Is Slate's Amazon-defending blogger really a 'moron'?

By Farhad Manjoo
Farhad Manjoo, a writer for Slate, drew controversy after writing a recent column with a headline that stated 'buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.'

Here's something your local bookstore won't be putting on its staff-recommended shelf: a copy of a new article by Slate writer Farhad Manjoo, whose name is now mud at bookshops across the land.

"Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller," says the headline on the online magazine's website. "Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you."

As Manjoo puts it, physical bookstores are frustrating to use, overpriced and inefficient. And besides, if you buy a book on Amazon with a big discount, you'll have more money to spend on other books.

Despite the lack of things like comfy couches and author readings, Manjoo contends, "what (Amazon) does do -- allow people to buy books anytime they want -- is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it."

Humbug, declared an army of writers, commenters, bloggers and tweeters.

"Everybody in New York Hates Slate Reporter Who Complained About Indie Bookstores," read the headline in the New York Observer, and there's plenty more vitriol where that came from. Slate has a compilation of other reactions, including a declaration by Salman Rushdie that poor Manjoo is a "moron."

That's laying it on a bit thick.

It's true that, in classic Slate style, Manjoo is counterintuitive to a fault. But he does point to a big problem lurking in the shelves of your local independent bookshop: if we buy books there, we pay a big price for the atmosphere, the expertise (if there is any) and the convenience.

Is it worth it? That's questionable.

I've been to independent bookstores around the country, and those that only sell new books tend to be high on price and low on character.

The pricey indie shops typically aren't geared toward all of society either. They're often havens for upscale types because those people are the only ones who can afford a new hardback at $35 a pop.

Readers with smaller budgets must buy their new books online, at the remaining chain bookstores, or at a Costco, Walmart or Target. Or they could turn to used bookstores, which are often charming and have found lucrative new life online through eBay and, yes, Amazon.

I've always been a big supporter of using the Internet to smack around opinion-slinging people who annoyingly superior, and Manjoo certainly isn't lacking in that area. But the reality is that the Amazon-is-evil/indie-bookstores-are-awesome folk miss the big picture and the benefits of online access to a wider selection of cheaper books.

Now, we have more places where people with low budgets can buy new books without paying a bundle. Sure, some indie and chain bookstores are being sacrificed to make way for a new era. But they're not taking access to books -- and the ideas inside -- with them.In fact, the future has plenty of room for words and the books that hold them. Now if someone could just do something about making sure those words always fit my preconceived notions, we'd really be in great shape.

Could someone get on that please? Hello, is this thing on?

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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