In Praise of the Big Box Bookstore

Sitting in a Barnes and Noble cafe at the start of January, I read:

What is astonishing is the quantity of books worth reading at college age and later which cannot be bought except by luck and at second hand.  The recently established “Classics Club” has done something to remedy this situation.  Until it began to publish, it was for instance impossible to own or assign Samuel Butler’s translation of Homer, even though it is the most readable modern version and a masterpiece of prose in its own right.  I once jotted down a few titles at random that occurred to me as beyond the reach of easy purchase in English.  Here they are: Coleridge’s Table Talk, Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary . . .

The list, from Jacques Barzun’s 1945 Teacher in America, continues for another half-page.  At the time he wrote, I think he might have been pleasantly surprised to know that almost directly above me sat a large, central display containing many of the authors—if not always the specific titles—he listed, and that this display was replicated throughout the country.

I’m speaking, of course, about the standard Barnes & Noble Classics editions, with their perpetual “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” offer and prices lower than all but the Signet editions which, in paper quality and ease of reading, they far surpass.  When, the next day, the chain’s continuing financial troubles made their way into my morning read, I felt more regret than I might otherwise have expected.

As an avid reader whose books whose allowance went almost entirely toward more and more books, in a corner of my hometown that was, at the time, more or less devoid of anything but chain shops, the B&N Classics (along with their pricier cousins, the “Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading”) were a welcome presence in my life.  There they were, the books I felt I ought to be reading, beckoning me, it seemed, to take a third home with me.  Not that I bought too many—until I began to write regular margin notes, I was more likely to grab a pocket-sized Signet Classic for three dollars than a larger copy for five.  But when I wanted to pick a title on a whim, and ensure some degree of quality in the writing—there they were.

And, as long as there is a Barnes & Noble, there they are, rescued from the doom of Norton Critical Editions in crowded university bookstores, shipped back to the publisher a week into the term and sold back at the end of the term.  College literature courses should endeavor to create “stouthearted readers” more than future critics and scholars, writes Barzun; the great flaw of the noble-minded Great Books experiments being born around him was that they “trie[d] to do in college what the educated man should be expected to do for himself in the ten or fifteen years after his graduation.”  What one reads in high school and college shouldn’t pretend to exhaust the course of knowledge to be found in great books, but to whet the appetite for later years.   Books—especially the so-called “classics”—ought to have a life outside the classroom.

That, I suppose, has been the greatest quality of the unassuming “cheap” classics edition, no matter the publisher.  These, they say, aren’t just for snobs—they’re for you.  Even if all Barnes and Noble ever sought to do with their hard-to-miss displays of Austen, Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy, and James was atone for the half bookcase given over to the collected works of James Patterson, I daresay it has been worth it.

Walking in a Barnes & Noble these days is depressing; Lego displays and movie tie-in merchandise keep expanding, while the stock of backlist titles keeps shrinking.  I took it on myself to re-alphabetize the R’s in “Fiction/Literature,” and kept thinking of D.G. Myers’ recent talk of the compulsion to rescue good books to the proper care of a home library.  In my excessively literate (so studies claim) university town, only this Barnes & Noble and an independent store on the other end of town sell new books.  The future is grim for shelves upon shelves of books.

But to think of the explosion of access since what is frequently thought of as the “Golden Age” of American higher education, and how this continues apace, despite the struggles of book chains tempers my anxiety.  If I were younger and learning to read on (terribile dictu!) a Kindle or Nook, what would be more delightful than to look on Amazon and discover so many works—the same as in the B&N Classics display, and more—available for no cost at all?  Some of my students have already taken to bringing the collected works of Shakespeare to class in a fashion that spares their backs the twenty pounds of a bound edition.  One uses his iPhone: all of Shakespeare can, today, fit in your pocket and be carried anywhere, at no additional cost!  (What other wonders are out there, in the world beyond my book-lined home?)

