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The Psychology Of Book-Buying

On Wednesday, I went into Barnes & Noble looking for a book buy my father for his birthday. I had several ideas, but the store — and it’s a big store — had none of them in stock, even though none of them were obscure titles. I found this so frustrating — unusually so. When I stopped to think about why I was more irritated by this than I really ought to be, I realized that it was because I’ve gotten so used to being able to get my hands on what I want to read, almost instantly, via Amazon.com and my Kindle app on iPad.

A year or so ago, I had read exactly one book electronically, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” Now, I’d say a good 2/3 of the books I read are on my iPad. I didn’t notice that happening, but it sure did happen, and it happens mostly because when in my reading I run across a title that appeals to me, and that I judge I am likely to read, I buy it at once, and start reading it within minutes.

What I thought was going to be a luxury has, without my even noticing it, become my basic standard. It’s like when CD players first came out in the 1980s. I got my first CD player for Christmas, 1987. CDs were more expensive than vinyl discs, so I figured I would only buy certain albums (classical, jazz) on CD — albums that would particularly benefit from the clearer sound. In no time at all, CDs were all I bought. They had become the standard. Now, I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD. I buy all my music through iTunes, because I can get it instantly, and burn it onto a blank CD for listening in the car.

I ended up buying my Dad a book I wasn’t sure at all he would like. But I had to get something, as I had run out of time after an hour of shopping, and had to pick up my son from his tutorial. As I walked to the cash register, I thought, “I need to buy him an e-reader for Christmas. That would solve this problem for good.” And it would; besides which, it would be much easier on his 78-year-old eyes.

Trouble is, that would also solve the “problem” of that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. When we were in Paris last month, Julie and I took so much pleasure in the gorgeous small bookstores — all independently owned — all over the Left Bank. If either of us read French well enough, we easily could have lost hours, just browsing. You don’t have that experience often in American bookstores anymore. It used to be fun to browse in record stores too. Times change.

By the way, we’ve always known that my son Matthew has extraordinary hearing. He told me the other day that when we were in France, he took a hearing test at a science museum, and learned that he really can hear far outside the range of normal human hearing. He also said that once, when we lived in Philly, he went around the corner to an old-fashioned record store, and got the man to play a vinyl disc for him. He said he was knocked out by the texture of the sound. He’d never heard anything like that before, having been raised on digital recordings. I told him that I’d stored all my albums almost 20 years ago at a friend’s house here in West Feliciana, because she had a record player and I no longer did. Would he like to go hear them sometime? Yes, he said, that would be great. My 13 year old, in 2012, now wants to hear music in a format that became obsolete in the 1980s, because it sounds so rich and fat to his audiophilic ears. Maybe one day his son will want to know what it feels like to read text on paper, and will ask him to take down from the attic all those “books” he has stored up.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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