Dorothea von Moltke and Clifford Simms: The Web and Community, Part 2
In the responses to the first installment of Why Independent Bookstores Matter, a simple and anonymous question posted on a web page in the StumbleUpon universe stood out: “You mean, people still read books in print?”
Yes, I thought (with the subtlety and emotional intensity of a first grader).
While I am emotionally attached to books made of paper and ink, the StumbleUpon reader is certainly not alone in his perspective. Should it matter that we read books in the form of a creased paperback or feel the history of a dated cloth edition in our hands? After all, a recent New York Times article showed a family in which both parents were predictably reading books while their daughter was curled up on the next couch – engrossed in her laptop.
In the second part of our interview, Dorothea von Moltke and her husband and business partner, Clifford Simms, owners of Labyrinth Independent Bookstore, address the rapid changes in technology where Shakespeare scholars can convene online, and Twitter and Facebook light up the social media ether. Indeed, few bookstores neglect to set up their own website.
Says von Moltke, “I am no luddite. I am not romantically encouraging that we head back to a pre-internet, pre-cell-phone age. The possibilities opened by these technologies are vast, and as a bookseller, I am as dependent on them as the next person. But, we should resist the complete co-optation of the ‘older’ categories of ‘connection.’ In other words, the social sphere needs to be defended and people need to be given a reason to leave their homes. This includes all sorts of cultural and educational forums. Bookstores are among them.”
von Moltke and Simms continue our discussion about the ways in which reading books (and frequenting independent bookstores) might change our lives and the way we relate to one another. We also discuss the relationship between books and social advocacy, reading and political empowerment, as well as the growing influence of technology over our lives.
As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments. Please send them to: Letters to the Editors
WRR: In a 2002 interview with Bookselling this Week, former L.A. gang member, prison inmate, author and lecturer Luis J. Rodriguez (Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. andHearts and Hands: Making Peace in a Violent Time) declared that books saved his life. As a bookseller, how have you witnessed books changing people’s lives?
von Moltke: There are many stories of people in distress finding courage, solace, conviction, or a reason to live in a book or in reading. These stories are incredibly moving. But we have to remember that we belong to and are fundamentally selling books to a highly privileged sub-set of our highly privileged society. This is not to say that books don’t impact and change lives as well, but the way books change our perspective can also be more subtle.
But to circle back to Rodriquez, the correlation between education and reducing recidivism rates is well established and indisputable. I also see that there is work to be done to bring books to places where for all intents and purposes there really aren’t any. From Princeton NJ, you don’t have to travel far. In New Haven CT, you don’t have to leave town. That’s a form of activism I’m extremely interested in. In our Princeton store, we have started develop a platform for all issues concerning prison literacy in particular.
WRR: What drew you to these kinds of social issues?
von Moltke: Personally, I’m interested in the role that humanities education can play. While practical, vocational training and resources are clearly indispensable to a productive work life, how does a person survive – I mean find the resilience for– the encounter with systemic inequalities and odds stacked sky high against her, especially at a time of economic downturn? I’m a little sick of so-called “inspirational literature” that tells the disadvantaged that they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I am more interested in everything that can teach people to become critical thinkers, to find and raise their voices. History, art, philosophy, music, literature, education are crucial for this. In fact, Rutgers University is launching a great new program to take just this kind of learning into under-served communities.
Anything that Labyrinth can do to help these sorts of endeavors, we will do. Are we still acting as booksellers in this context? Not in any direct or immediate way. But, of course we have a stake in broad, full forms of literacy and in fostering reading precisely where it is most threatened.
WRR: When Luis J. Rodriguez moved back to Southern California after serving time in prison, he noticed that there weren’t any bookstores in his community. He felt it was important to create a bookstore where events such as poetry readings and musical events could help foster a sense of community. How can/should bookstores serve these communities?
von Moltke: Well, you’ve given part of the answer, or Rodriquez has: certainly bookstores should become forums of discussion and encounters around books. Some of that simply happens in the day-to-day operations of a bookstore, but events are central here. In our experience the more the format of the event encourages conversation, the better. Which is why we always ask the author if he or she might want to invite a guest who will engage with the work. This way things often quickly come alive, not just for the audience but for the author as well. And there is generally a built-in openness to an exchange with the audience.