Yet I still worry.  Without the physical store, without the displays, the tables, the deals, the promise of no additional critical essays, what will guide a reader (no matter their age) to Herodotus, Thoreau, or Willa Cather outside a class syllabus?  There’s great promise in the possibility of out-of-copyright works becoming more accessible to more readers than ever before—but there’s also danger in the thought that there will be nothing to guide a reader toward them by chance encounter, that they might come to smell even more of musty classroom learning than before.

I’ve said and thought much in criticism of big chain booksellers in my life; it’s only proper that I should acknowledge what they have done—and what the last man standing continues to do—right: make reading books worth reading, for reading’s sake, easier than it had been before their rise.  They’ve done their best to make up for the sins and failures of those like me, who likely never convince enough of their students that these books aren’t terrible chores after all.

__________________

(For those who have made it this far, a note on upcoming programming: as I approach and enter the reading lists for my preliminary examinations, I plan on writing my way through what I’m reading—think Rufus’ “Blogging the Canon,” but jumping forward a few millenia in a single bound.  We’ll see how I long I continue to think of this post as a preface to those that follow.)

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59 thoughts on “In Praise of the Big Box Bookstore

  1. One of the first dates Maribou and I went on was to a local used book store: Four Corners. The main reason I loved it was because it was soooooo easy to stumble across something that I would fall in love with that, moments before, I never knew existed. Or older books from my childhood that I had forgotten and then could stumble across that, for some reason, wasn’t faced out when I went to the big book stores.

    Stuff like that is why I love my little local record shops. “Jay, if you like Lenny Kravitz, you should listen to these guys…” my dealer would tell me and then he’d hand me a copy of Maggie’s Dream.

    It’s not the catholic (the *OTHER* definition) canon that I worry about not being prominently displayed. It’s the hidden gems stashed between the big names that I miss. It’s the staffers that see what is in your hands and tell you “oh, if you like that, you’ll *LOVE* this…” and put something (that profits them nothing) in your hands.

    Now shopping means Maribou yelling “I bought myself a book, you want anything?” from the other room. All of my subject matter experts speak to me via text or via algorithm.

    It used to feel like I had a guide. The future is more alienating than I expected it to be.

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    • This is tangential, I admit, but riffing off of your last sentence, I think sometimes about my first experiences of the “internet,” which is not what I would have called it back then. Sometime around ’93, I joined a local BBS which allowed multiple users to be connected at the same time, and had a chat room along with some forums and text-based games. It was a place where a bunch of social misfits from all around the Nashville area “hung out.” At the time, “social misfits” comprised the entirety of the internet, and it was mostly local. The online chats always resulted in “gatherings,” and I made a several lifelong friends at those. In other words, the internet was a place that made the people who populated it more social, and more connected with other people. Towards the end of the BBS’s lifespan, they added something called Worldnet (or was it Worlchat?), which allowed that BBS to connect to other BBS’s like it around the world (which meant Orlando, mostly). So some of us made connections to people in other cities (one of my closest friends, to this day, I met through that “international” chat).

      Ironically, then, when the internet became something that everyone used, it became much less directly social, and much less about engaging more. As more people used it, it became more and more of a place to make money, and as it became more and more of a place to make more money, it became more and more alienating.

      There’s something one could throw in here about Marx, but I think the point is actually quite simple: when the internet, such as it was back then, was about small communities that weren’t meant to be substitutes for more personal interactions, but instead were routes to more personal interactions, the internet was the opposite of alienating. As soon as it became large, and real money got involved, it moved in the precise opposite direction. Every time I think about this, it depresses me a little.

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      • Chris, this is also a function of age – your own, I mean.

        That is, I would love to meet some of you guys in real life; and if I was still in college, I probably would (ROAD TRIP!) and we could become good friends IRL.

        But now I have a real job, and a family, etc. etc. That’s not a function of the Internet aging; that’s a function of *me* aging.

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        • I think some of that’s true, but back then, the internet was an all-age thing. One of the interesting aspects of that brief period in the history of the internet is that it allowed people to meet people in peer groups that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have had many social interactions with, including people of widely different age groups. I suppose there’s still some of that, but it’s much less… direct.

