Essays & Observations

Dear Prudence

Several years ago, I visited a book collector who had decided to sell her books and who was consigning them to me. As I was going over the books, she asked me if I’d like to use her computer to go online and see what the books were worth. I told her that I’d do that later, but that I hoped she understood that finding other copies of her books online wasn’t necessarily a good thing; in fact, it would probably be a bad thing.

If I couldn’t find another copy of one of her books online, we would be free to price her copy what we believed it to be worth, based on our experience and on reliable dealers’ and auction records. But if I found another copy online, we would be forced to price her copy in relation to that copy. The probability, however, was that I’d be able to find more than one other copy online, and in that case, the value of her book as we saw it – what she thought it was worth, and what I thought it was worth – would become moot. We would be compelled to price her copy according to the prices on the internet, and probably less in order to give us the best chance of selling it.

In other words, turning to the internet, we were less likely to find out how much her books were worth as we were to find out how little they were worth; that is, how common they were; and, judging by the number of copies available online, how little interest there seemed to be in them, and how difficult they might be to sell. Whether she or I felt worse about this grim state of affairs, I don’t know, but it was then she told me that she had stopped collecting books because the internet had taken the fun out of it. And I had to admit that it had also taken some of the fun out of bookselling, too.

There is no question that the internet is extremely useful as a source of information – although admittedly much of the information is misinformation – but so far as bookselling and book-collecting are concerned, the internet search can be an extremely discouraging experience. The internet often exposes the fallacies that have supported bookselling for so long: primarily assumptions about rarity or scarcity that were plausible as long as the world of books was colonized. Once it was possible to concentrate innumerable books from all over the world in one virtual bookshop, however, most collectible books were found to be readily available, and at increasingly competitive prices.

As it turned out, there are simply too many copies of most books on the market, and if you’re a bookseller, there is little likelihood that you’ll be able to sell your copy, including the copy you’re considering buying, no matter what you pay for it, or what you price it. The internet will tell you that your copy is not merely worth less than you’d imagined; for all practical purposes, it’s worthless.

If you’re a collector, you’ll learn that the book you have isn’t worth nearly as much as you thought it was, and by the same token, the book you wanted isn’t as desirable as you imagined it to be. Again, there are just too many other copies available, some superior to yours and, so far as one can see, all of them remain unsold. Going online to look for books is like wandering into a vast warehouse and seeing row after row of the very thing you thought was so rare and valuable. With its seemingly inexhaustible inventory, the internet has compromised, even cheapened, the world of book-collecting, and threatens to deflate not only the value of most books, but also the enthusiasm with which collectors pursue them. At a click, rare books become used books, and used books become what used books have so often become, the books that no one wants. It can take the heart out of bookselling and book-collecting alike.

In the shadow of the internet, book collecting has become less a form of play, an inspired, creative activity, than a crisis of conscience and confidence. No one wants to buy a book, no matter how long they may have searched for it, only to discover that it could have been bought for less, if only they’d looked it up on the internet first. Collectors seem unable to buy books by themselves anymore. The internet compels us to monitor ourselves as if we were unruly and wayward children who might get into trouble if left unsupervised. We’ve become dependent on the information it provides, and we can’t seem to make decisions without it. We’ve acquired knowledge – or rather, information – at the expense of our autonomy, our freedom, our will. No matter where we turn, we live in fear of paying too much for the things we want.

Some years ago, at a small book fair in Boston, the sponsor allowed one of the book search engines to set up a stand, much to the consternation of many of the exhibiting booksellers. Complaints were loud and vehement; it was unfair, outrageous, an infringement of the rights of the booksellers. A book search engine, they contended, was not a bookseller, and its presence was an inappropriate and unacceptable hindrance to the dealers who were exhibiting at the fair.

What mainly disturbed the booksellers, of course, was the fact that the mere presence of the computers at the fair called into question the booksellers’ authority and expertise. The booksellers were suddenly being monitored – no pun intended; their prices were implicitly suspect and needed to be verified. The booksellers naturally feared that if someone found another copy of a book online at a lower price, it would prevent them from buying a copy at the fair; or they might return to the bookseller’s booth to complain about a high price, or to bargain for a lower price.

It was an excellent object lesson for everyone, but instinctively, the booksellers reacted with aversion. It was not hard to see their point and to feel their pain; but as time passed, it became obvious that the influence of the internet was inescapable, regardless of how baleful it might prove to be. The book search engine would indeed become the biggest used book-store in the world, and no bookseller, however professional or prominent, would be able to compete with it; or, in fact, compete without it.

Under the circumstances, it seemed to me that it would be far better to accept the inevitable and allow computers at every book fair. In this way, collectors could consult them whenever they pleased. They could resolve any doubts they might have about the books they were considering, and make up their minds on the spot, if not exactly in the heat of the moment. It seemed to me to be the epitome of fair trade, even though it brought the somewhat dubious virtual book world into conflict with the real and immediate world of books that many of us still prefer.

Without the kind of reassurance that computers could provide, these fearful collectors would be lost; they would be condemned to tergiversate over any and every potential purchase; and my hunch was that once they left the fair, there was little likelihood that they would come back. Context, after all, is everything. Once they were away from the book fair, the books they had considered buying would begin to seem less compelling, less palpable, and finally unnecessary. Once they were home, they might convince themselves that the books they wanted had been sold; they might find a better copy online; or, faced with numerous copies of a particular book online, they might conclude that they could always find another copy on the internet, whenever they wanted it; they didn’t really need to buy it now, and therefore they didn’t need to go back to the fair. Indeed, they might conclude that it was unnecessary to go to book fairs at all.

Of course, we now live in the age of the eternal return, when everyone believes they have a right to return or exchange anything they’ve bought, for any reason, no matter how capricious. Indeed, there are those who feel no compunction about returning books they’ve purchased at a book fair and returning them without explanation weeks later. Presumably it’s because they discovered that they could purchase the same books for somewhat less on the internet. And there is no point in arguing with them about etiquette and fairness; no matter what you say, these customers, however wrong, will always be convinced they are right. C’est la vie.

A propos, at the Paris Book Fair last month, not far from the area set aside for the chamber ensemble and its audience, there was a stand with two chairs and two tables with two laptop computers, both logged onto the internet. Above the stand was a sign with the invitation: Cherchez un livre sur l’internet. I didn’t see very many people taking advantage of the connection, but I used it myself. And it was a good thing I did.