Webs Of Reading

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 16 2012 @ 3:35pm

Alexis Madrigal is absorbing Kenneth C. Davis' Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, published in 1984. The popular historian describes the prevalence of bookstores in 1931:

In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels," Davis writes. "In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers' salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned 'carriage trade' stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation's twelve largest cities.

Madrigal's takeaway:

It's my contention – and I've made this point in other ways – that when people look at the sprawling mess of Internet publishing and decide that the quality of writing has declined, they are comparing apples to oranges. They're taking the most elite offerings that could be imagined, which were based on the tastes of the most educated people in 12 cities, and comparing them to the now-visible reading habits of everyone on the Internet.

Relatedly, Tom Standage argues that 17th century coffeehouses inspired the same level of fear that social media does today:

With the promise of a constant and unpredictable stream of news, messages and gossip, coffeehouses offered an exciting and novel platform for sharing information. So seductive was this new social environment — you never knew what you might learn on your next visit, or who you might meet — that coffeehouse denizens found themselves whiling away hours in reading and discussion, oblivious to the passage of time.