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        • On the other hand, when I was in college (with the noted and remarkable exception of Jaybird), I *couldn’t afford* to meet my internet friends – no way, no how – and I probably would’ve gotten fired or put on academic probation if I went to visit them, anyway (vacations were mostly devoted to family visiting, not really optional, *if* I could afford to go anywhere at all).

          Once I was a few years older, I had income, and fewer extended-family expectations, and actual, flexible vacation time… and it suddenly made sense to go to Vegas (or wherever) to meet my imaginary friends. :) One of the reasons returning to grad school has made me feel weirdly young again is that I say stuff like, “Oh, I can’t visit then, I’m sorry, I will have all my final projects due that week.”

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          • Maribou, I should note that the vast majority of the people I met were local. That was part of what I was saying, I suppose: it used to be a local thing. I met the one person from Orlando because she came to Nashville, and ended up moving there (for a guy, of course, who she’s still married to, and who is another of the lifelong friends I met back then).

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            • Oh, yes – I met quite a few people in Montreal that way…. I was just disagreeing with Glyph’s premise that having less ability to do crazy things is a function of age, at least in my own case.

              Actually, you know what? I’ve met quite a few people HERE in the Springs that way, in the last 10 years. At least 2 or 3… it’s just that they are such a small part of All The People on the Internet these days, that I don’t think of it in the same way.

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              • One of the things I don’t miss about the early internet is the massive gender imbalance (70-30 or more) and the consequences of it, particularly for the women. I remember some BBS’s and forums would warn female users to choose gender-neutral handles, because the amount and type of attention you’d get from male users with an obviously female screen name would be extremely unpleasant.

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      • I’m another BBS alum. The FIDOnet and other more outbound things were not a part of the blog I was a part of. From my perspective, it was the global nature of the Internet that made it less personal. Back when we all lived in the same city, it pushed me to go out and meet people and such. As you allude to, it was an engine of socialization for me and my peers. Corporations or no, for me that started really changing when I started being able to choose friends very far away.

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    • “It used to feel like I had a guide.”

      if anything i feel there’s probably too many guides these days. which may be the same problem in reverse, but there’s a lot of good writers out there laying down some good criticism. more importantly, there’s a lot more good curators to pick from.

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  2. Without the physical store, without the displays, the tables, the deals, the promise of no additional critical essays, what will guide a reader (no matter their age) to Herodotus, Thoreau, or Willa Cather outside a class syllabus?.

    The guides are still the same. Any student lucky enough to have wise teachers knows we don’t learn about the Good Stuff by chance. Our novices appetite were whetted to more mature tastes by people we admired, and yes, I suppose, loved. It wasn’t always the Noble Classics, was it? Often it was things they loved, not because they were Noble but because they were Classic.

    We grow in the image of those we love.

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  3. I think people will still find these. Physical book stores are important but they do not have to be Barnes and Noble corporate chains with displays from publishers.

    I have found books at used bookstores by just browsing the shelves and seeing a book catch my eye. Or from the “staff selections” table or shelf. There are also blogs, friends, lists, etc.

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  4. I agree with those who’ve praised used book stores. That’s our idea of a hot date. We collect old books about topics that interest us; and we’ve made friends with several book dealers over the years.

    Book stores, like record stores before, are victim of changing technology. I know my eldest child lives light, yet loves to read. The books owned are reference and art. The electronic books are those that don’t need pictures, and he’s happy for the endless supply that don’t take the limited space in his small apartment.

    Which means publishers will likely hone their products to the highly visual, the special binding, the smaller runs.

    But there is another option for e-books: huge potential to grow with technology. I’ve been asked to publish an e-book of my designs, incorporating aps that customize the sizing and video of techniques. E-books can incorporate alternative paths through the plot, to link to outside sources, to include video or sound clips, to grow base on crowd sourced fan fiction, like an open-source computer project.

    And there’s the public library. When was the last time you visited yours? They seem like good places to elevate to social meeting spaces again. They just need to bust the reputation of being filled with shushers.

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    • I once took a date to the university library. We spent much of the date reading London Magazine articles from the 1770s and 80s. The stuff about the silly little rebellion over in the American colonies was funny.

      We got shushed a couple times, but on the whole it was a highly successful date.

