Some time ago, Michael Jennings of this parish caused a stir by suggesting a way of subverting the leftist intent of the staff who decide what sort of books they recommend to customers at Britain’s high street bookstores. While strictly against the rules of property, I totally sympathised with Michael’s intent and his annoyance that the bookstore seemed to be run this way.
It has not got any better in the bookshop world, as far as I can tell (at least not in Britain. Things may be different elsewhere). Earlier this week I spent a quick lunchbreak wandering around the nearby Books Etc. store in Holborn High Street. After browsing through a fairly sparsely-stocked crime and general fiction section, I took a peek at the current affairs and history section. The history bit was okay, if not particularly impressive. But the current affairs section was in a different class. It might have been stocked by the sort of folk who write for the Democratic Underground or who think Michael Moore is a sort of latter-day saint. Books by Chomsky, Gore Vidal, John Gray (a pet hate of mine); Michael Moore, of course; then various authors I have not heard of before but the titles give the general gist: “George W. Bush and the Arrogance of Power”; Why Do People Hate America?”, and blah, blah, blah. Apart from one slim volume by noted scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis, it was a total washout.
Now what is going on here? Clearly, the folk who decide what books to sell and what books to publish presumably want to make money. I tentatively offer a few explanations: the impact of higher education and direct bias from bookstore staff. Dealing with the latter point first, I have found, while chatting to the folk who work in the stores, that most tilt to the statist left. Maybe they directly get to decide what is put up in certain parts of the store. With popular fiction, they have to stock Harry Potter and Nick Hornby like everyone else, but when it comes to politics, they get freer rein. That is my take anyhow.
But I also believe higher education has an effect on all this. The serious, non-fiction parts of bookstores cater for a perceived ‘high-brow’ market. Given that humanities departments, such as political and history ones, tend to tilt to the left in my experience, it follows that the main market for such books will tend to shift the same way. There is not – yet – a big market for non-fiction with a clear libertarian and conservative leaning.
In the Internet Age, of course, this may not matter so much. But as a bibliophile it bugs me to see the biggest high street bookshops stocking so much crud.