think so. Barnes & Noble must now compete with large discount stores such as Amazon online, Costco, and Wal-Mart, all of whom discount everything they sell. And, for the last ten or so years Barnes & Noble has been doing everything a bookstore should not do.
What are those things? First, when a customer enters a Barnes & Noble, they are bombarded with too much stuff. There are way too many end caps, tables loaded with items, displays, etc. It’s all too overwhelming. Second, things change too frequently in a typical Barnes & Noble store. One week a book is in a particular location, the next a completely different location. This is, at best, confusing to the customer. So what do they do? Third, they seek a customer service rep who has a handful of other customer’s waiting for help, and a load of duties to perform before the end of their shift. This is all quite frustrating in the end.
Finally, if Barnes & Noble wishes to survive they must compete. They must do something that no one else has ever done. If Barnes & Noble did these three small things, I think they may have a fighting chance. First, raise the price on their membership to fifty dollars and those who join get the online price for an item in store. There’s no wait, they get a discount, and the customer leaves happy. Second, be more consistent. Stop rearranging the store every other week. A contented customer is one who is not confused. Third, offer the same services on their web site as Amazon does—movie rentals, music streaming, etc.
In the end, I hope that Barnes & Noble survives. It would a pity to see the last living bookstore chain close their doors. I for one, do not hope that happens.
Yesterday at work (remember I work now at a bookstore), a young teen, about sixteen, asked me for the bookLord of the Flies by William Goldin. As I was searching for it in our system he proceeded to tell me that he had read it once and did not like it. I told him I had read the book when I was about his age and said I actually enjoyed it.
Before he let me finish explaining why, he responded by telling me that he knew it was a good book because it had a deeper meaning. For the next few seconds he attempted to detail to me that deeper meaning. Unfortunately I had a customer come up and interrupt our conversation so I was not able to let him know one important point I wanted to make.
Regardless of whether the book had what he thought was a “deeper meaning”, and despite the fact that I enjoyed it but he did not, these factors do not necessarily make the story good. On one level—the literary or technique of writing level, the story is, in fact, a good story. But I understood what he meant, he did not prefer that story because his tastes where of a different ilk. I wanted to explain to him that that was actually okay, not to get discouraged as a reader. Keep trying to find works that you enjoy, there are millions of books out there and certainly of those he could find plenty of stories he’ll end up enjoying—some with “deeper meanings.”
The thing that struck me about him was that he had a pretty good grasp of what Golding had written in Lord of the Flies, and in my experience this is rare for sixteen year old boys. Most sixteen year old boys don’t give a rat’s ass about Golding, his stories, or whether they understand them or not. I was afraid he mistook my comment that I enjoyed Lord of the Flies as a message that because I enjoyed it, he must enjoy it too. That was certainly not my intent. I hope he continues to read.
As much as certain writers and hardcore readers complain about the publishing industry allegedly wanting nothing more than to make money, there is a strong case that can be made for the proper marketing of books. Seriously, ask yourself how many times you have not known about a book, been in a bookstore and judged a book by its cover? It happens. It has happened to me in the past. I’ve never bought a book that I knew nothing about if the cover looked boring, or if the blurb sounded trite, silly or uninteresting.
We, especially the “WEs” in the U.S., are prone to buy things based on their packages. Don’t believe me? To see that this is true all one has to do is a little research on the behaviors and habits of consumers. This is even truer if we know what the item is and it is well packaged—pleasing to our senses.
Let’s translate this to buying books. I have shopped in bookstores not knowing what I wanted to purchases (it is rare but has happened), and I have purchased several books according to their cover design, or the quality of the blurb on the back or inside flap of the book. One recent example was my purchase of the book titled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
I had never heard of this title, but right away the cover grabbed my attention. It was sleek, simple, and catchy. So I reached for it. I then read the inside flap. The description of the story grabbed my attention. It made me want to read the book. I turned the book over and read all the endorsements on the back; there were quite a few. I also liked the binding and the uneven ridged pages. I then do what I always do whenever I am contemplating purchasing an unknown title, I read the first line of the book. I liked it. So, I bought this book based on those features alone and somehow I do not think I’ll be disappointed when I read it.
Even so, there are times when I have purchased books strictly on those same set of criteria and been disappointed, but it’s rare. I say all this to say that the marketing of books can be (and usually is) important. So, should we judge a book by its cover? Not really, but many times great stories really do come in great packages. And let’s face it great packages can have an impact on the sales of books.
