Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why bookshops are important, or how Detectives Beyond Borders discovered the source of the Nile

I'd never taken any but the most casual interest in ancient Egypt until I came across Alexandre Moret's classic 1926 study The Nile and Egyptian Civilization.  Thanks to Moret, I now know something about the social upheavals that led to the downfall of Egypt's Old Kingdom and about the resulting social and religious differences between the Old and the Middle Kingdoms.

I learned about the political organization of Egypt before the Pharaohs from Moret, and about how Egypt came together as a centralized polity. His book introduced me to the great boasting and the touching laments of the pyramid texts. Perhaps best of all, Moret communicates the excitement that attended Jean-François Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta Stone.

And it was Farley's Bookshop in New Hope, Pa., that introduced me to Moret. I'd gone in to buy Scott Phillips' new novel, Hop Alley, flipped through Moret's book, found it a readable exciting account of a subject about which much twaddle has been written, bought it, and have found as exciting a discovery as any I'd made in some time.

Try doing that on Amazon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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14 Comments:

Blogger Cary Watson said...

Yes, thank god for bookstores, particularly the used ones. All my most exciting book finds over the last few years have come in used book stores, clearance book outlets or the library. Here in Toronto, Chapters is the local version of Barnes & Noble and it's crap; more interested in selling gift items than books, and high rents are killing off the independent book stores. On the positive side, I've read a few news stories in the last couple of weeks about eReader sales plateauing. It seems these devices might be losing their charm with readers, which can only be good news for book stores.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

I cannot begin to list my many discoveries over the years. Browsing local, independent, used-book bookstores is a bit like exploring King Tut's tomb. You never know what you might find among the dusty relics. However, like King Tut's tomb, the independents are doomed. So much for advanced, contemporary civilization with its Amazons and B&Ns. Not much of an improvement there.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

That's exactly what Amazon can't do; great example.

There's a parallel for Kindle vs. paper books: flipping through them. Yes, you can bookmark and make notes, but you can't flip through the pages until something random catches your eye. I read one of Bill James's baseball book on Kindle a few years ago, and it wasn't half the fun of pulling an old Baseball Abstract off the shelf and opening to a random page, flipping through in either direction to find something that caught my fancy that day.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: I had not read that e-reader sales were leveling off. I regard this as a positive development, a sign that we are recovering from the irrational exuberance that had Jeff Bezos proclaiming his "passion for reading" without fearing that he would be laughed off the planet. Perhaps e-readers will assume a place as useful niche products, good for distributing short (not "short-form") writing, for bringing out-of-print writing back before the public, and for readers who need larger print, but tolerable at best, rubbish at worst for most types of reading.

It's interesting that with the word experience so much a part of product promotion and popular speech, the Kindle reading experience is, for the most part, shit. Maybe readers are finally realizing that all the fast connections and living color in the world cannot overcome this.

I once wrote a scene in which a character is disoriented by the wide array of book-related products at a Borders-like chain store.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., by odd coincidence I today reached the point in Moret's section on Egyptian religion where King Tut has instituted the radical reaction against the religious forms of his pop, Akhenaton. (These, of course, included his rejecting the name Tutankhaton and reclaiming the traditional name by which we know him today, Tutankhamon.)

Chain bookstores are still better than Amazon, though they are closer to Amazon than to independent bookstores. I hope the latter survive in some form. Their absence, and the consequent diminution of reading available to us, would both make the populace easier prey to control by the prevailing powers and cut down on my opportunities for passing pleasant afternoons or evenings.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, that has been precisely my experience with a Kindle. You may remember a few years ago the proclamations that reading on a computer would free readers and writers from the constraints of linear narrative. It is ironic that, in fact, reading on a Kindle (or, I presume, other e-readers, as well) does just the opposite. E-readers are tools of control in any number of ways, I think. I am still not entirely convinced that the kindling to which the devices name presumably refers is not paper books going up in flames to kindle Amazon's profits.