I’d like to add that when we talk about the ways in which an independent bookstore can create a sense of community around books and reading, it’s important to remember that this potential exists only to the extent that the staff of the store carries and embodies that same vision. We are very lucky in this regard. In both our stores, the people we have hired are without exception passionate readers who understand our project and work incredibly hard to realize and sustain it. This is true for those receive the books in the basement, or order them in the office, as much as for those who work on the floor of the store researching books for customers.
WRR: How do you view the role of technology and the web as the world of publishing continues to rapidly change?
Simms: I am always astonished by our naiveté about how radical the new dominant information technology is. This naiveté is coupled with a belief that the new technology is a self-regulating, self-correcting system. The web may be a very efficient mechanism for selling books, but it is not helping to create another generation of book readers. If you want to understand the scope of the transformation we are undergoing, you will have to escape its boosterism and its wholesale condemnation.
Whether people are advocates of the new technologies, or critics, technological determinism is pervasive, which I see as threatening to publishing. Publishers who have witnessed the agonies of the music companies in the face of similar circumstances seem not to have learned much. At a time when digital download of songs and file sharing have made music deflationary, music companies counter by greater policing and by raising prices of CDs. Even if a customer wants a certain CD, the twelve songs can be downloaded for $11.89, while the CD costs $18.95 or more. The effect of this has been to destroy a number of viable outlets such as Tower Records and independent record stores, thereby accelerating the trend to purchase online.
It is also true that the record companies could not have stopped the momentum of the new technologies, but their policies – such as pricing and discounts – could have created a more viable circumstance for some of their outlets.
In the book market, publishers have, while experimenting with new technologies, instituted policies similar to those of the music industry: at a time when books are deflationary (i.e. prices decline quickly, in this case due largely to the internet). Prices for new books have gone up and up, especially in the scholarly and academic market.
If publishers want a healthy book market, they will need to create different policies for independent outlets before all outlets contract onto the web (which would not be sustainable for publishers). Readers still find out about books through mediums other than the web: you can browse online all you want, some things you have to stumble upon in a book store because they are put in your path.
WRR: How do you see the split between academic versus general interest books?
Von Moltke: The divisions between ‘academic’ and ‘general interest’ books are both real and imagined.
Certainly, every discipline in the academy has a vast body of knowledge and in our stores we try to represent all that we can. However, we don’t think of the people who walk through our doors in terms of scholars vs. non-scholars, and it should never feel like you need an advanced degree to browse our sections. I regard those academic writers most highly who don’t lose sight of what is at stake in their work in broader social, political, or cultural terms. And I regard those writers most highly whose thinking or imaginative reach is deeply rooted. For an engaged reader of any walk of life this is where the divisions between ‘scholarly’ and ‘general’ begin to fade.
At any rate, everyone seems to meet up in Current Events’ books, in Kids’ books, in Cookbooks, in Art books, or in Fiction and Poetry books. You will see that in terms of the layout of the Princeton store (where we have the luxury of ample space), these sections make up the midriff of the store itself.
WRR: In a recent speech you talked about the importance of going against the grain, especially the growing tendency toward an “increasing privatization of experience.” How would you describe this culture of privatization and how does/should one work to counteract it?
Von Moltke: There is no question that we are undergoing a profound sociological transformation due to the role technology plays in everyone’s life. On one level, the sum effect of the pervasiveness of computers, televisions, ipods, and cell-phones is a contraction of experience into a sphere where encounters between people are highly mediated and very often a bit anonymous. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing not to have to leave the home to search for culture or entertainment.
Conversely, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to be inconvenienced. How about this as a definition of friendship: the desire and willingness to allow oneself to be inconvenienced by the demands of the other and for the other to want and accept being inconvenienced by us?
As compared to a coffee shop or a bookstore, what sort of a room is a chat room? It’s a virtual space that may be creating a new kind of community, but you can certainly only enter this community out of the solitary confines of the minimal and private space of your desk. And when you look over your shoulder, there’s still nobody there.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson