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A LETTER FROM RICHARD RUSSO...

"I read Farhad Manjoo’s Slate rebuttal to my recent op-ed in the New York Times with great interest, in part because it was so cleverly parsed, but also because it was in so many ways unexpected. In my Times piece, I and my author friends accused Amazon of malicious, predatory practices, and so I was unprepared for Mr. Manjoo to concede up front that Amazon and its... founder, Jeff Bezos, all too often (and in the present instance) do behave like thugs. When I go to trial, I don’t think I’ll be hiring Mr. Manjoo to lead my defense team. Still, he raises several points that go to the very heart of the discussion I hope we’ll all start having soon about the true costs of what we purchase. There’s a lot at stake.

Mr. Manjoo admits that he’s a fan of both Amazon and comparison shopping because, he says, he hates “paying more than he should.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Does he mean, for instance, that he hates paying more than he “has to”? This is the crux of the matter. What should we pay? That’s not quite the same as to ask, Where can I buy this cheapest? Mr. Manjoo is correct to point out that the analogy between buying books locally and buying produce locally is imprecise. The Steve Jobs biography is the same book wherever we buy it. It’s the effect of buying it locally that differs. If you buy the book locally, the sales tax you pay will fund local schools and fill local potholes. You aren’t paying more than you should. You’re just paying, up front, what it’s going to cost in the end, after your taxes go up. If you imagine that potholes get filled for free or that they’re paid for by somebody else, you’re deluding yourself. Or, suppose your taxes don’t go up and the pothole doesn’t get repaired. You drive over it and damage the bottom of your car. Won’t the cost of repair eat into your Amazon savings? And if you think local schools shouldn’t be funded adequately, then shame on you.

In my op ed I compared what’s going on in the book world to what’s happening in film. If I’d had more time and space, I’d have posed a question. How do we explain why so many of today’s movies suck? I think that’s an interesting question in its own right, but it’s even more interesting when posed in conjunction with another. Why is current television so terrific? (Honestly, I don’t know what to say to anyone who thinks the reverse.) I think the reason is pretty simple. Television is great right now because there are so many outlets and so much competition: pay tv, cable, network. Hundreds of channels, all hungry for content. As a result, you find wonderfully well-written, acted, and directed shows everywhere (along with, obviously, all manner of crap). On the other hand, movies suck because the studios that make them have been subsumed by entities that care first about selling things. To them it doesn’t much matter what. How can their philosophy not remind us of Mr. Bezos, who began selling books not because he loved them but because they had ten digit ISBN numbers he could track? Mr. Manjoo admits Amazon’s methods are often bad, but suggests that its vision of selling is true and correct. Mr. Bezos, in other words, may be a scoundrel, but he’s also a good man of business. That, of course, was Scrooge’s defense of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who gives him a rattling reply.

But, having reminded myself that it’s Christmas and that I still have a lot of gifts to buy, I’ll bring this to a close by wishing all my fellow consumers, including Mr. Manjoo, the happiest of holidays. Thanks to technology, we have interesting questions to ask ourselves about what we’ll buy this year, and where and why. Our job, Mr. Manjoo’s and mine, is not so much to answer those questions as to articulate them clearly. I myself have much to be grateful for this season, and though I’ve never met him, I’m quite certain that Mr. Majoo does as well, starting with the fine woman he’s married to, who drags him from time to time to brick and mortar bookstores. I hope that, after reading the Slate column in which he suggests that we all owe Mr. Bezos a debt of gratitude for crushing our precious indie booksellers, she doesn’t have him sleeping on the sofa."

--Richard Russo

(Here is a link to the article by Mr. Manjoo: http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/online-literary-light/1206226)
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