Is art objective? Can it be measured by a single simple formula: xyz = art. I don’t think so. That’s a bit too simplistic and reductive. There’s much more to art than a mere set of objective principles: art must contain beauty, it must have certain structure, it must have a specific meaning, and so on. Should art be that dry and objective?
Is art a denial of the objective? The rejection of techniques, structure, or optics, as Marcel Duchamp seems to have believed? Is it the denial of all the qualities that have come to be recognized in a work of art?
In a 2009 BBC documentary titled Why Beauty Matters, Michael Craig-Martin claimed, “[T]o captivate the imagination is the key to what an artwork seeks to do.” In this same documentary, philosopher Roger Scruton asks artist Michael Craig-Martin, “What is the use of art? What does it help people to do?” Craig-Martin’s answer, “Hopefully it allows people to see the world in which they are living in a way that gives it more meaning to them.”
I can’t help but wonder if Craig-Martin’s response reduces art to merely propaganda, or advertising. Advertisers certainly want to give people more meaning in their lives by offering them things they claim will make their lives better. This is where consumerism has landed us in the 21st century. If a thing has no use then what’s its point? Why bother with it? If art has no use why does it matter? But is that true? Does art have use?
Beauty is important in art, in music, in poetry, in novels, and in other forms of expression. Who in their right mind would deny that? The artist’s intent during the Renaissance was to demonstrate beauty. At least their ideal of beauty. However, art reduced to only beauty is missing the point. Better yet, those who interpret art as that which is only beauty have missed the point of art. Art contains beauty, but art is not only that. It reflects life, even the woes, troubles, evil, and worries of life. Do these things also contain beauty? Perhaps in some sense they do. But on the flip side, to express nothing but the troubling side of life and call that art also misses the point.
Art certainly reflects life. It reflects the troubles of life, the beauty of life, the mysteries of life. Art attempts to communicate meaning in life by using certain things—techniques, styles, etc.—that are at its disposal. To do what Marcel Duchamp did decades ago and take a urinal, place a signature on it, and claim it makes a statement about art, is at best nothing but a mere expression about something, but that surely isn’t art. Or is it?
Any attempts at objectifying art fail in the wake of forcing art to fit in a particular box of thought. These attempts make art something that can be reduced to a mere set of objectives. Art is much grander in scope. That’s like trying to take life and reduce it to a set of propositions. Life is not reducible to a meager set of propositions. That’s childish thinking. Roger Scruton, in the documentary Why Beauty Matters, points out that for the last 2000 years, beauty (via art) has been an ideal stemming from Plato. Plato’s ideal beauty was something that transcended reality. This beauty was not to be used or possessed but only to be admired from a distance. Where philosophers and theologians miss the point is not so much in the rich history of art that stems from Plato’s ideal of beauty which certainly reflects the notion of the divine. No. They miss the point in thinking that art is only that. Their thinking that science has removed this ideal is a harsh reaction, and so they reject newer forms of art in an attempt to save the old form, the old ideal. Granted, I agree that the old ideals, a definition of beauty in art that stems from a Platonic ideal of divine transcendence, are still needed. The lack of this ideal certainly does not make other forms of art non-art, or less important.
What’s unavoidable in everyone’s attempt to understand art and it’s expression is what we all bring to the table when we attempt to explain or interpret art. The diversity of each of our lives is overwhelming. No two lives have the exact same experience, even when two people experience the same thing. What do we do with this? This is the true depth of aesthetics and beauty in relation to art. There is no single ideal needed to express it, to understand it, or explain it. Art covers the gambit of all ideals, all expressions, all interpretations, because all our experiences are so vastly different, and all experiences are needed to understand and interpret art. But keep in mind that these differences, this diversity in no way takes out the objective or subjective nature of art. We can still tell when a piece of music is technically better than another because of the way the musician uses the craft. Or, we can see the brush stroke of one painter against the brush stroke of another and realize that one utilizes a specific technique better than the other. Regardless, the work is still subjective to the tastes and preferences of those who see it, hear it, or read it.
The point here is that art is not an either/or notion or ideal. Either art is beautiful or it’s not. Either art communicates esthetically pleasing things or it does not. Either art is objective or it’s not. No. This, I think, is too cut and dry, too black and white, too strict, too simplistic. A better notion or ideal is that art is both/and. Art is both beautiful and sometimes not. Art communicates esthetically pleasing things and sometimes not. You get the point. Art does communicate and never let us forget this. Art moves our emotions, stirs our senses, and teaches us things from a point of view we might never had imagined. The glory of art is that it allows the beholder to decide based on experiences, tastes, styles, and preferences whether or not she enjoys the work; whether or not the work speaks to her and moves her. If anything, art is not to be placed in a philosophical box and relegated to a single ideal.
written by TBV (written on 2/13/2012)
[I wrote this as a response to viewing a 2009 BBC documentary titled Why Beauty Matters. The video is linked below in case you are interested in watching it. While I agreed with Scruton on many of his points, my essay above details my thoughts about his over-all view.]