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      • The stuff about the silly little rebellion over in the American colonies was funny.

        Oh, that sounds awesome.

        A few years ago I was in a used bookstore in Jackson, Wyoming. It had a lot of interesting stuff from the 1980’s about how Japan was going to destroy us militarily, economically, and a liberal defense of America (by Fallows, I think) imploring us not to go and start emulating the Japanese.

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    • I will be posting on ebooks on NaPP later in the week, but there is a remarkably robust market out there for independently published and smaller run stuff that’s really inexpensive. I cringe at paying over $5 for an ebook, and I like the idea of giving a smaller author a chance.

      Re: libraries, our local library was a lifesaver when we moved here. Free internet access! It’s in a really neat building, too. But ever since we got our own internet up and running, I haven’t been back. :/

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      • Good place to take kids. Right now, libraries are a treasure trove (rather like used book stores) because there’s a stuff still under copyright protection but out of print; and if your local library doesn’t have it, they can usually get it through interlibrary loans.

        The other aspect of libraries that rocks is that their purchase price on published materials includes the right for customer’s to photocopy/download/record (whatever the format) without it being a copyright violation.

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        • I attempted to take my son the the library to explore his developing love of books. It’s only open 30ish hours a week; no evenings or weekends, you know, only when the kids are in school. We have absolutely no used or new book stores in our rural town. I beginning to wonder how people who grew up here get jobs, go to college, etc. WE NEED BOOKS, PEOPLE!

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        • “their purchase price on published materials includes the right for customer’s to photocopy/download/record (whatever the format) without it being a copyright violation”

          Errrr, wot? There are a few things that are a bit like this (ie in Canada, libraries pay the songwriters’ association presumption-of-copying fees) – but in general, at least according to my training and experience of copyright and libraries, that is absolutely not true…. I’m really curious to know what your source for this assertion is.

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          • You can’t go in and copy a whole book, but. I write knitting patterns; and since they’re typically for garments, meaning ‘useful objects,’ the knitters and designers debate this endlessly; because for my work, the only thing I own intellectual property rights to is for the words and images, in a pattern not the design itself, the shapes, the stitches (there are a few exceptions to do with art, and that’s a very gray area).

            So folk who write pattern instruction, as I do, frown upon the photocopy machine and pdf file shared among friends; it is a copyright violation, with the exception of library photocopies, which are legal under fair use law, for personal use only.

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            • Warning, copyright is one of my graduate school interests, so I got kind of carried away here – but… uh, copyright is one of my professional areas of expertise, so I feel kind of obligated to lay out my understanding of this point, too.

              I’m familiar with the grey-area-ness of patterns, both as a stitcher and in terms of the interestingness of patterns to copyright wonks. However, it doesn’t really have a bearing on whether libraries’ purchase price gives patrons special copying options or not.

              Fair use photocopying is not legal because of library exemptions.

              Library exemptions do exist, but they are in addition to fair use, not part of it, and cover weird stuff like preservation copies, or a librarian making limited copies of something FOR someone else’s personal use (see section 108 of Title 17).

              Fair use photocopying is, or is not, fair use, regardless of setting, based on whether it meets the requirements of section 107 of Title 17 (nature, amount, purpose, market harm, etc etc).* And, at the end of the day, whether or not a particular instance is fair use is either a matter of common sense, or something that can only be decided through the judicial process, depending on how you look at it. If I copied my friend’s copy of your pattern, you would have to take me to court to determine whether that specific instance was illegal and it would be a giant horrible mess… if I copied my library’s copy of your pattern, you would have to take me to court to determine whether that specific instance was illegal and it would be a giant horrible mess… either way, it would be the exact same repercussions for me, and the exact same process to determine whether or not my copy was fair use.

              Libraries don’t pay special prices to make that copying legal, AT ALL. First Sale doctrine (section 109) gives them the right to loan stuff out, and then it is not their business what anyone else does with it – though some librarians feel a moral obligation not to stand there and watch if someone seems to be breaking the law (exceeding fair use) right in front of them. And the reason why they have to put copyright notices on their copiers, etc., is just so that they continue to get those other exemptions in section 108, and to indemnify themselves from any illegalities carried out on their premises without their knowledge, not because there is some special library-copy fair use rule… honest.

