Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Cultural Biography of Used Books

There’s been a bit of buzz today about Pitchaya Sudbanthad's article on a used bookstore in New York at The Morning News: the financial troubles, the marketing difficulties, the joy of recommending a good read to customers. I’ve been doing my own part supporting local bookstores recently (with the bills to show it), my hang-out being Pasadena favorite Vroman’s Bookstore, now 109 years young. On my recent road trip I also walked the aisles at Bookman’s Used Books in Flagstaff, and last week received a special, out-of-print book on arcane commodity chain theory shipped across the pond from The Book Academy in Wilmslow, England.

Sudbanthad's article hits on a key difference between used books and new books: wear and markings on the written page show a true palimsest of multiple readings, and evidence of former owner’s thought processes. This creates an intimacy with previous readers that can’t be marketed online, or experienced in a first-run bookstore:

The used bookstore is a unique business model in which inventory is, to a good extent, determined by the direct participation of its customers. The customers’ cultural awareness, preferences, age, education, careers, and direction of curiosity at certain times and places in their lives defines what stocks the shelves, and so the used bookstore becomes a reflection of its customers, if only at slight angles. This is not simply the nature of selling used merchandise. Most used goods, the kind you might find at a pawnshop, don’t have enough variation or cultural encoding to bear the residue of their previous owners. A camera model in a certain condition says something, but nothing we can decode. An old ring with inscribed initials is missing its Rosetta Stone. But an underlined segment of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets points to a reader’s epiphany, and what sort of person he or she was to be moved by such imagery: And you see in every face the mental emptiness / deepen / leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.

Before the store opened, when Rachel and Samantha first sorted through their new inventory, many things fell out of the books. Postcards, bookmarks from stores all over the country, letters, receipts, and photos. Other informational media, like videotapes, records or CDs, have to be in more a pristine shape if they are to be consumed again, but books can carry evidence of their previous owners without serious damage to their stories. Marginalia track the prior reader’s thoughts, like the underlined “Important” in a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and the “Bullshit” inked in another section of the book. In a copy of the Cormac McCarthy book Child of God, Rachel found a Post-It saying on one side, “Gabriela bracelet 6 inches,” and on the other side, “Email James Brown.”

What’s clear is that the books came with their own private history. Each had its own real-world plateaus and plot twists—by way of curiosity, admiration, and curricula, the books were acquired, and by way of deaths, heartbreaks, financial need or boredom, they ended up again on the shelves.

But this nothing new to cultural anthropologists, who have always studied the dynamic relationship between objects, ideologies, and behavior. In fact, in reading Sudbanthad, I harkened back to the famous volume, The Social Life of Things (Cambridge 1986), edited by Arjun Appadurai which focused on “commodities in cultural perspective.” One of the more memorable contributions by Igor Kopytoff, raised the question, “Do commodities have biographies?” (Answer – yes.) I would recommend it fans of all things antique. Here’s just a glimpse, from the preface to his article, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process”:

For the economist, commodities simply are. That is, certain things and rights to things are produced, exist, and can be seen to circulate through the economic system as they are being exchanged for other things, usually in exchange for money. This view, of course, frames the commonsensical definition of a commodity: an item with use value that also has exchange value.....

From a cultural perspective, the production of commodities is also a cultural and cognitive process: commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marketing as commodities. Moreover, the same thing may be treated as a commodity at one time and not at another. And finally, the same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and as something else by another. Such shifts and differences in whether and when a thing is a commodity reveal a moral economy that stands behind the objective economy of visible transactions.

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