➻ Leave it to the brilliant Ann Patchett to turn the news of Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post into a beautiful story about beloved neighbors now departed and the house across the street going dim.
There was a Sunday afternoon when I stood on the sidewalk with a neighbor and we contemplated buying the place ourselves, fixing it up. It had been on the market too long. But the next day it sold and freed us from our good intentions.
The new owners could never live up to our expectations. They were not the one thing we needed them to be, which was the Saturns. But the yearning of the neighbors for what we had lost was the least of their problems. They couldn’t move in. It turned out the smart addition that had been built many years before had no actual foundation, and the downspouts drained under the house. Half the wiring was still knob-and-tube, and the other half was rigged, and when the electricians came to rip it all out, the third floor caught fire. I stood at my bedroom window and watched the fire trucks close down the street.
Which is not to say that The Washington Post has been operating with faulty wiring or that a greatly respected family is the cause of disrepair. It is to say that taking over an institution that is venerable, essential, beloved and failing is a thankless task and a substantial risk, and that maybe I should thank my new neighbors for saving the house even as they changed it. And maybe we’ll have Jeff Bezos to thank for saving The Post.
Some would say both Patchett and Bezos have some faulty wiring themselves to be getting into businesses that seem well past their prime, which is one reason to trust they have good intentions in their endeavors. Or, as Patchett more eloquently puts it:
Everyone said I had to be an idiot for opening a bookstore in the age of Amazon and e-readers, but I was never deterred. I was in it for love, not logic. And since the only thing dumber than buying a bookstore is buying a newspaper, I have to imagine that Bezos must care about the fate of newspapers in general, and about the jewel that is The Post in particular. Otherwise he could have just as easily bought a football team.
Bezos has been a forceful visionary, an industry leader and often a steamroller. While I disagree fiercely with many of Amazon’s business practices, I regard Bezos as a man who makes things work. [...]
And since it’s safe to assume that Bezos is reading The Post thoroughly these days, let me offer a piece of advice that will benefit us both: Expand the book review offerings. Nothing beats newspaper reviews for selling books. And bookselling, after all, is one of the businesses we’re both in.
It makes sense to me. And that is why I agree with Patchett’s sentiment, that while I still don’t like Amazon … I hope Jeff Bezos can save The Post.
➻ If you’re interested in learning more about the business practices that Ms. Patchett so fiercely disagrees with, the best source currently available is A Letter From ABA’s CEO posted yesterday that makes a strong case against them and contains links to materials that “make clear that Amazon’s narrative of growth, value, and productive contribution to communities is highly distorted.” And it is necessary to counter their narrative, because:
Amazon has established a strong relationship with many consumers, coming in second in a top 10 ranking of national brands, according to BrandIndex. In addition, Amazon is rated number one by parents with children under the age of 18, young people aged 18-34, and consumers who identify themselves as members of the Democratic party. … And, notably, the Kindle occupied the ninth spot in the BrandIndex top 10. … Amazon’s public message of low prices and wide selection are, regrettably, the only story that many consumers know.
And while Amazon’s consumer focus is commendable, many of their business practices are not, and we agree with Oren Teicher that “As the company concentrates its power and influence in a nexus of commerce, government, and media, Amazon’s actions should draw even more scrutiny.”
➻ This is especially true because the “end [of] the idea of businesses operating ethically” behind the scenes is, as Doug Tompkins—founder of North Face and co-founder of Esprit—believes, one of the Five Dangers the Internet Poses to a Sustainable World. Or more precisely:
[I]n the midst of this obsession with the privacy issue there has been little attention to other equally corrosive impacts of the internet revolution. Part of the problem is that until very recently, but hopefully no longer, the debate was framed in such a way as to cast any and all critics of the internet as either luddites or somehow anti-freedom.
There are four dangers, besides state surveillance, the internet poses which could make the world ungovernable and dangerous, destroy innocence and speed resource depletion.
First, it allows anyone to make their own guns and bombs, incite hatred and mobilise instant protests without regard to the consequences. Second, it creates unmanageable industrial espionage that will end the idea of businesses operating ethically. Third, it allows porn to reach every corner of the world, making access to the degradation of women only a click away. And fourth, it ramps up the speed of consumption and reduces its costs, hastening environmental destruction and resource depletion.
Speaking further of the internet “driving scale and speed of consumption,” Tompkins writes:
As for resource consumption, it’s a truism that the internet has increased the pace of our lives. But while the benefits of this greater speed are shouted from the rooftops by the Silicon Valley crowd, its negative consequences have been left unexplored.
The omnipresence of the internet has made personal consumption both faster and easier than it has ever been before. And while the internet’s role as a tool for enabling consumption is not novel—think product catalogues—its scale is.
