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Debate Over Your Nightstand
Are Oprah and superstores really betraying the reading public?


I think everyone who loves books and loves to read has some form of queue where "to be read" books pile up. It may be your actual nightstand, it may be a list you carry in your head, or it may take any number of other forms. Mine happens to take the form of my entire house. Someone once said that the saddest day in a person 's life is the day they realize they'll never read all the books they already own. And yet we continue to buy books, and well we should. I'm convinced there are benefits to buying and owning books even though you never read a page from them. But there's a big debate over the stack of books on your nightstand and how you came to own them. I'll explain.

If you pay attention to the buzz in the book world you will hear criticism of things such as Oprah's Book Club, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, national chain "superstores," and mergers among the major publishers. In one way or another, the argument goes, each of these phenomena causes people to have fewer reading choices. I don't agree, and a brief look at each of these situations will help me explain.

Oprah's Book Club and show have sold millions of books. Sometimes a mere mention on her show has rocketed a book onto bestseller lists and sent publishers scrambling to reprint. Shouldn't we be worried that one person has this much power to control what America reads? Well shouldn't we? Nah. Many of the books Oprah plugs on her show never take off at all, proving that people ultimately make up their own minds.

Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other Internet booksellers retain a history of the books you order from them and make future suggestions based upon it. This, according to critics, again fosters a homogenization of reading choices among the masses. But most people give these suggestions a brief glance and then move on to whatever prompted their visit. These sites contain literally millions of books in readily searchable databases. Hardly a choice limiting scenario.

The success of the major national chain bookstores has undeniably changed the bookselling world. The criticism here is that they stock only the bestselling titles and run all the independent bookstores out of business, narrowing the field of available reading materials. Again, this is inaccurate. The "bestsellers" comprise only a small fraction of the inventory in these stores. They are successful because of the depth and breadth of their selections. When they don't have your book they'll gladly order it for you as long as it is in print.

Although many of the country's top publishers are merging, there is really no danger of them controlling our reading. There has been a concurrent explosion of small publishers thanks to new technology and methods. The Internet presents the easiest route to self publication yet. The large publishers are not the only way a book is born anymore.

The common thread running through each of these scenarios is the assumption that you and I are generally not to be trusted to choose our own reading material in a free marketplace. The people who hold this assumption are most often the ones found wringing their hands over the situations just discussed. They always finish discussing Oprah with the comment "But at least these people are reading." The unsaid conclusion of that thought is "…though the dolts will never be as culturally aware as we are."

The error lies in this condescending view of everyone else. Ironically their belief that so much control over society can be wielded by so few seems to bother them less than their belief that it's Oprah, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Random House who is doing the controlling. In other words, if only the right few were in control all would be well. But if there is a large enough segment of the population that is so controllable that someone needs to worry about which books Oprah recommends, then surely such worry misses the point. I don't accept that view of things, and I have a hard time understanding all the fuss, especially considering the state of my nightstand. If publishing and bookselling came to a screaching halt altogether it would be a terrible thing indeed, but I would have reading material aplenty for a good while yet.

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