              (IANAL, this is not legal advice – but I have done graduate-level work on libraries and copyright.)

              Of course, ethical norms of a community, and individual moral decisions, are a different thing altogether. As a creative community, y’all have every right to decide that you don’t care about a library copy, but you do care about interpersonal sharing. (I can imagine some logical reasons to feel that way, although I can also imagine logical reasons to feel that library copying is creepy but limited interpersonal sharing is just fine – musicians often take that latter stance.) For myself, I don’t copy patterns, unless they are being given away as free patterns [or, I suppose, if I was doing some kind of study or research or critique or parody or whatever of patterns, rather than stitching them]. Regardless of where they come from. Because it gives me the moral willies, not because of what is or isn’t legal.

              If you believe that people sharing your patterns with their friends are violating copyright (due to your IP interest in the words, images, etc) – those people are violating copyright JUST as much in the library. (There may be a fair use argument, due to amount, purpose, etc that applies…. emailing one excerpted pattern to one friend is different than emailing an entire book’s worth, or posting them to a sharing site, or whatever… but it has nothing to do with a library or not.)

              *[I say regardless of setting – but being in a copy shop or other place where someone is profiting from your copying DOES complicate matters, for the person/company who is profiting, because of the purpose issue. But if you are making the copy for you, or for whatever other allowed purpose – say, multiple copies for non-profit classroom use – it doesn’t matter to YOU, the copier, where it happens or who owns the thing you are copying.]

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              • The whole topic is a nightmare. Because some designs do rise to the level or art. Pictoral images used in intarsia designs are copyrightable, clearly (according to the US Copyright office, too,) but there’s murk when it comes to sculpture (my designs are very sculptured; sculptured to the human body.)

                For myself, I don’t copy patterns, unless they are being given away as free patterns [or, I suppose, if I was doing some kind of study or research or critique or parody or whatever of patterns, rather than stitching them]. Regardless of where they come from. Because it gives me the moral willies, not because of what is or isn’t legal.

                Endless discussion of this on Ravelry; basically considered a violation of the right someone does have — the right to distributed a pattern — because making each person it’s given to go to your website/blog to download it drives page views, thus earning advertising revenue, and puts the pay-for designs in front of you for consideration, builds name recognition, etc. etc. etc.

                My source on library copying of patterns in books is from Ravelry, and if it’s wrong, I’d like to know. What you’re suggesting is that copying from a library book/magazine is still a violation, but as a social norm, we look the other way?

                And thank you for speaking up; I hate spreading inaccurate stuff.

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                • Hard to see how this really differs from borrowing a book from the library and reading it, so you don’t need to buy it.
                  Is the problem that photocopying removes attribution? (so you can’t be a good person and go to their website??)

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                  • Generally, recently-published ‘free patterns’ aren’t in books; though that’s not 100% true. (And I can’t speak for other crafts beyond my own.) They’re only available from the designer’s source or through illegal copy. There are exceptions; some works are released under creative commons licenses, and there’s a wealth of recipe patterns in the public domain. But most of the new ‘freebies’ are designs by people who either don’t know how to design — they are often flawed in some way, maybe only in one size or not written in standard technical language — or the freebies are professional products — properly graded, tech-edited, and tested — given away as promotional material, hence the desired visit to the owner’s website.

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                    • Oh, right, I didn’t mean I was distributing patterns where the author wants people to go to a functional website, or copying free giveaways and distributing those, or anything, Just, I have copied free patterns FROM those designers’ websites, for my own use, as encouraged by the designers. And, I have shared creative commons patterns or otherwise-free-to-distribute patterns (which, in cross-stitch, there are actually a lot of, rather nifty ones). I’ve also very occasionally shared patterns that were free, and don’t appear to have ANY way to still find the designers (the stitchers’ equivalent of quirky video-game abandonware), which is a bit dodgy legally but involves my librarians’ instinct to Preserve Human Expressions…

                      The one thing I am stubborn about, wrt cross-stitch designs, is that I am perfectly happy to make something and then sell the made object (I have never actually done this, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do so). Or to make multiple copies of something (eg fridge magnets) and give them all away. Or to make something, and then photograph it (poor-quality snaps) to share the image of what I’ve made with my friends on social media, so they see what *I* did, not what the designer’s stitcher did. Or to very occasionally give a pattern I have no use for anymore to a friend (an actual physical pattern that I paid money for and don’t need, not keeping a copy for myself – even if I keep the object for myself).

                      Which I label as all one thing because I do believe in first sale, as a matter of principle, and that it OUGHT to be extended to the digital (it hasn’t been, and probably never will be). I don’t believe in shrink-wrap licensing for patterns, and I try to avoid patterns which explicitly come with those kinds of restrictions.

                      These moral biases seem intuitive to me, but they certainly aren’t to a lot of designers I’ve met… and I am really going to be fascinated to see what happens with 3D printers in this area.

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                    • Hmm, “wouldn’t hesitate to sell” isn’t accurate. I wouldn’t hesitate to sell things for something along the lines of “made back the cost in materials and time I put into them, or some fraction thereof”. I would certainly hesitate to have a profitable business in selling things made from other people’s patterns that were not published for commercial use – although plenty of people seem to feel differently about that!

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                    • There are interesting distinctions between something like cross-stitch, where the design is visual, and thus separable, and knitting, where the design has virtually no protection unless it has separable artistic elements. We end up with opposing issues. For cross-stitching, design that’s copyrighted, so posting an image of your project would be a derivative work. In knit/crochet, there’s no derivative work; and the concerns generally come with illegal pattern distribution. Though there’s always the fear designers have of having a big-box mass produce their designs. Nothing to stop that, far as I can tell, at least in the clothing world; though having a company purchase a pattern, and with that pattern in hand, translate it into a machine-knitting program does seem right there on the unsettled edge of the law.

                      Then there’s the whole issue of designer credit; should you or shouldn’t you? Sounds like nice name building; but a crappy project of a good design can crash it. And there’s the trademark issue; a designer using their name creates a trademark, so crediting might infringe on that trademark.

                      And folks think music is complicated.

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                    • Oh, lord, it’s ALL so complicated.

                      I have a friend who is a photographer (hobby, but it’s financially profitable for him overall), and I will not sit for him because he will not allow people to republish pictures he’s taken of them without explicit advance permissions. Legally, he’s totally covered. Morally, I don’t want anyone taking my picture if I can’t do whatever I want with it afterward, and I find the whole idea of people not having rights to their own image totally creepy. But, like I said, we’re still friends :).

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                • Not quite that it would DEFINITELY be a violation in the library, but that whether it’s a violation or not has literally nothing to do with whether the person is in a library. It might not be a violation in person, either, depending on the specifics of the copying.

                  (One of the challenging things about fair use is that you literally can’t look at a class of things and say “all of these things are infringing” or “all of these things are not” – though you can do risk assessment on classes of things… Anyway, copying by an individual is either fair use or not on a case-by-case basis, and requires analysis each time.)

                  I guess what I am suggesting that copying from a library book/magazine (a single pattern) is more often than not probably not a violation, according to my interpretation of what a whole work is; and that copying a single pattern from your friend’s library book/magazine is also probably not usually a violation. (As stated above, I still think it’s wrong, just not illegal.) It really is complicated, as you say. For example, if I copied the pattern in order to sell lots of mittens for a profit, I might have a weaker fair use case than if I copied the pattern and completed it because I wanted to learn how to do a particular stitch. Because commercial purposes weigh against fair use, and educational ones weigh for it.

                  I think there is a long-standing cultural norm (which fits into fair use law fairly well) that small-scale, non-commercial copying of anything is just fine, whether you keep it or give it to someone you know personally – look at mixtapes, or taping songs off the radio, or timeshifting TV shows – there were no Serious Government Campaigns against those things, and what legal action took place tended to favor the purported “infringers” most of the time. That said, IF it would be a violation for you to borrow your friend’s book/maagazine, and copy or scan whatever piece of it on your home machine – if that particular instance were not fair use – doing the exact same thing in the library would be just as much a violation.

                  My more general impression is that people often look the other way at these small illegalities even if we are aware of them … for example, I can’t imagine grabbing a meter cop and saying “look, look, this meter is expired,” or calling a tip line to report someone smoking pot. Heck, when I went to McGill, there were marijuana plants GROWING in one of the chem building gardens… that required a huge number of people looking the other way, on a daily basis.

                  As far as I can see, the weird thing about IP social norms is that, morally speaking, SOME people see copying as equivalent to walking up to someone and taking 5 bucks out of their purse, SOME people see it as equivalent to not feeding the meter (or even as a moral good), and SOME people see it on a case-by-case basis, often without being internally consistent…. so social norms tend to exist within tiny subcommunities, rather than more generally.

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  5. The best repository of free e-books I know of is gutenberg.org. Here, for instance, are the books which inspired the phase “space awesome”. Unfortunately, copyright laws being what they are, books from 1923 and later rarely enter the public domain.

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  6. I’ll be one to say, I think the biggest mistake made was in the “don’t tax the internet” phase of the late 1990s and early 2000’s. It gave too much advantage to the very companies that, now established, are killing off some of the local-retail environs.

    If Amazon hadn’t had a decade of sales tax exemption, how would things have looked different? They got a hell of a kick-start from that.

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    • http://www.exploitationnow.com/2000-08-02/20

      On the other hand, while it’s hard to remember now, there was a time when trying to start an actual business (as opposed to opening a .com and taking money from saps) was a very difficult proposition that required convincing people that taking huge losses for an indefinite time on a new business model was a good idea.

      Ignoring my philosophical objections, adding sales tax to that mix might very well have ensured that we didn’t have an Amazon.

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  7. Actually for books as for a lot of retail you see the cost advantages of the electronic version of mail order trumping a lot of local businesses. To start with you need a lot less inventory to serve a the entire country. Instead of hundreds to thousands of locations each with some inventory you need maybe 30 or 40 to serve the entire US. In many respects its just the same wave that did away with a lot of general stores 110 years ago when Sears and Wards came in and killed a lot of rural retail off. The enabler there was rural free delivery, and in 1913 parcel post. For larger shipments you had the railway express companies (recall the Wells Fargo wagon song in the Music Man). Today the shippers are UPS and Fedex with parcel post still there. The web has replaced mail in order forms, but otherwise the business is the same. Of course Sears and Wards did not originally aim that much at city dwellers and then went into retail to get access to them, and today Wards is gone and Sears is in a very bad way. But back to books, the specialty bookstore business is helped because instead of having maybe a New York City clientele if the business is in NYC today they have a world wide reach by putting their catalog on the web.
    To give another example assume you want Medieval Clothing today you can get it on the web, whereas 40 years ago it was likely hard to find outside of some events.

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  8. …until I began to write regular margin notes, I was more likely to grab a pocket-sized Signet Classic for three dollars than a larger copy for five.

    You, my friend, are a candidate for the small computer I’ve been wishing I could buy for the last 20 years. Physical format a bit smaller than a 3-ring binder for 8.5-by-5.5 inch paper. Open it and on the left side is a good-sized e-ink screen, on the right an active screen the same size capable of hi-resolution touch input with a stylus. For your purposes, you don’t just get the margin, you get an actual “piece of paper” that stays linked to the book page on which to scribble notes. For my purposes, I get a replacement for the notebook I’ve carried around for the last 30+ years and all the things that it does for me.

    I’ve about given up on ever being able to buy one. A former colleague of mine visits the Consumer Electronics Show every January and distributes a report on what he found that was interesting (or silly). The vendors appear to be largely losing interest in trying to build devices that are a viable substitute for pencil and pen. I had hopes for what the Microsoft Courier might have become, but that project was killed before the product was finished. Plastic Logic has some interesting tech, but has been unable to get anyone interested in building products around it. Haven’t seen anything else that might do the job.

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