It can be accessed from anywhere—on computers, laptops, phones and tablets and at work, at home and on the go. In the current frenzy to stimulate economic growth through promoting all forms of consumption, the internet is the medium with the greatest potential. Purchasing goods over the internet is both anonymous and guilt-free, and online retailers purposefully streamline the purchasing process to encouraging impulse buying, a growing addiction made easier as it doesn’t even require leaving your chair.
The opportunity for billions now to desire anything from anywhere and buy it over the internet has given many “local” products a new found carbon footprint, at a time when we need the entire opposite. Then of course there’s the whole question of jobs and tax losses.
The result is a massive, and growing, online marketplace that has changed attitudes, created a sense of entitlement and divorced customers from the reality of the resources that go into making consumer goods.
Quite simply, there’s a lot hiding behind that Amazon smile.
➻ Of course, there are dangers of over-buying in the analog world, too. But, because of my bias for the physical, I like to think of that problem as quaint and adorable, like in Amy Welintz’s tale of culling books with her husband, . . . One Book Out, in The New York Times‘ Sunday Book Review.
I’ve decided that books are my enemy, though they used to be my great love. They are taking over. They crowd my dining room, they double up in the bedroom, they make the attic floor sag. We even have a library in the bathroom: shelves and shelves of books where a normal person might have a vanity table or piles of towels.
And don’t tell me to use a Kindle. The other day, I finished reading Kafka’s “Castle,” which is more than I can say for Kafka, who didn’t even finish writing it. And unlike other novelists who abandon their books, Kafka not only didn’t complete the thing, he didn’t bother finishing his last sentence. When you’re reading “The Castle” on a Kindle, as I was, and you get to “She spoke with difficulty, it was hard to understand her, but what she said,” and there’s nothing else on your screen, you think there has been an electronic glitch. I need the security of the printed page.
Still, I am tiring of my guilt. My books are taking over, but at the same time they rebuke me with their silent presence. They seem to say, one after another: “Why did you buy me if you weren’t going to read me? What am I doing on this shelf in the bedroom behind ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ by Boris Pasternak, and ‘Love Always,’ by Ann Beattie?” They shout, “I am ‘A Yellow Raft in Blue Water,’ by Michael Dorris! Why have you abandoned me here in darkness to stare at the pages of other books you haven’t read?” They say things like, “I am ‘Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments With Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies,’ by Laura Esquivel! Were you seriously ever planning to read me?”
I understand her pain all too well. I’ve never understand the desire to live forever (I agree with Lewis Black that “the fact that we all eventually drop dead is not a bug, it’s a feature”), but it would be nice to have an infinite amount of reading time, to at least get through a few more of the books I’ve acquired over the years.
➻ And books are just the beginning. There’s an endless amount of great new writing being produced all the time that’s worth reading, sometimes in places we wouldn’t expect—like in Craigslist’s missed connections listings. Tessa Stuart of The Village Voice recently solved the mystery: Who Is the Author Behind the Most Beautiful Craigslist Missed Connection of All Time?
This posting appeared Tuesday in the New York City Missed Connections section, sandwiched between R Train, bet 5:30-6:00 pm – m4w (“You’re beautiful, and deserve better.”) and to L.S. – m4w – 23 (go to f***ing hell) (“you f***ing *****, u lost out on the best thing that has ever happened to you.”).
On Twitter, where the posting has been making rounds, it’s invoked comparisons to Kafka and Garcia Marquez …
Here’s just a bit of that post:
it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
Oops, sorry, wrong bit. This is the one:
I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train.
I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. We both wore glasses. I guess we still do.
You got on at DeKalb and sat across from me and we made eye contact, briefly. I fell in love with you a little bit, in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person. But still I think there was something there.
Several times we looked at each other and then looked away. I tried to think of something to say to you—maybe pretend I didn’t know where I was going and ask you for directions or say something nice about your boot-shaped earrings, or just say, “Hot day.” It all seemed so stupid.
At one point, I caught you staring at me and you immediately averted your eyes. You pulled a book out of your bag and started reading it—a biography of Lyndon Johnson—but I noticed you never once turned a page.
My stop was Union Square, but at Union Square I decided to stay on, rationalizing that I could just as easily transfer to the 7 at 42nd Street, but then I didn’t get off at 42nd Street either. You must have missed your stop as well, because when we got all the way to the end of the line at Ditmars, we both just sat there in the car, waiting.
I cocked my head at you inquisitively. You shrugged and held up your book as if that was the reason.
Still I said nothing.
Being a dork, I just wonder if the LBJ bio mentioned is one in Robert Caro’s brilliant series.
➻ If it is… “I think I love you, but I don’t know what that means.”