The Buggles are not the Rolling Stones, but their 1979 MTV hit nailed it: “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Later, similar trends started killing books. Then Jeff Bezos stepped on stage.
I know some People of the Book consider Mr. Bezos more Antichrist than Messiah, and Amazon more the river Styx than the (parted) Red Sea. But those folks aren’t paying attention to the facts, including where the greenbacks are going, since Americans do, indeed, vote with their pocketbooks. Some say Mr. Bezos isn’t warm and fuzzy (he’s fond of physics and electrical engineering). But he’s passionate about books. He’s poured his heart and soul into the written word and risked his very uncertain, hard-won fortune on it. And for that I’m most thankful.
“But what about indie booksellers?” some people ask. Well, what about them? Some of this country’s most vibrant commercial and intellectual venues remain BookPeople in Austin, Tex.; D.C.’s Politics and Prose; Denver’s Tattered Cover; New York’s Word; Seattle’s Elliott Bay; etc. And while many indies have been forced to shutter, is it fair to blame Mr. Bezos? No, I submit. In a recent Bloomberg News interview, the CEO of LinkedIn attributed his success to “doing fewer things—better.” Analogously, there are today fewer indies; however, they join the Galápagos finches as Darwinian case studies: the survivors are (in the main) better booksellers. Indies may only account for about 5% of total book sales, but often, as in a proxy fight, all one needs is 5% to carry the day.
“What about the caliber of today’s writing?” others ask. “Hasn’t it been degraded?” Not in my opinion. Indeed, today’s writers have reestablished the primacy of storytelling, as opposed to fact shoveling. Before Amazon, the majority of bestsellers were nonfiction; today, fiction rules the charts.
“What about Kindle?” First, for people with poor vision (e.g., my hospice patients), the device has been a godsend. Second, Jeff Bezos has saved more trees than Al Gore. Third, with regard to content, and the pipes that ferry it, nothing I’ve seen suggests Mr. Bezos is another William Randolph Hearst, bent on suppressing quantity or warping quality, like that twisted sister of San Simeon tried to do vis-à-vis Orson Welles. Fourth, the Kindle Single is a terrific innovation.
“What about Goodreads?” Earlier this year, Bezos agreed to acquire the startup when it had about 13 million users. Now it has nearly 20 million. I agree with Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” But is Goodreads’ growth bad for books? Hardly.
“What about the Washington Post, which Bezos bought earlier this year?” The paper has struggled since Watergate. The writing’s been spotty. The editing has erred, not just with big-ticket items like Janet Cooke (in fairness, many papers have been similarly duped), but also on basic stuff like facts, figures, grammar, and punctuation. I expect Mr. Bezos will raise the bar. I’m certainly rooting for my hometown paper’s return to glory.
In this eerie era of Psy bellowing, Hannah Montana twerking, gory video games, and, Heaven truly help us, “stars” like ex–Texas exterminator and U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay dancing, I’m thankful for any ally of the written word. Amazon is an ally.
David Ricardo’s 19th-century theory remains valid today: economies turn on the optimal interplay of three “factors of production”—land, labor, and cash. As a businessman and a lawyer who’s spent lots of time juggling said factors, I know this: labor’s intellectual capital is the key. Yet money is what so many obsess over—and demonize.
Thank goodness for Mr. Bezos’s intellectual capital. It’s what Bill and Melinda Gates are drawing on in their battle to rid the world’s poorest of polio and roundworm, by providing free drugs and clean drinking water. It’s our only hope of keeping the likes of Mitch McConnell and Anthony Weiner off the dance floor, and out of our living rooms.
So I, for one, wish to thank Mr. Bezos, and his river of books.