Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. 2006. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. Summary
: Operating under the assumption that culture (and not just capitalism) affects the structure of the retail environment, Laura J. Miller examines the so-called "bookstore wars" of the late 20th century and shows how retailers position themselves in the market has both political and cultural justifications and implications. Comments
: It so happens that I spoke briefly last month with one of the professors involved in Miller's dissertation defense, and he told me that he had challenged her on one particular point of ambiguity that, he felt, she, an aspiring sociologist, never sufficiently answered, namely: How is this work sociology? And once I started truly reading the book sentence-by-sentence, I found myself wondering the very same thing. Much of Miller's work might better be shelved with business history,--the history of bookselling in the United States and particularly of the modern "bookstore wars" between the chains and the independents. Not to suggest, of course, that this wasn't fascinating to me. The time of transition between the mall bookstore and the big box superstore coincided with my formative years, and a natural part of the pleasure of reading about the recent past is to gain new perspective on one's own life. My God, I hadn't heard or even thought of
the Encore Books bookstore chain for I don't know how many years...and I certainly never supposed that they were owned by Rite-Aid!
I am tremendously grateful, however, for the theoretical background that Miller covers in the first chapter of her book, as it is unequivocally "sociological" in its stance. She assumes the position that "culture constitutes economic relations" and "constrains the free play of market forces," which would be a position much disputed by economists (who would, I think, largely claim the opposite) and offers numerous sources which one could use to bring to bear on such a claim. She also cited several studies related to books, reading, and/or publishing which I had not known about before--a definite source of excitement for me since I'm specifically interested in the "book" aspect of print media.
Unfortunately, the ultimate payoff was less profound than I had hoped. While I was fascinating by the way Miller traced a trajectory from the bookseller as cantankerous guardian of highbrow culture to the consumer as unquestionably deserving sovereign, after the book started to veer off into discussions of activism among independent bookstores and the discourses that they used to justify it, I felt that it started to lose its way. So shopping can have a political element? Gosh, I never would have thought! So there's more to life than getting the lowest price possible? Well, presumably...but a part of what upsets me about these sorts of arguments is that really only the privileged have the luxury to make them, and it's quite fatuous of Miller to assume that the majority of Americans are privileged enough. Especially given what we know about the class ramifications of diminished consumption. I'm sorry, but it's going to take a lot more than grass roots activism at the cash register to make the genuinely important changes to our social conditions. Notes
: trade paperback, 3rd printing Rating
- Though accessible enough for a general audience, it is definitely a niche title. Should appeal to those interested in the culture of books or consumer activism.