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One of my oldest friends, recent mother, and published author (damn her hide) commented on Facebook the other day:

Would like to know what makes Borders think they can charge $80 for a hardcover novel (not signed or anything). No wonder they’ve gone into receivership.1

Naturally, the owner of the book chain blames THE INTERNET (dun dun dun) for its woes. A simple glance at Amazon tells you that this opinion has its merits: the famous webstore has been selling books online for over fifteen years, and it’s estimated net income of 2010 was US$1.152 billion. That is a lot of money, and it is money that Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson lost.

Of course, Amazon and The Book Depository (my preferred online retailer) don’t have to deal with Australian publishing restrictions. Essentially, booksellers in Australia have to deal with ‘parallel import restrictions’. Good ol’ protectionism: a brick-and-mortar bookseller cannot source books from overseas authors on the cheap and sell them below fixed prices within this country.

This means that the international online book market is easily able to maintain prices well below those of their real-world Australian competitors. This harms even local online sellers such as Fishpond.com.au.

So for all the problems online stores pose to sellers such as Borders and Angus & Robertson, the Australian Government’s protection racket is a more significant problem. In late 2009, the Government decided to keep these restrictions despite the Productivity Commission ruling that “the ban was effectively a trade barrier, resulting in some readers paying up to 35 per cent more for their books than readers overseas.”

herp derp derp

I am somewhat saddened to see Angus & Robertson go out of business, as they are one of Australia’s great book sellers (since 1886). Much of my childhood was spent lurking in their stores, browsing through their SF sections, bored out of my tiny adolescent skull.

Except. Except that their selection was awful. Their prices tremendous. Their staff insulting. Did I mention their poor selection? Because it was pretty dreadful.

John Birmingham notes that, back in the day, Borders had a great backlist. Why, one could wander in and find novels that were unfindable anywhere else- a feature of which I availed myself of quite regularly, when I had the money (and boy, did one need the money). That stopped being the case at some point over the last decade. Angus & Robertson got even worse:

I’m not sure whether you’ve been into an A&R store the last couple of years. Jesus, talk about depressing. They became giant dump bins for failed remainder copies imported directly from the US. Shit books by no-name authors, poorly printed on cheap stock.

Well said, John. I carefully avoid A&R stores nowadays for this exact reason: they suck. It is actively depressing to walk into a bookstore and see precisely nothing that I have not either read before or would rather burn than see on my home shelf.2

Mister Birmingham and myself are not the only ones who see the deadly combination of sucky stores and pernicious prices as murdering the local book industry. Personally, I prefer to browse in a real bookshop- especially those with music and coffee and lovely wooden shelves and attractive young men and women with cheerful grins offering to help:

Derek Dryden, owner of a Newtown bookshop, Better Read Than Dead, said it is hard to compete with online outlets like the Book Depository offering titles at half the price he has to charge.

“When the difference is $25 you can’t really blame the customer for going for the cheaper option,” he said. “You can be as nice as you want and have as much ambience as you want but you still can’t be half price.”

Exactly. And Better Read than Dead is a pretty nice shop, too. I always try to stop in whenever wandering by. It is one of the joys of Newtown, all the bookstores scattered among her streets.

It has been pointed out it is all very well to talk about one’s fondness for local bookstores- quite another to decide to shop there. For all that indie bookshop owner Corrie Perkin claims that the lovely stores, witty staff and all that comes at a price- the simple fact is that I, like so many others, am poor.

I cannot afford to buy a novel at a lovely store with polished wooden floors and a handsome young man with a goatee and a PhD in literature discussing the flaws of the Beowulf movie with me3 when said novel comes at double the cost of getting it from thebookdepository.co.uk. I simply cannot.

Tim White of Books for Cooks describes the bookseller as “a bespoke retailer. The experience of being in an independent bookstore is a bit like saying, ‘I don’t want to buy a suit off the rack, I want one that is made to fit me.’ A good bookseller will match you with your book, and the book fits.”