My hope is that we are strong enough to resist Amazon.

May 16, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well we learned that Thomas Young deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

A check of Wikipedia pretty much settles the matter that it was both of them. Young translating the demotic and Champollion the hieroglyphs.

May 17, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish that those who pan Amazon and E-readers would show a little more understanding for those of us who don’t live near any kind of bookstore, chain, independent, used or otherwise, for those of us who can no longer read the type fonts and font sizes in print books and for those of us looking for out of print Zola, Balzac, Goethe, D’Annunzio, Fontane, Pirandello, de Maupassant, Deledda, De Amicis, Zweig, preferably in their original languages but English will do.

It’s about choice, people. Amazon and E-books have brought that to a lot of us.

May 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, according to Moret, Young's astute work on the hieroglyphics did not extend to correct interpretation of individual phonetic signs. so Champollion was the man on this one.

I wonder how much Young's English nationality vs. Champollion's French has to do with the content of school curricula in Northern Ireland.

In any case, I would now love to read an account of the work of all the interpreters, especially Champollion

May 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous,do you mean the kind of understanding reflected in my comment that:

"Perhaps e-readers will assume a place as useful niche products, good for distributing short (not `short-form') writing, for bringing out-of-print writing back before the public, and for readers who need larger print."

I have also acknowledged elsewhere the benefits of e-books for readers who live far from bookstores. But that's not why I complain about Amazon, as I think my post and comments make clear.

May 17, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m sorry that my comments although not directed at you, as I was fully aware of your previous remarks about E-readers, offended you. Use of the word “people” was meant to clarify the audience make-up. As I made clear, I am rather weary of the cases against E-readers and Amazon that pay no attention to the services these perform for all sorts of people who, for various reasons would perhaps go without reading if these services didn’t exist. I only meant to reinforce that view, not offend.

I am not part of the publishing world, so I won’t attempt to speak about Amazon’s restricting book choices. However, looking at the listings on Amazon.com for one of the favorite authors we share, Scerbanenco, I note the dearth of titles available in English translations as compared to those available in Spanish, French and German translations. Haven’t other American publishers done their share of limiting access? One of the things American readers could do to fight book choice restrictions is, copy the habits of readers in most of the rest of the world and learn a foreign language or two.

May 18, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, I've lived all my life in large cities, so my point of view is limited. I once sneered at chain bookstores and was slapped down by a resident of a distant suburb who was grateful for the opportunity it offered to buy books where otherwise the opportunity might not exist. I also remember the gratitude that a reader of this blog who had lost a good deal of his eyesight felt for his e-reader. I wish Jeff Bezos were content with the valuable services he could offer in those areas, but American business tycoons don't get where they are by limiting their ambitions.

And don't forget to blame bookstores, at least of the chain variety, for limited access to books. I have heard from acquaintances in publishing that books literary have limited shelf lives at such stores. If they don't grab attention in the first couple of weeks, they're off the shelves, to be replaced by the next one thing. That's why Borders and Barnes and Noble have always reminded me of the Bruce Springsteen song "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)."

But my main complaint about e-readers and choice concerns not distribution of books, but the restrictions imposed by the medium of e-books. Anything that necessitates frequent flipping back and forth between text and tabular material, illustrations, or end notes is a huge nuisance to read in electronic format. I don't begrudge anyone the experience of reading that way, especially if that is the only form available to that person. But I don't want to be forced into it.

May 18, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Peter and others . . . here is another thought to consider: Publishers have an interest in promoting e-book editions, especially as the publishers can cut their overhead by huge amounts; so, perhaps in the not to distant future, in the brave new world we are entering, ink-and-paper books will be relics of the past, and new books will only be available in e-versions. Add another hundred or so years, and bookstore and libraries will disappear from the face of the earth. Scrolls disappeared. So might ink-and-paper books.

May 18, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Erratum: change "not to distant" to "not too distant" A better writer and copy-editor would have caught and eliminated that error.

May 18, 2014  

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