Piranhas of the Amazon

The most conspicuously successful avatar of Net commerce is Amazon.com—so hyped, so stock-inflated, and so damn smug about itself that it holds the signal distinction of being the only homegrown, non-chain bookstore in Seattle history not to be mindlessly embraced by the locals.

Once upon a time I bought a lot of books at Amazon. And every time I pushed my electronic shopping cart up to the secure server, I told myself I was supporting the local economy—”local” meaning the Internet, and me being a citizen of cyberspace and whatnot.

No more. It’s a hard and shameful thing to admit in this unforgiving town, but I now stand before you, cyberbrothers and sisters, in the spirit of atonement. I have seen the light; I have turned away from the easy lures of priority shipping and deep discounts!

Amazon is not a real bookstore. Nothing about the fact that you can buy books there should confuse you in this. Real bookstores let you thumb through a book before you buy it. Real bookstores forgive you your trespasses, letting you mercifully forget that sickbed foray into the world of true-crime paperbacks, or that you actually bought one of those Seven Habits of Highly Effective Chicken Soup things. Real bookstores have quiet, low-traffic areas that remind us that not all portions of the Dewey Decimal System are created equal.

But no soul is beyond salvation, friends. Lest we turn our backs on Amazon too soon, let us now praise that which makes Amazon better—yes, better—than a real bookstore, and I don’t just mean the fact that it isn’t Barnes & Noble (also not a real bookstore, but that’s another column):

Real bookstores don’t let you heckle the authors.

It’s a silly oversight, really—inexplicable in the age of the Poetry Slam. But there it is: People who read books are some of the nicest people around, which is all well and good for public morale but not the kind of rock-’em, sock-’em excitement that’ll get the kids away from pro wrestling and Fox rebroadcasts of “Ouchie! When Household Appliances Attack!” If Amazon has accomplished anything by featuring reader reviews, it’s taken the yawny old art of lit-crit to the people and turned it into the kind of bizarre spectacle that made this country great. To every Amazon its piranhas, and woe betide the author who wades in bloody or weak.

A vocal readership, of course, is what most authors claim they want. But the readership is supposed to be a little more supportive, and certainly more docile. Pity Lev Grossman (Warp), who got his ass handed to him by readers of his first novel; pity Fred Moody (The Visionary Position), who wrote a nonfiction account of various Seattle high-tech start-ups only to have the people in his book jump in and start rewriting his version of their history. (Actually, pity Fred because he also edits this column, which means he’s got me to make his life miserable and doesn’t need piranhas.) All those readings at Elliott Bay wouldn’t prepare anybody for this.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that an author will see the comments bestowed upon him. It’s not likely that Bil Keane will see the slap-happy deconstruction of “Daddy’s Cap Is on Backward,” and the writer(s) of the Holy Bible will probably never note their succinct review (“Good plot, vivid characters. I’m not quite sure I understood the ending”). But more and more authors do, drawn in by the siren song of the daily Amazon rankings (“Oh, bliss! my book ranks 349,875th in sales today!”) And once they’re in, they’re doomed; never have I met the author—even a non-masochistic one—who didn’t crave feedback.

Listen to me: It’s not a real bookstore. Inside every geek is a teensy neo-Luddite, and mine wants you to understand that Amazon is not a bookstore. It will not be a bookstore until books are only a commodity, and neither Monica’s Story nor deep discounts can make that come to pass. Rabid reader commentary, however, makes 1999’s Amazon a new and special kind of place: As real bookstores are to Amazon, so is the li-brary to graffiti on the walls of the library john. Visit it accordingly and buy accordingly.

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