Archive for December, 2011

Not So Nice

I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our NatureAt 696 pages (before over 100 pages of reference notes), it’s not what you’d call a beach read, even if the weather were warmer. Pinker is a well-known, Harvard-trained psychologist, scientist and linguist who studies and writes about cognition; that is, (to borrow the title of his 2007 book), “the stuff of thought.” An affable, outgoing sort with an accessible writing style and a full head of longish curly hair, Dr. Pinker has his fans. Some of them have been gushing appropriately about Better Angels. In it, Pinker sets out to show that violence is on the decline. He supplements his lecture-like presentation of “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces” with impressive amounts of data with which it is nearly impossible to quibble. The Guardian’s David Runciman viewed it as “an astonishing book” and Nicholas Kristoff devoted an entire column  praising the book’s thesis and calling attention to the “stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.”

Not every critic loved the book. The New Yorker reviewer Elizabeth Colbert faulted Pinker’s methodology: “Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.” Andrew Brown, also writing in The Guardian, snidely referred to the book as “a comfort blanket for the smug” and followed up with this indictment: “The factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker’s thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.”

Let me stop right here and let you know I won’t be reviewing the book. I don’t feel qualified to judge either the research or the central thesis; I’m not sure I can fairly determine whether Pinker’s conclusions are based on solid science or selective speculation. I will admit that I’m attracted to the notion that on the whole, we’re getting nicer; that may factor into why I find myself reading cautiously and yet with a modicum of hope.


Besides, Pinker introduces the book with caveats: many readers will find his conclusions hard to accept; we are overrun with oppressive news; a series of unforeseeable events could change everything. Notwithstanding his warnings, certain readers seem mightily put off by anyone’s imagining that we might be turning into good guys and gals. Harsh comments have been left on blogs, at the end of articles and interviews and elsewhere. I have no idea whether these readers have actually read any of the book; or whether they’re simply reacting to their understanding of what Pinker is proposing. The suggestion that mankind is evolving into a kinder, gentler version of itself apparently drives people nuts.

Kristoff’s Thanksgiving Day piece praised Pinker’s book, going so far as to give thanks for a world that is, on the whole, improving. His column gave quite a few readers indigestion (“this column’s a turkey,” said one). Other commenters accused Kristoff and Pinker of being dangerously naïve. “What universe are you living in?” asked one. “Maudlin and wishful thinking do not a wise man make,” advised another. And another simply wrote: “This is not true.”

We are, in the view of the commenters, craftier, sneakier, less overt or less inclined to whack someone over the head, perhaps but most definitely not nicer. Anyone suggesting otherwise is dangerously deluded.

Angry, aren’t we?

As a skeptic nevertheless trying to tiptoe towards a version of happiness, always mindful of landmines and booby-traps and the possibility of reversal, I’m both bemused and concerned with our negativism. I’m no fan of blind faith, mindless positivism, or false hope. I don’t know for certain that everything works out for the best; I realize we’re far from perfect–far from it. I detest the xenophobic hucksterism that underlies certain politicians’ insistence on American “exceptionalism”; the word was originally meant to describe a fortuitous combination of history and geography, not the sense of entitlement it currently conveys.

It seems, however, that many people, Americans in particular, may have become stuck in a collective mindset that views gratitude as naive and improvement as unlikely, given the nasty, brutish nature of our fellow travelers. That ticks me off. While I’m aware of the capacity of humankind to inflict suffering upon each other, I also rely on a personal perspective that encompasses more than half a century. I’m not thrilled that in my lifetime, children are threatened, the elderly are swindled, and the rest of us live with a virtually unbreachable income disparity. But I’ve seen things change for the better in my lifetime and so have you, even as the hold-outs object loudly to any changes at all.. It’s neither naive nor unsophisticated to look up from our gloom and doom from time to time and recognize forward momentum for what it is: a type of moral and social evolution that requires our encouragement, not our disdain.



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Princeton: The name evokes serious scholarly pursuit. Among its alumni are governors, senators, presidents, Supreme Court justices, admirals, rocket scientists, inventors, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, and a few bona fide Hollywood stars.

It stands to reason that a quintessential university town like Princeton would have an independent bookstore. For 26 years, Micawber Books was that store, until the owner decided to close for personal reasons. . Meanwhile, the township built a new library and just outside the town limits, Barnes and Noble had customized a branch to draw the Princeton clientele by including knowledgeable information specialists, a large supply of arcane books and a roster of top-drawing guest speakers. No one was quite sure whether the town would see another independent bookstore.

Enter Labyrinth Books. After making sure Micawber’s owner was truly out of the bookstore business (“We would never have come to a small town and displaced a quality independent store with deep roots in the community,” says Labyrinth owner Dorothea von Moltke), the new store opened in 2006, backed by a partnership with the University and a strong wholesale business. Add to that an ambitious community outreach, and Labyrinth appears to have hit on a winning formula.