Too often I hear people tell me that they have read certain classic novels solely on the fact that they think everyone else has read them. After reading, they ended up not liking the classic work but said they did because they felt like they should have. To be perfectly honest, that’s a pretty poor excuse to read any novel, classic or contemporary. And, to lie about enjoying it merely because everyone else did is … what word am I looking for besides dishonest … stupid!
We shouldn’t feel like we have to read a work simply because others think it’s good, or because someone else liked it. Reading books is something to be enjoyed, it’s not compulsory, if it were all the enjoyment of reading would be lost.
I see reading as experimental. Now don’t misunderstand me here. I’ve been around a long time, I’ve read thousands of books; covering the whole playing field of genres. And, I’ve read books for reasons I have listed above—because everyone I’ve talked to liked that particular work. A recent example of a work I read because I had heard all the fuss about how good it was—Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Frankly, I did not enjoy that novel.
So here is what I mean by reading is experimental. Read everything, find out what you like, make recommendations, read recommendations, but never lie and say you enjoyed a work simply on the basis that everyone else did. Books are like clothing, some of us like certain brands, styles, colors, etc. Some books fit us at the time we read them, others do not. Sometimes we have to grow into books. Sometimes we never do.
It’s okay if you end up not liking a best selling novel, or a tide turning work, or a fashionable/popular novel. It boils down to the fact that the work probably did nothing for you. It did not speak to you, strike any keys in your reading register. That’ cool, move on to the next work and see if it does.
Also, I’m not sure if you’ll even care about this one minor point but I’m gonna throw it out there anyway. I usually give a book 100 pages. If it has not grabbed me in 100 pages then I’m certainly not gonna waste precious time on it. I might put it aside and try it again a few years down the road. On a second attempt if it still does not grab me, then I give up on it and never try again. But hey, that’s my personal way of filtering through what I might consider “rubbish,” so to speak.
Bottom line, read your tastes. Life is too short to read what others like and miss what would otherwise speak to you on a meaningful level. Readingis to be enjoyed, so find books that give you that joy. By the way, even though I did not really enjoy Everything is Illuminated, I have recently picked up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’m hoping this novel has something to say to me. So far it’s been awesome.
Recently I’ve heard that the internet has caused an increasing dulling of the human intellect. In other words, the ability to reason, to think, to reflect, is lost via the internet. All one need do is merely Google a topic and the first three or four listings will give one everything they need to know about the topic.
Well, as for the last statement, I disagree. Google listings do not necessarily give one a reasonable amount of information (or answers as the case may be) to any given topic. Reflection is necessary. Research is necessary. Those of us who read books (not just fiction, but non-fiction too) should realize this. My generation was the last generation to be raised without home PCs, without the internet, without mechanical gadgets that help us “think.” All these things didn’t exist. When we wanted to learn about new information, or take in new knowledge we had to go to the library, or bookstore. Not today. Today all one has to do is turn on the computer and see all the quips, short quotes, instant information, etc. Tumblr is notorious for this format.
However, I’m a bit confused about why certain scholars think the internet is an anti-intellectual tool. I can agree that too often people might tend to try and find quick answers to difficult questions; questions that can only be answered with hours, if not days of reflection. But, the internet, in my estimation, is like any other tool. It is meant to be used for specific things. Can it provide new knowledge and/or new information? I think it can. In reality, I think the reason certain individuals do not take the time to reflect on difficult questions is two-fold. First, difficult questions are, well, difficult. They take work and time to answer. And even then, how can one be certain one has found the correct answer? Who has time to put forth such great effort to try and answer tough questions, and are they even worth answering? Second, many people lack discipline. It takes effort and discipline to reflect, to quiet oneself and think. It takes effort to read, especially complicated non-fiction (e.g. philosophy, history, etc.). Why read a long book when you can get a condensed answer in a brief article or blog post?
I’m not so certain (yet) that the internet is an anti-intellectual tool. Rather, I think that anti-intellectuals use it to provide quick answers to tough questions. Therefore, it’s the anti-intellectual who causes the internet to seem anti-intellectual. Perhaps T.S. Eliot said it best in his 1934 work titled Choruses from the Rock:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?