Home in the World

I started reading Amartya Sen’s “Home in the World” a few days ago. So far am enjoying it. It’s a memoir, and while I usually stay away from memoirs I picked this one up as it’s by Amartya Sen. I have only read one other work of his – “The Argumentative Indian” – and that too only about 1/3rd maybe because I stopped reading it for some reason way back when, but I enjoyed the book and so picked this one up.

I mention this book here though because I came across it at Waterstones when casually browsing one day. And a few days ago I was listening to this podcast interview with the CEO of Barnes & Noble (who is also the CEO of Waterstones) and this bit from his interview resonated with me:

The trouble when you have Amazon as a competitor is that you have to give people a reason to come into your bookstore. It has to be interesting and engaging. And for books, that isn’t a single defined proposition. You actually end up with a blended average of everything that satisfies no one.

There was also a misunderstanding that it was simply about racking up the books, as many titles as possible, so that if you woke up in the morning and wanted a book, you drove to your bookstore, you walked in, you asked a bookseller, they took you to the book, you picked up the book, you bought it, and you went away. Well, Amazon does all of that process dramatically better.

What you had left and forgotten about is that people come to bookstores to enjoy themselves. They come to meet other people, they come for the social experience, and they come to browse and look at books. It’s a very richly textured, actually emotional engagement that customers have with bookstores, and independent booksellers do that brilliantly. They understand their customers, they curate for their customers. The big chains had simply stopped doing that — well, I don’t think they’d ever done it, in truth — and therefore the business was failing.

And from a later part:

I would slightly challenge that Amazon is a very effective bookseller. I think it’s a hugely efficient fulfiller of whatever you want to buy, but you have to know what you want to buy. They are extremely efficient about putting the brand-name authors and the brand-name new books in front of customers — and by brand-name, I mean from the really established authors — but they are not effective at discovery.

They are really terrible at putting a book in front of you that you never thought you’d want to read, that you have no reason to read and no tether to at all. Whereas a bookstore is precisely the place that does that. You pick up the book that you never thought you would want to read, might read, or could even think about reading, by an author you’ve never even heard of until that moment. When a bookseller says, “Look at that,” “Read that when you next come in,” or “I love that,” or whatever it is, all those small, little recommendations are personal and able to attach themselves to books that otherwise have nothing going for them at all.

That second paragraph seems all the more poignant because I picked up this book – something which is not my usual fare – purely because I saw it at Waterstones and I am actually enjoying it. Sometimes you want the recommendations to be a bit out of your usual norm so you discover new things rather than go down the same rabbit hole. Book stores are nice for that.

Update (28th May 2023): Loving this book so far. About 1/3rd done, I think. The book is made up of four parts, and I completed the second part today. He covers a lot of topics with a very personal touch, which is great.