This never happens. I suppose it would be nice if it did- but is it worth paying nearly double? I doubt it.

On the other hand, one can get this kind of service, along with the ambience, atmosphere, useful assistance and all that: at your local second-hand store.

Elizabeth’s, in Newtown and Sydney City, or Urchin Books in Marrickville, or Sappho Books in Glebe or- well, feel free to comment with your own local favourite.

Second hand bookstores are where you can get bespoke books. The classics with old, faded annotations in the corner; the favourite hardback with the spine cracked; yellowing pages and that wonderful, musty ancient-book-smell. Unique books for unique individuals.

Plus, super cheap.

Save getting brand new books for online shopping- cheap, reliable, straight to your door (or held at the post office because you live in a flat, dammit). For individual sales and support of local business, and to get that personalised book like no-one else has: head down to a second hand local.

Alternative hypothesis: I am just annoyed, bitter because Borders never stocks anything on Old Irish.

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Acher in Gaíth

Is acher in gaíth innocht,
fu·fúasna fairggae findḟolt:
ni·ágor réimm mora minn
dond láechraid lainn úa Lothlind.

Detail from "The Viking Terror" by Denis Brown

Sharp the Wind

The wind is sharp tonight,
it tosses the white hare of the ocean:
I fear not the coursing of the clear sea
by the fierce warriors from Lothlainn.

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It is a long standing tradition that writers and the melancholy -and the two are often combined in the same human- turn to literature in times of mournful need. I know that I certainly do it, and if my preferred depression-times reading features rather more graphic novels than pretentious poetry, the works of Pratchett instead of Wordsworth, the point is still the same. Human creative endeavour has a way of easing the most painful of periods.

Except. Except when one’s mood, one’s sad song of oneself, is not created by the events of life, but instead by tiny monsters in the brain. One can read as many adventures of first-Sergeant-later-Captain-later-Duke Vimes as one wishes, but disease is a twisted, horrible thing that no amount of escapism can cure.

I generally avoid this sort of personal blather on For I Have tasted the Fruit, as it is generally more suited to the emocracy of Livejournalstan. Yet I wish to speak about it here. Here, I discuss everyone’s favourite medieval period, and regularly -well, back when my posts were regular- translate medieval and occasionally classical poetry. And the sentiments expressed in many of my favourite Anglo-Saxon pieces are, one would think, perfectly suited to this sort of mood.

The murnende mod of the woman in Wulf and Eadwacer; the weeping poet who laments the fall of the great past in The Ruin; the sea-weary soul of The Seafarer, with his ice-and-rain-soaked birds of prey: these are powerful images, powerful pieces of poetry, and one would think, expect, that reading them would make one’s own problems seem distant or petty- or, at the least, offer the consolation that such emotions are part of the broad spectrum of human experience.

I am sure that they do. Perhaps bound editions of the more misery-wracked of our period’s poetry could be bound and offered to depressives in psych wards. Read The Wanderer and appreciate loneliness, or Wulf and Eadwacer to help cope with abusive, ambiguous relationships. Unfortunately, when a key source of one’s stress is the very act of studying the period, one can stare at these carefully constructed words all day… and all one gets in return is a sense of growing unease.

Original Source Unknown

I have not been able to write in months. I cannot remember the last time I set fingers to keys for anything longer than a status update- this post is approaching four hundred words, and the effort required to write it is exhausting. I am posting it today, a Monday, because the theme is so very medieval. I constantly find myself wondering- did Bede feel this kind of exhausted despair? Did Boethius? Is one of the much-vaunted ‘consolations’ of philosophy that it keeps one focused and energised? Because I have to say, as much as I try, my own scholarly efforts make me feel weak and inept, not focused and sharp.

Perhaps it is the summer. For all the misery some of the old English poets expressed, for all the hardship the icy-feathered eagle must endure, at least they did not have to survive the heat of Australia’s most hateful season.

February 2011
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