The terrible thing about the internet and Amazon

The terrible thing about the internet and Amazon is that they take the magic and happy chaos out of book shopping. The internet might give you what you want, but it won’t give you what you need.

Tom Hodgkinson

PG doesn’t usually comment on quotes, but, perhaps he’s missing something because he obtains all of his book pleasure from reading them. Lots and lot of them.

While one look at PG’s office would convince PG’s harshest observer that he tends to generate and work among quite a bit of chaos, there are no books buried there (he thinks). PG’s happiness sometimes arises from the chaos when he discovers a check made payable to him that he overlooked when it first arrived.

While the types of books PG likes to read change from time to time, he doesn’t think happy chaos or magic are involved in these changes.

17 thoughts on “The terrible thing about the internet and Amazon”

  1. I know what he means. I’ve felt it, that “magic and happy chaos”. It’s the going in with no driving mission, looking through the glass on the cabinet of first editions, wandering the pile of SF and Fantasy just to see what might be there. However, it’s only ever been in one place: Powell’s in Portland.
    I hasten to say that the “happy chaos” also made it unlikely that I ever spent a lot of money there though it’s true that I came and went, usually, by 737. Book stowage? Best done in small doses.
    My TBR – all ebooks – looks something like one of Powell’s aisles, I fear, and clicking is far easier than flying, these days.

    Edit for correction.

  2. Apologies for the fact that this comment turned into and exercise in nostalgia. It does still have some bearing on the posting.

    This is very much the kind of comment I expect from a certain kind of British writer, complete with the tired cliche saying buying on Amazon “… won’t give you what you need”. I have to wonder if he was actually thinking whilst he was writing.

    My normal experience of UK bookstores – and it’s a long time since I visited one – did not include any “magic and happy chaos”, quite the reverse in fact. The local book shop never had anything in that I wanted, though it was a good place to put in a special order for a book (the good old days: 15 minutes of bureaucracy to place the order and a three week wait until the postcard turned up to say it had arrived, and another trip to the shop to collect it. Prime it wasn’t!)

    Driving into the local town centre was no better, a quick trip round W H Smith’s, and Waterstones once it opened, but no chaos and little excitement, and I still had to buy most of my non fiction from postal sellers (this was pre Amazon).

    For all that though I do understand what he means. For me it was a train trip to London, a walk through Soho to “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed” for SFF, or once this closed to the original(?) “Forbidden Planet” shop in Denmark Street (the pre-owned Ace Doubles in the basement proved plenty of excitement and the cornucopia of SFF books passed over by British publishers produced the chaos). Then a move onto the Tottenham Court Road and Foyles, the latter at that time still being the world’s worst organised and most user hostile bookshop. Useless if you knew what you wanted but a wonderful place for serendipitous discoveries once you found the room for your desired subject matter. One was then faced with a road full of second hand book shops, but probably had to skip them as you were already weighed down by your purchases (and broke).

    • Good points that I didn’t include in my original comment, M.

      Lots and lots of people don’t live near a physical bookstore. Even more don’t live near a good physical bookstore. Ditto for a library. For them, Amazon was a wonderful change.

    • I had the dubious advantage of having an office right down the road from Foyle’s, so it was just a short schlepp with my research materials. (But you forgot Hatchard’s, which was a little farther away and less convenient, if vastly better organized. And had a lot more speculative fiction, especially from US authors below bestseller level.)

      • Good point, though getting to Foyle’s was so much more convenient if I was starting from Denmark Street, and by that time I was already loaded down with speculative fiction. I do have some good late 1960s memories of Blackwell’s and Parker’s in Oxford, particularly the latter.

        You have my sympathy if your research purchases had to go through both Foyle’s unique book shelving system and their three queues purchase process.

  3. Why can’t the internet give you what you need, but a dusty, stuffy, old book store, with piles of avalanching, uncatalogued books can?

    I’ve spent enough of my time in those archaic bookstores. Now, most of my searching has turned into actually reading. Thank you, Mr. Internet.


  4. Amazon does a decent job of replicating the browsing experience, with the serendipitous find one was not looking for. This was much remarked upon when it first appeared on the scene. But the replication is imperfect. I entirely understand the appeal of a bricks and mortar bookstore. Amazon is vastly better if you know what you are looking for. The experiences are distinct from one another. I use both. That being said, if your interest is in commercial genre fiction, general interest bookstores have never served you well. I read my share of commercial genre fiction, almost never getting it through a bookstore.

    • My last century UK experience is that general interest bookstores actually served readers of commercial genre fiction quite well, provided you bought soon after publication and didn’t want category romance. However, unless the author was really popular, getting their back catalogue was very hit and miss and my interest in SFF was frequently stymied by the British publishers who simply did not pick up a lot of what was on offer in the USA: hence the transatlantic trade in used mass market paperbacks that today would go to landfill as not good enough quality to be saleable.

      Where the bookshops really fell down was in not stocking the non fiction I wanted – and taking far too long to order them in if requested – so it was the ease of purchase of these that originally hooked me on Amazon. It may be that my taste was just a bit too esoteric, as my first Amazon purchases back in 1999 were things like Reflecting Telescope Optics,Sky Atlas 2000.0 2ed Deluxe Edition Laminated Map,The Cambridge Handbook of Physics Formulas and Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development, 1860-1905. Amazon were really competing with a cottage industry of subject related book sellers who put out regular lists of new and used titles and whose business model was crushed by the internet (though the canny ones moved their used sales on line).

      • The three biggest threats to Amazon’s book business were: ABEbooks, Goodreads, and Audible. Curious, huh?
        Around the time they bought Goodreads, an industry pundit floated Facebook as a potential threat. But Facebook didn’t have the stomach for tangling with the BPHs, much less Amazon. Not after the pbook price war of 2009. And then KU came out. End of story for this generation.

  5. When I lived in Minnesota, I loved Uncle Hugo’s bookstore in Minneapolis – a wonderful place when I was in my sci-fi phase. Of course, that was long ago, before ebooks. I haven’t been in a brick-and-mortar “new” bookstore in decades and don’t miss the frustrating experience. At all. And since getting a Kindle, I haven’t been in a “used” bookstore in years, either. I don’t miss paper books. I’m not a huge fan of the cult of Amazon, but I mostly read genre fiction and the Amazon experience works for me. I discover new writers all the time – by first finding one of their books on sale on one of the many blog sites like Bookbub, Book Sends, etc., then I find them easily on Amazon and binge. Discovery isn’t the problem, money and time are.

    • Ditto, however to the discovery point I would add short story anthologies, a great (imo) way to find good writers.

  6. I can’t remember when I last made a ‘magical’ discovery in a bookstore. And as someone else has pointed out, when I discover a writer I love, I want to read everything and I don’t want to wait. Tell me a bookstore where I’ll find all of Marjory Allingham’s brilliant back catalogue as I did last year, reading them obsessively on my Kindle through our first lockdown. I still enjoy browsing when I find a good bookstore but mostly for non-fiction.

  7. I confess. I lack the intellectual heft of Hodgkinson and his university chums. And the magic and happy chaos of a bookstore? I’ve only seen that when Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett ran into each other a few years back in a B&N Christmas commercial. I’m not counting the bookstore in Cabot Cove because that’s just a TV show.

  8. “The internet might give you what you want, but it won’t give you what you need.”

    Based on his bio he doesn’t seem like a bad dude, but with all due respect, who is he to make that judgment?

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