Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 2, 2006

The Satisfaction and Emptiness of Online Bookselling

I have loved books for as long as I can remember. As an historian with broad interests I have built up a sizable library over 35 years of collecting. Too many books fighting for scarce shelf space has meant that more and more books were boxed and stored in the garage. What to do with them? Unfortunately, neither my children or anyone else in my family has shown any interest in them. I could not bear the thought of having these ‘friends’ turning up at Goodwill, sidewalk sales, and flea markets where strangers pawed through them and where the leftovers were shredded. After buying used books online for several years, I finally decided about 18 months ago to take the leap, cull those books I would not likely use anymore, and sell them online.

I have a streamlined computerized operation. My books are listed for sale with special software on multiple sites for browsing by millions of potentional readers; orders arrive by email, books packaged, electronic postage applied, and set out at the front door for pickup, all done in minutes. Funds are automatically deposited in my bank account weekly. Slick, clean, and efficient. At its best it is rewarding to sell books all around the world. I never would have dreamed that I would be selling books from Canada to Poland and Brazil to Japan or get a phone order from a professor at the University of Cambridge in England. It is gratifying to see ‘my’ books find new homes in the libraries of people I know will enjoy them as much as I have. Such an operation would have been impossible without computers, the internet, broadband, and sophisticated software.

At the same time, I have come to a new experiential understanding of how computer technology inherently — by its very design — abstracts from the fullness and vitality of life and leaves us with the dry husk of electronic mediation. That’s why I feel so empty and dissatisfied. In the ‘old’ days you had to visit a real bookstore, browse the shelves, enjoy the musty smells, and banter with the bookstore owner. Then you had to take out your wallet, pull out some paper money, get your change, and walk out with your purchase into the pouring rain. Technology has stripped all of those ‘non-essential’ aspects of the real world away and dropped us into the nowhere of cyberspace. Who needs the serendipity of finding the odd surprise on a book shelf when you can scan multiple titles at a glance on-screen? Why put up with the dank smells, dimlit aisles, and gruff owners when you can click through multiple ‘stores’ online? Who needs to put up with a cross checkout clerk who can’t make change when you can pay online with a credit card in seconds? Why put up with the hassle of phone conversations with customers? The very same technology that allows me to be ever-so-efficient in selling my books has also stripped away the vital physical and social dimensions of life.

I will be saying more about the inherent abstractive characteristics of computers and most other electronic devices, and why it is so important to appreciate this about them, in the future. Let me conclude this post by noting that my experience in bookselling ought to remind us of the inescapable brokenness of our humanity — and all of our cultural products — in a post-fall world. Humans design and fabricate technological devices of all kinds. As such, those devices reflect the brokenness of our humanity. That’s the reality. But the enduring dream since the Enlightenment has been that it should be possible to create Something that had escaped the clutches of the evil, imperfection, and death that surrounds us. That Longed-for Savior typically takes shape in our technology. No technology can bring the Joy we long for; it will always disappoint us, leave us feeling empty. What I am experiencing (and, if you are honest, you will admit to the same experience) is the inescapable tension and ambiguity we all experience this side of the New Earth. Yes, there is satisfaction in online bookselling, but . . . there is, and always will be, emptiness as its inevitable companion.

Oh, and by the way, if you would like to buy books without all of the hassles of the real world come visit me at Black Squirrel Books.



  1. Very interesting article

  2. […] “The Satisfaction and Emptiness of Online Bookselling” […]

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