As mentioned in the current Metro – the full article: Sweatshops For The Mind

25 Apr

Sweatshops for the Mind: A Meditation on Taste
A response to Paul Litterick’s article by a similar name.

Initially I misread the title of Paul Litterick’s article as: Sweatshops For The Mind and became intrigued. What was being uncovered here? Some kind of mental slavery imposed by psychic booksellers? Turns out, no. The article was a grumble about form over function in bookselling, actually entitled: Sweetshops For The Mind and it criticized independent bookshops as being filled with brightly coloured candy masquerading as books.
I happen to work for an independent bookshop in Auckland, Unity Books, I am in fact their brand manager. So I’m sort of everything that Litterick thinks is wrong with bookselling – I try my darndest to make anything Unity Books puts into the world look like something you might care to take home, show to your friends, or bother checking out when you’re online (bookmarks, website, twitter, facebook…)
One might be tempted to ask why I bother doing all this if it’s just, as Litterick’s article implies, filler. I do it because people care what things look like, and we always have. And this isn’t necessarily wrong.

I gave a talk on the topic at a Pecha Kucha night held by the NZ Book Council a couple of years back. I’d been asked to speak, accepted and then freaked out: what on earth was I going to talk about? What could I possibly say about my job that peeled away the obviously superficial assertions and explained the subtler purpose beneath? 
In being forced to explain myself I realised this: human beings are sense-oriented animals. We derive knowledge, pleasure, safety and sustenance from our senses. Brain chemistry has shown (as Joshua Foer points out in his wonderful new book on memory Moonwalking with Einstein) that the more our senses are stimulated the more thorough an experience we have of any given thing. The more likely we are to remember it, care about it, to understand and analyse it. 
Books are no different, a book is a consumable object both in its content and its presentation.
Sure, elevating the cover of a book above the content is plain foolishness, but no independent bookshop I know does this, certainly not Unity Books. Furthermore, to say, as Litterick did, that it’s “not the words inside books that matter any more, it’s the packaging” is recklessly untrue. To prove his point Litterick goes on to criticise anyone who reads differently to him as ‘hard of thinking’ and then to say that for the likes of him the prospects are grim, as ‘original thinking and innovative writing are being replaced by following trends and by merging genres to create hybrids” and then, even more charmingly, says there is now no need to read books at all. I can see his thinking, if he indeed possesses the ESP he seems to imply then there really would be no point in reading, but perhaps I can offer a slightly more sensible solution? Stop reading bad books. To complain that there aren’t any books with original thinking and innovative writing is to illuminate Litterick’s own failure of choice. We’ve all done it, picked up a clunker and then thought ‘all books are shit.’ But surprisingly this logic is flawed.
There are bad books out there, but to say that literature itself is failing as helped by the superficial predilections of booksellers is in direct opposition to the facts. Stand looking face to cover with any of these books (which we stock at Unity) and try saying that booksellers are sucking the life out of writing: The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, one of the strangest and most astoundingly honest love stories of our time; Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining about the Rapture or Stuff, that book about hoarding that changes the way you feel about letting go. You know what? Joyfully this list of wonderful, contemporary, well designed, extraordinarily thoughtful, intelligent books could go on…

I review books on TVNZ’s Channel U and 95Bfm and there are many books that cross my path which present as beautiful but fail dismally to follow through when it comes to content. I do not review these books. 
Unity Books does not buy books because we think they look pretty. A criticism that isn’t new for us but which was echoed by Litterick is a complaint about the size of our philosophy section – a thorough and thoughtful place but one which is kept in check due to the University Bookshop up the road who make a larger trade out of such wares; we’re are an independent bookshop, which means we’re not out to conquer the world, but to coexist happily within it.
We do not buy books that have a great cover and terrible content, we do buy books that have terrible covers and great content. We stock books on philosophy, music theory, gay fiction and non, memoirs, science fiction, fantasy, design, popular culture, vast arrays of science, love, happiness, food, fiction and more. Yet Litterick refers to Unity Books as ‘relentlessly middle-brow’ and presumably this is pejorative. What does middlebrow mean anyway? Perhaps Litterick was using it in reference to the notion of cultural capital, which was first articulated by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his work Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction (1973). Bourdieu established the idea of cultural capital, intimately related to taste, as the accumulation of cultural knowledge to confer power and status. His theory is elaborated on in Carl Wilson’s life changing book: Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste wherein Wilson posits that middlebrow is the new lowbrow, a kind of vastly accessible taste and the only kind of taste you have to say sorry for – the sort that, for those counting, reduces your overall net cultural worth. Wilson talks about how people use terms of taste in order to define their place in a social peeking order based on an outdated sense of elitism; elitism, sadly, isn’t outdated though the mode in which it operates has changed – in a globalised society the coolest thing to be is a polymath of taste.
We used to look to God to clearly dictate what was good and what was bad now in a postreligious society we act as god responding from the gut to ‘what our reflexes tell us is bad art as if it were a kind of blasphemy.’ 
It’s perfectly understandable that people would want to have strict notions of themselves as defined and protected by the way they alone, or their privileged community of the likeminded, feel about subjective disciplines. This is them amassing cultural capital the way others hoard cash. But that does not mean that dismissing others taste is wise or even necessary. It is often the case, as Wilson discovers by anxiously listening to Celine Dion on his stereo, that the very things that offend our sensibilities cause us to come face to face with ourselves. As Wilson puts it ‘shame has a way of throwing you back upon your own existence, on the unbearable truth that you are identical with you, that you are your limits.’

The kind of exclusion Litterick seems to expect from an independent bookshop is to make himself, I presume, feel better about his social standing as exclusive, but it is not appropriate in a democratic context. A bookshop is a reflection of its customers, both consciously and not, and the customers are you and they are me and we are vast and changing and particular. One should not have to worry that booksellers will think poorly of us for our tastes, because that’s not their business.
At Unity Books our business is to stock books from a wide array of interests and fields, books that look different and fulfill different needs, books that speak to you, whoever you are. And so, dear Litterick, if you do not like what you see then what is it you do not like about your fellow man? Or more tellingly, about yourself? How special and strange are you that you cannot find, in amongst books on silence, on war, on loving, on formatting theorems, on hurting and being and seeing the world, something that can teach you, surprise you, comfort or push you further?

Wilson begins by criticising the subject of his book on taste, Celine Dion, as pretty much the worst thing in the music industry, but he ends up shifting gears- he’s intelligent enough to understand that just because something is common it does not make it worth less. Wilson discovers that the sentimentality in Dion’s music that initially repelled him was the same thing that spoke to millions of her fans and that it was his own inability to be emotionally honest without needing to construct understanding around his feelings, that prevented him from being as honest as all those Dion fans were about themselves.
He talks ultimately about democracy ‘not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like.’

Walking into a bookshop you are confronted by a wave of visual theatre, not all of which will call to you but if you take your taste blinkers off and start to humble yourself, to really see, you will no doubt pick up something that can be all these things: beautiful, appealing to the senses, authoritative, life changing and something capable of breaking open the limitations we impose on ourselves by believing we are only what we like. Why not start by picking up Let’s Talk About Love?  I know one person who could certainly benefit from the chance to purge himself from the insularity of self imposed highbrow taste. And that’s not me taking a dig, I was equally invested in underlying notions of status, I did not write critically about my assumptions sure but I can recognize the sense of surety that could lead to such a public outcry. What’s particularly important about Carl Wilson’s book and the investigation of taste in general is that life is too short to spend it rigorously dismissing people who do not like the things you do.

Art credits: Anastasia Doniants xx

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One Response to “As mentioned in the current Metro – the full article: Sweatshops For The Mind”

  1. Bookman Beattie June 28, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Well argued Lily. I found your blog via Metero and am most impressed. Interesting piece on McSweeney’s.

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