The retail establishment is just what you want in an indie book store. Unusual and unexpected books are more likely to grace the windows than are best sellers, although those are also on hand. Nearly every weekend, the bins are placed outside, where they become part of the busy main street culture that attracts many tourists in addition to students and members of the local community. Labyrinth doesn’t have a coffee shop and products like mugs, bookmarks, and calendars are kept to a minimum, especially since they can be found in the University gift shop next door.

Labyrinth and its helpful website are both organized “so you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for.”  True, but the wide variety of categories makes it likely you’ll find what you were hoping to find. The business of book–buying,  browsing, reading and discussing–is what Labyrinth is all about

Dorothea and her husband met in New York; she was finishing her PhD at Columbia University and he was co-owner of the nearby store, BookForum. In the mid-nineties, the couple founded Great Jones Books, which has become nationally recognized as a wholesaler of quality hurts and remainders.

Labyrinth Books opened a retail store in New Haven, close to Yale University more than a decade ago. The owners established strong ties to the faculty and students. But Yale’s administration chose as its official partner the Barnes and Noble branch just around the corner from Labyrinth. “To say that [Yale] did nothing to support the presence of an independent, scholarly and community bookstore in town is, unfortunately, even a bit of an understatement,” notes von Moltke pointedly. The New Haven store closed in May of 2011.

In Princeton, however, Labyrinth has a true collaboration with the University and remains its official source for all required course books as well as important ancillary materials. The bookstore  is next to the University store; both do a brisk trade, especially on weekends.  A new pilot program launched in September offers students 30% off. Discounts are also available to faculty. The University sponsors events at the store; Princeton professors are often guest speakers.

The store’s relationship with the community is one of mutual devotion. Labyrinth’d mission–“keeping reading alive and…reaching across intellectual as well as social divides”—is especially important to the highly educated, culture-loving residents. Program co-sponsors have included the Princeton Public Library (itself a significant cultural presence in the community), the Princeton Research Forum,  Trenton Crisis Ministries, Sustainable Princeton, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Princeton’s well-regarded McCarter Theater, to name a few. Labyrinth has also established, with carbonfund.org, a unique program designed to offset the carbon foot-print of any book purchased from the store for an additional five cents per book, that sum matched by the organization. Von Moltke believes these partnerships enable Labyrinth to “keep questions of social justice as well as the viability of the arts at the forefront of our concerns.”

Princeton is home to a great many writers, some quite well-known and others less so. The store is generous in giving both established and relatively unknown authors time and attention (author’s note: I gave a reading at the store, which carries my book, in 2010).Whereas Barnes and Noble might sniff at a pitch from an author without a national platform or a slot on the best-seller list; Labyrinth will offer a place in its events calendar for a reading/book signing and free publicity through its mailing lists.

Labyrinth’s bread and butter comes from its business as a highly reputable and nationally recognized scholarly book wholesaler. “To be the booksellers we are,” von Moltke says, “we need also to be book-wholesalers; [we are] constantly looking for the best books at the best prices.” GJB buys titles “by the truckload” at auction, keeps what’s best for the store, catalog, and retail website, and sells the rest to bookstores nationally and internationally. GJB has a warehouse not far from Princeton in Pennington, New Jersey that carries more than 50,000+ titles at discounted prices, “more than the largest of chain stores,” according to von Moltke.  The idea is to source books that the ever-churning marketplace has given up on; giving them a longer life by bringing those books back into circulation and selling them at deep discounts. The process is designed to allow both GJB and its retail store to compete with chains and online retailers

Businesses like Amazon present a challenge, von Moltke admits. “Here you have a bookseller for whom books are effectively lost leaders for selling other products such as cosmetics, electronics, and all the rest,” she explains, adding, “Competing with a ubiquitous bookseller who is not looking to make any money on books will always be tricky.”

The future of print material is another question mark in terms of the viability of the Labyrinth model. The owners are already looking ahead: they are hoping to acquire a print-on-demand machine (called the espresso machine), which would allow them to print any book in the public domain as well per-copy self-published books and perhaps even current titles, once publishers warm to the idea.  Says von Moltke with obvious enthusiasm, “This would mean we would never have to say to a customer that we don’t have a book. Instead, we’d tell them: give me 2 minutes.”

The owners seem to have hit upon a way to survive and thrive: the small store is backed by a successful wholesale book business with a huge list and deep discounts. In the end, it’s all about the culture of reading. Labyrinth is devoted to providing its customers with any book, anytime–the ones they need and the ones they didn’t know they wanted. What more could any of us ask from an independent bookstore?

Labyrinth Books
122 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08540

top image: en.wikipedia.org

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