Thursday, August 14, 2003

The Secret Life of a Book Browser

Scott Wickstein reccommends Michael Jennings' post on bookstores as a must-read. Generally I try to ignore must-reads (I can come up with quite a few of my own) but in this case, it was worth the plunge down the hyperlink; it's a fascinating and illuminating piece. As you would expect from a site whose logo uses the motif of the eye in the pyramid.

In his post, Michael muses on some of the annoyances of shopping in large bookstores, and the over-defined categories they use to classify books. I often have the same problem making sense of the Dewey Decimal System: When you see a classification number like 271.82818284590452353603 or 314.15926535897932384626433 it's pretty obvious that someone has been a little overzealous with the decimal places. But the thing that really caught Michael's eye - in the anti-globalisation section of his local Books Plus outlet, was some of the staff reccommendation cards, which Michael reproduces in his post:

If you like Michael Moore then try John Pilger. He's [herder goly/harder going] but well worth it

[Michael] Ugh.


[Michael] Save me.

Michael goes on to tell us:

... in the chance that there might be anyone walking through the bookshop who might have discovered Michael Moore but not Pilger or Chomsky, I thought I had a duty to save them from this (and also there was a Samizdata post in it) ...

Michael's idea? Quite a good one really; why not prepare some reccommendations of his own, and sneak them into the shop while no-one's looking? Such as:

Anything by F. A. Hayek. Hayek was the great original thinker of anti-collectivism. If you've read Ayn [sic [sic - after checking the cover of my copy of For the New Intellectual I've discovered that I've been mispelling Rand's first name for years*]] Rand and want to know more, try Hayek.


If you like Bjorn Lomborg then try Julian Simon. He's right wing and American but well worth it

I find the hint of self-parody in the first note quite charming, espeically the suggestion that Noam Chomsky is to John Pilger and Michael Moore as F.A. Hayek is to Ayn Rand and, well, Ayn Rand I suppose. I'm not sure why Robert Nozick was omitted; perhaps it was an oversight, or perhaps Michael couldn't make up his mind whether he should list Ayn Rand as Michael Moore to Nozick's John Pilger or vice versa.

There's a fair bit of overly earnest commenting under the post, mostly on the question of whether Michael's appropriation of the cards counts as, well, stealing basically. I think much of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Michael's offence, if any, probably belongs in the same ethical territory as the process by which office pens migrate from the office supply cupboard to the top drawer of the study desk at home. No one actually sets out to steal office pens, of course: more usually, they just get tucked into your pocket so that you can finish off the cryptic on the train home from work and just find their way into the desk drawer after you took them out to scribble down a telephone number, or something similar. The office Post-It notes are a slightly more problematic case, so I think we might just pass over that and as long as nobody takes too many liberties we won't make a big issue about it. In any case, Michael's removal of the cards is perfectly in keeping with the libertarian principle "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours until you take your eyes off it (or [until you] are gullible enough to hand it over to me)" which is a much more rational and moral basis for a system of property rights than the collectivist's "What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine also."

The only quibble you might have with Michael's assessment of the morality of his appropriation of the reccommendation cards, is that he might be a little too sanguine about the effects on the bookshop staff and the effort required to replace them. Granting Michael's argument (in response to a commenter) that, thanks to the wonders of computerisation, it is actually a viable commercial proposition for a big international bookstore chain to run stores which are run by the sort of functional illiterates who are more likely to read Michael Moore et al than sensible, right-wing writers, he has seriously underestimated the amount of work that went into preparing the reccommendations: many spare-time hours of composing and editing might well have been required before the staff members were ready to write out a fair copy with a grown-up's pen and everythink.

Michael finds a final irony in the fact that Books Plus is a subsidiary of Borders, a major international corporation doing much, under the aegis of globalisation, to spread good bad and indifferent writing throughout the Anglosphere. (Look, what is it with this Anglosphere shit anyway? A quick Google Search for several other linguospheres produced nowhere near as many results as Anglosphere, and most of those looked to be ironically intended. Except possibly for the Francosphere, which seemed to be the most common of the lot). As he says:

What this means is that the salaries of the people recommending the anti-globalisation books are being paid by a rapacious global bookshop brand, that is ravaging and homogenising the world (or at least the Anglosphere), destroying local cultures as they do so.

Of course, as they're so seriously challenged in the cognitive functions area, it's unlikely that they'll ever work this out and recognise the fundamental contradiction in their position. Unless they happen across Samizdata while they're surfing the web but that seems an unlikely proposition as well.

All up, Michael's post is a fun read, especially if you're looking for empirical evidence on the question one commenter raised, "... why are libertarians so much wittier than liberals?" And equally, why are they so much wittier than humourless lefty ideologues? There's a silly question, which is answered as soon as it is posed.

* - I'm not sure how the "Ayn" part of "Ayn Rand" should properly described, in deference to Rand's Objectivist philosophy; "christian name" is obviously out, and so too would be "given name" which still has a hint of collectivism or charity about it. "Assumed name" won't do as, of course Rand's original name was "Alice Rosenbaum", so the whole of the name "Ayn Rand" should be deemed assumed. Of course there's nothing wrong with this: an Objectivist is perfectly free to take whatever damn name they like, although if the Objectivist paradise ever does arrive, I'm not sure how they're going to cope with living in a world where half the population want to call themselves "John Galt" and the other half all insist on being "Dagney Taggart".

Update: Alex Singleton, also of Samizdata, offers the following answer to the question "... why are libertarians so much wittier than liberals?"

The answer is that the sense of humour comes from a libertarian understanding of the world. Statists see a world of oppression and pain, and get depressed because of global warming and evil multinationals. Libertarians see the world in a different way, seeing the bad in the world, but also seeing the great advances that humankind has experienced over the past few hundred years. They have greater confidence in humanity, progress and the future. So they can afford to not take life completely seriously. The sense of humour is profoundly libertarian.

There you go then.

No comments: