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Rooks and Becords: The Value of the Selection Set & The Amorality of Infinity

For book and record stores, there was a moment when the largest inventory and the lowest prices won out. Large physical stores with endless rows of inventory overwhelmed the small retailer. Eventually the inventory moved into a series of warehouses/databases with query-based web front ends attached to a product delivery system. Inventory expanded to match the number of sellable books in existence, and the customer experience was abstracted to a computer screen, a keyboard and a mouse. Touch, smell, sound, weight, the look of the spine, the creaking of the wooden floor— all of these modes of interaction were eliminated from the equation. Of course, no one is interested in all books, but if a vendor has all books in their inventory, it’s likely the subset you’re interested in can be carved out of the whole stack.

Two of my favorite bookstores don’t have an infinite inventory. I always enjoy browsing and rarely walk out without having purchased something. The trick is that if you don’t have everything, you need to have what’s good. And in order to have what’s good, you need to have a point of view on what’s good. In New York, the tiny Three Lives bookstore always manages to show me something I can’t live without. Last time I was there it was Tom Rachman’s sparkling first novel, The Imperfectionists. In San Francisco, one of my favorites is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. City Lights often makes the improbable connection. After a reading (in New York) by Richard Foreman from his book, No-Body, A Novel in Parts, I asked him what he was reading. Foreman said that he’d become very interested in an Austrian writer named Heimito Von Doderer. Subsequently, I looked for books by Von Doderer, but came up empty until a visit to City Lights. City Lights was the perfect connection between Foreman and Von Doderer.

More than just a place to purchase books, both of those bookstores communicate a way of life, a way of thinking, an idea about taste and a larger picture about what’s good and important in our culture. While their inventory of books isn’t infinite, one has a sense of infinite possibility browsing through the stacks.

While at first we luxuriated in the ocean of choice, now we find ourselves thwarted by the process of sorting and prioritizing an infinite set of possibilities. One way to gauge the number of choices to offer is to look at the relative amount of time a person spends evaluating possible choices versus the amount of time spent enjoying the choice. If the selection set is infinite, but only one item will eventually be chosen, the customer may find herself living out one of Zeno’s paradoxes.

There’s a sense in which an infinite inventory is amoral. It avoids the choices forced on a small bookstore with a limited amount of shelf space. And perhaps this gets at something central to human experience— something about time, mortality and the choices we make about what matters. Neil Postman relays a quote from Philip Roth about Writers From The Other Europe.

In commenting on the difference between being a novelist in the West and being a novelist behind the iron curtain (this was before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe), Roth said that in Eastern Europe nothing is permitted but everything matters; with us, everything is permitted but nothing matters.

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