➻ Devin Leonard of Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed Dave Eggers on His New Novel and Globalization recently. I’ve always been a fan of Eggers’ writing, and look forward to diving into A Hologram for the King very soon. But even more than I appreciate his writing, I’ve always truly admired how he parlayed his early success as a writer into founding his own independent publishing house—the decidedly uncynical, often hilarious yet intellectually expansive McSweeeney’s—to bring the work of others into the world. That he continues to build organizations and centers around McSweeney’s to promote human rights, support youth literacy and literature, increase access to education in South Sudan, aid the rebuilding of New Orleans, and work on many other worthy causes puts him in a rarefied air of individuals who use their personal success to promote the well-being and success of others.
There was a contrast in the interview that I found rather striking. Let me see if I can set it up by excerpting pieces:
Devin Leonard: Several characters in the novel talk about the decline of America’s can-do spirit. One observation that sticks out is from the architect at a party in KAEC [King Abdullah Economic City], “… in the U.S. now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold.”
Dave Eggers: You know, I interviewed a noted architect who designed the financial center for KAEC. I saw an American name on the plan, and so I looked him up and it turns out he was part of the Burj Dubai design team, and he has designed, I don’t know, four of the top 10 tallest buildings in the world. But all in Dubai and China and other parts of Asia. None of them are in the U.S. When I called him, he said, “Oh boy, I can’t remember the last time I did something in the U.S.” He went on and on about why that was. He would love to, but he said that those very bold dreams and visions, and also the wherewithal and political acumen and will—it isn’t really there. Of course, architects like places like Dubai because they aren’t democratic countries. They aren’t subject to the same sort of political push and pull and voices being heard.
DL: The architect aside, do you think that American can-do spirit has moved elsewhere?
DE: Well, the architect wants it to be otherwise, and Alan [the main character in the book] wants it to be otherwise, but it’s not in the air right now.
This exchange is followed by an exchange that shows this kind of American can-do spirit is, in fact, in the air right now.
DL: Bringing it back to you as an entrepreneur, you make a point of thanking a Michigan-based printer in the book’s acknowledgments. Was it important to have your novel about globalization produced in the U.S.?
It’s funny—we’ve been publishing for about 13 years, and we started by printing in Iceland. That was really done because I wanted to spend more time in Iceland. Our books were printed outside of Reykjavik by Icelanders in blue jumpsuits. But then those prices were too high. And it was not very practical. So we started printing mostly in the U.S. and Canada. Then, some years ago for the higher-end art books, we were printing some of those in China and Singapore. But we had some problems with the printers in terms of communication and shipping and customs. It takes a long time to print something in Asia, and so we just started bringing more of our production back to the U.S.
Two years ago, I learned of this printer. We have a nonprofit writing and tutoring center outside Detroit. Thomson-Shore was providing pro bono printing of student work and doing these beautiful books. So I went to visit them and found it was a relatively small plant in the middle of homes and farms. They did exceedingly high-quality work and had an archival bindery, too, and so I just was really taken with the whole enterprise. We started getting estimates from them, and they were competitive. It’s so easy to print in the Midwest. You’re saving months in shipping and customs, so we have started printing a number of books there. We were really gratified to see how well this one turned out. When I tell people what we paid per unit, they can’t believe it, because it’s right in line with any other hardcover book. Here and there you’re seeing other people bringing manufacturing back for all those same reasons. We’ll see. I hope it starts a trend.
It would be great if we were still digging raw materials out of the Earth and hiring the most sought after architects to fashion it into the world’s tallest buildings here on American soil. But, given the choice, I’d rather have a printer in Michigan printing the world’s best literature. It all comes down to what we value as a society. Of course, I suppose we could have both.
➻ Richard Posner’s critical review of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough, along with his description of just how shabby, shoddy, and uncomfortable England was as recently as the 1980s and his pooh-poohing the very idea of Working 9 to 12 (the primary argument of the book is that the evolution of developed economies should lead to us all working fewer hours), led me back to Giles Fraser’s review of Two books [that] ask about the morality of the market and the nature of value—one of which is the Skidelksy’s book, the other being Micahel Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy.
