The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


Laura Miller's RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS: BOOKSELLING AND THE CULTURE OF CONSUMPTION appears to be another dissertation-turned-book, this time from UC San Diego to the august offices of the U. of Chicago Press (whose proofreaders could use a kick in the ass, with several glaring nonstandard usages such as "turn-of-the-century" hyphenated and used as a noun). The book was very appealing ot me because I specialize in a subfield of literary studies called "book history"--essentially, we look at books from when the leave the author's hand and focus on how they are produced, printed, distributed, sold, and used by consumers. (Literary analysis isn't really part of book history.) Book history draws on economics, literary studies, history, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, which is what made Miller's book particularly interesting to me.

And she delivers as a sociologist, quoting C. Wright Mills and Bourdieu and the other suspects and bringing in a bunch of scholarship of economic and cultural history that was new to me (and may well prove valuable). Her book is a history of retail bookselling (she does touch on wholesaleing and distributing, but only in passing) over the last century but its primary focus is on the real issue in bookselling over the last forty years: the conflict between chain stores (from Crown to Waldenbooks to Barnes and Noble) and the "independents" (variously defined as one-outlet owner-operated stores to smallish regional chains such as Bookstop). Miller looks at almost every aspect of this conflict, from customers' responses--she clearly has done a bunch of interviewing, much of which I suspect didn't make the transition from dissertation to book--to owners' reminiscences to the American Booksellers Association. The problem is she doesn't seem to tell us all that much more than bookstore patrons probably already know: the chains are a threat to the independents but at the same time are beneficial to the book industry in general; "rationalization" and "commercialization" tend to be bad for small books and small publishers and small distributors; B&N and Borders try to make their stores appealing in several culturally inflected ways so as to mask the essential economic transaction they hope is at the heart of a bookstore visit. Maybe I'm missing something, but I didn't find the book particularly trenchant in its argument. What it does well--as well as any source I've ever read--is provide historical, economic, social, and theoretical context for this issue.

Oh: baby 5 days late now.


  • At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Looks like your proofreader could use a kick too :)

    "The book was very appealing ot me"


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