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In Praise of Good Bookstores
by jeff deutsch
princeton, 216 pages, $19.95

Can man live on what he has read alone? Jeff Deutsch ruminates on this question in his recent collection of essays celebrating bookstores and their stewards. As the current director of the Seminary Co-op in Southside Chicago, a bookstore widely hailed as one of the world’s best, Deutsch suggests that good bookstores invite us to contemplate truths that lie beyond our everyday concerns. He compellingly argues against the contemporary technocratic mercenary approach to book sales taken by Amazon and its imitators, but falters in his attempts to articulate an individualistic spirituality that he sees as the heart and supreme purpose of a good bookstore. 

Deutsch is at his best when he considers the incompatibility of bookstores with a utility-focused market economy. In arguments reminiscent of Josef Pieper’s contentions against the modern tendency to reduce all experience to a totalizing world of work and utility, he observes that “bookstores are scarce because we undervalue them, and good bookstores are scarce because we undervalue our cultural wealth. Our only model of bookselling, inherited from traditional retail, overvalues efficiency and neglects a wise inefficiency, a nurturing of . . . ‘the subtle art of the useless.’” In order to become profitable, bookstores must, like Amazon, treat books as loss leaders, reserving almost a fifth of their total inventory for profitable kitsch such as socks and greeting cards and ensuring a near-constant turnover in stocked books. 

This economy overvalues the ephemeral, to the detriment of true masterpieces often discovered only with the benefit of time and hindsight. Though a bookstore “can operate in commodity mode for those who prefer it,” a rightly ordered one should consider a new mode of measuring profitability. “If we are to deliberately build a structure to support good bookstores,” says Deutsch, “we must acknowledge the economy of the gift alongside the economy of the commodity.” At the heart of bookmaking is an incommensurability: “untold hours of reflection and unquantifiable fulfillment” may emerge from books that cost the same as a cup of coffee. 

This imbalance extends to the bookseller as well, who creates a space of slow time, a place where “we submit ourselves to aimlessness” and make ourselves “receptive to the memory of humanity . . . uninterested in the ephemera created by speed and efficiency.” For Deutsch, the good bookseller pursues these ends not for a fee, but for the end of the common good, public discourse, and the creation of a community rooted not just in the present but in dialogue with the larger human conversation across history. His account of a good bookstore incarnates Pieper’s definition of “active leisure”: the creation, maintenance, and browsing of a good bookstore are all ends to be sought in and of themselves, not for monetary gain.

However, Deutsch still portrays the institution he celebrates as fulfilling a spiritual utility rather than an economic one, setting up the good bookstore as a temple of the human mind, an individualistic alternative to institutional religion and its sacred spaces. He claims that “if we are to build community, support the public square, and, perhaps for some, provide some blessings in a booklined house of worship, the responsibility for supporting a thriving serious bookstore must fall to all of us.” To cultivate readership is “to preach the gospel,” to draw others to these places that Deutsch sees as “some sort of heaven.” 

Deutsch asserts that the disciples of this gospel must be “Protestant, not Catholic.” Those who browse the wealth of human knowledge a bookstore provides must do so unmediated, practicing a doctrine of “universal priesthood . . . ‘the gospel is, in many ways, whatever gets people in the door to receive whatever blessings you have to offer.’” The good bookseller must enable her readers to form their own canon, to find their own classics. At the core of this hyper-individualistic approach to books, argues Deutsch, is an explicitly heretical idea that he finds “liberating”: an Epicureanism that “liberates us from trying to understand [the gods]” and turns us instead toward “that which can be discerned: the mortal natural world, our own minds, how we spend our time, and how we treat each other.” 

However, by virtue of deciding through her own “certain set of standards” which books to stock—or, more importantly, which not to—the bookseller already ensures the impossibility of this individualistic canon-building. Deutsch sees this not as a contradiction, but rather as a strength of the good bookstore, which is “not a place for everything,” unlike the internet, “wherein every idea or thought is given its space, regardless of quality, hatefulness, or mendacity.” Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, Deutsch, “along with the legion secular talmidim,” now builds his “own private Talmud—commentaries on how to be a human—from the shelves of good bookstores.”

Deutsch emphasizes the therapeutic qualities of good bookstores, which “have long served as a great succor for those contending with loneliness,” but he ultimately limits the transcendent to the human. His ideal reader takes books off the shelf according to her mood or fancy, enjoys them, and returns them when she has gotten from them what she wants. Books can take us out of the everyday world, but they cannot take us beyond ourselves; instead, they force us deeper inward. We dialogue with the authors we read but always maintain our distance, deciding the conversation in our own favor. 

Deutsch correctly discerns a connection between a bookstore and a place of worship. If both are oriented toward self-serving ends, toward a salutary individualism that never proceeds beyond the self, each will collapse into triviality and one-dimensionality. Like a spiritualism that eschews true religious community, this kind of bookstore cannot challenge. Instead, it can only provide—in Pieper’s words—a “comfortable certainty of possession” that “borders dangerously on nothingness,” lacking “the shock of the greater, deeper world that can be entered only by one who truly loves.”

John-Paul Heil studies marriage and the family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C.

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