Economics, [the Skildelskys] insist, needs to be impregnated with purpose, with some human‑centered teleology.
In other words, markets were made for man and not man for markets. This is a commendable insight, but whether their prescriptions for an economics of the good life are sufficiently inclusive to work at the level of the poorest in our society—those for whom growth and accumulation are what mostly happens to others—was something about which I was less convinced. [...]
In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel comes at things differently. He too would subscribe to the need for a more confident articulation of the good life, having built his philosophical reputation attacking the idea of a free-floating “unencumbered” self that is at the heart of John Rawls’s hugely influential Theory of Justice. It is this same rootless self that he regards as unable to resist the power of the market to redefine our deepest values.
Thus, where the Skidelskys are prepared to leave certain liberal assumptions unchallenged, Sandel wants to draw attention to the ways in which the underlying liberalism of the marketplace wipes away a horizon of ethical significance—which is, roughly speaking, what the Skidelskys mean by the good life. In other words, Sandel insists that market values crowd out all other values like a cuckoo in the nest. “There are some things that money can’t buy,” he begins, “but these days, not many.”
The value in these books may not be in the answers they provide, as there may be few to none, but in the questions they ask.
➻ Speaking of working fewer hours, Tim Ferriss wrote this morning about How Bestseller Lists Work… and Introduc[ed] the Amazon Monthly 100. If you’ve ever wondered how books end up on those lists, Ferris’s post is a very quick and helpful synopsis. Coming from someone who has worked intimately in publishing and has two bestsellers under his belt, it is a very valuable one.
➻ Wendy Welch brings it back home, writing of The Importance Of Local Bookstores for the Huffington Post.
When I say, “local bookstore,” odds are good the first thing that comes to mind is not a book you’ve bought, but a person, a sense of place, even just a vague cozy feeling. [...]
So bookstores always seemed wonderful places, but it wasn’t until my husband and I opened one in rural Virginia that we began to understand the practical realities of their magic.
When people come into our 39,000-volume-strong shop, their breathing changes. Their expressions soften, steps slow, eyes stop darting. Hands unclench from cell phones as they mutter, “Call you later.”
And then they just stand there, letting their eyes drift over the shelves while that indefinable bookshop magic does its work.
That doesn’t happen with online selling. (When was the last time you relaxed in front of a computer?) Online sites pepper us with pop-up ads. Booksellers listen. We read your face. We see the tears in your eyes when you ask for a large print book because your mother’s sight is failing. Booksellers make you a cup of tea in the café. We know that the sweetest, saddest, scariest stories in our stores aren’t in the books, but in the customers. We value those stories.
Who values local bookshops? Well, you do, if you’re reading this—for which all bookslingers everywhere thank you. [...] book lovers understand their local shop’s role in painting the world with bright colors rather than shades of grey. Bibliophiles are smart: we know, when Amazon offers $10 off a book’s list price, what false savings lie within that tenner. There’s short-term and long-term; there’s economy, and then there’s community. You pay your money and you make your choice.
Not everyone has enough money to take the high road; only you know what you can afford, and what you can afford to lose. Because, God bless us every one, independent bookstores help us find the others like us. Booksellers hear customers’ voices in the shop, and hook them up with the voices they will value on the printed page. It’s so much more than a sale. It’s an affirmation.
We’re an online retailer ourselves, so maybe we’re not one to talk (link?), but our roots are still firmly planted in a local bookshop Harry W. Schwartz started in 1929, and we strive to reaffirm the ethos of those independent bookshops in every transaction we make, and every blog post, manifesto, or exploration we publish. The bookstores we were born in have passed into new hands, so we can no longer look directly into your eyes, but we pride ourselves on being able to hear your voice—both figuratively as we try to gauge what books and ideas you’d be interested in, and literally through our excellent and long-tenured customer service staff that’s always here, ready to take your call. Well, at least Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 5:00 Central Standard Time.
➻ Until Monday…