25 June 2006

Pamela and Jenna

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part VI. A review of Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul, Times Books, New York, 2005 and How To Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss, HarperCollins, New York, 2004.

The best chapters of Pamela Paul’s Pornified are the last two: chapter 8, “The Truth about Pornography” and her “Conclusion: The Censure-Not-Censor Solution,” where she finally addresses – directly and with few of her negatively-insinuating anecdotes about Regular Americans Damaged By Porn [my phrase, not hers] – what I would call three bottom-line elements to any serious discussion of pornography in our society.

First, we should make every effort – every effort – to protect children both from participation in and observation of pornography; the former is most critical, since child pornography is horrible, and it should be stopped. As for the latter, well, that those same kids will likely make an equal effort to discover porn is not an argument for allowing or enabling them to do so. Kids should be – need to be – protected from a number of aspects of the adult world, and this is certainly one of them, even if part of the process of growing up inevitably includes struggles to do adult-type things before one might really be ready. Paul quotes a study that showed, somewhat surprisingly, that 69% of men want pornography to be illegal for minors, an even higher percentage than that of women, at 52%. (P. 252) This study is quoted amidst an exploration of political perspectives on access to porn, and the traditional liberal vs. conservative divide on the subject – a divide trumped by this 69% figure. Perhaps it is not so surprising: maybe men know about the dangers of pornography, and therefore even the liberal ones have fewer illusions about the need to distinguish between acceptable adult behavior as distinct from that of children.

Second, we should improve our sex education, our programs educating teenagers about human sexuality – and we should admit to ourselves that “pornography” (whatever its other uses) does not constitute an effective or acceptable sexual education tool for teenagers. An intelligently designed and implemented program of sexual education – one that reinforces, among other things, messages about the importance of mutual pleasure, about the dangers of early or unprotected sex, about respect for one’s partners, about basic sexual health – might not only help prepare kids for all the things their hormones will compel them to do, it might also undermine the argument that there is sex-education value in pornography.

Third, we need to accept that adults have a right to do things – like view pornography – that other people may dislike or find unappealing, but acknowledging this right and over-enabling it are two different things. Paul’s argument is that it is possible to allow the legal distribution of pornography without necessarily making it easy to acquire. She equates the dynamic to that of smoking, where a variety of individual and social health issues finally encouraged our government to allow the sale of cigarettes while taxing them heavily, thus permitting a behavior while imposing a societal penalty of sorts. (P. 265)

If my implied agreement with all of the above comes as a surprise to those familiar with my civil libertarian leanings, so be it. Separate and apart from Paul’s book, I think: it is obvious that children shouldn’t be exposed to pornography; equally obvious that American sex education programs (particularly now, under the teach-abstinence-only focused Bush-Cheney administration) are sorely in need of improvement; and that there most definitely is a distinction between acknowledging someone’s right to access a particular good or service and reducing or eliminating restrictions on access to that good or service.

Unfortunately, these three effective Pornified points will normally require the reader to wade through the remainder of the book – which is significantly less appealing, and generally ineffective in its argumentation. The first big problem with Pornified concerns Paul’s central thesis: that our society has not only become obsessed with pornography, but that this obsession is hurting us as individuals and impairing our relationships (sexual or otherwise) to our husbands, wives, partners, and society as whole. On the first part of that thesis, Paul writes that “The all-pornography, all-the-time mentality is everywhere in today’s pornified culture – not just in cybersex and Playboy magazine. It’s on Maxim magazine covers where even women who ostensibly want to be taken seriously as actresses pose like Penthouse pinups. It’s in women’s magazines where readers are urged to model themselves on strippers, articles explain how to work your sex moves after those displayed in pornos, and columnists counsel bored or dissatisfied young women to rent pornographic films with their lovers in order to ‘enliven’ their sex lives. ... Softcore pornography has now become part and parcel of the mainstream media.” (P. 5)

Even if we accept her argument as true – and there is certainly truth to it – what is missing entirely from Paul’s analysis is recognition of the legitimate choices made by adults, both male and female, and the responsibility that should come with those choices. In many ways, the problems with Paul’s book are similar to those of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, namely the pairing of occasionally-astute observation (e.g., about young women who participate in Girls Gone Wild videos) with poor conclusions about who is responsible for the actions of an individual, and what can be learned from those actions. In Paul’s case, she specifically points to these kinds of videos and places the biggest blame not with the women who participate, or even the camera crews who engage and encourage them, but with the demand for the product in the first place. “If demand didn’t exist, the product wouldn’t sell – and would disappear.” (P. 265) Well, ok; but since the demand is unlikely to fade away on its own, shouldn’t the people who participate be encouraged to take greater responsibility for their actions if they are unhappy with the results?

This leads to the second problem with Pornified: the argument that women have gone along with the expansion of pornography in our society; that they have, in fact, largely adopted much of it into our collective culture; that this is clearly a bad thing; and that pornography itself is to blame. Levy called this “raunch culture,” and again, neither author is necessarily wrong in their assessment of the situation; as Kira Cochrane wrote in a recent review of Levy’s book in The Guardian, after re-reading the book “suddenly, everywhere I look, I can see, well, pure raunchiness. ... All around, there’s a profusion of nylon thongs poking above women’s waistbands. ... Girls are wearing cut-off tops and T-shirts saying “Porn star” and every other woman I see has breast implants.” These books certainly can be eye-opening if you were not tuned in to such details already.

But to blame the proliferation of pornography itself for this situation seems extremely naïve. We are talking, after all, about one industry; it may be a wealthy industry relative to its size, and it may be politically powerful because of its First Amendment positions, but there are limits. Think about all of this in relation to perhaps the biggest cross-American industry of all: religion. According to The Harris Poll, the statistics on the number of Americans who profess to believe in god (79%), who attend some kind of worship service regularly (55%), and who believe in miracles (84%) are enormous, to put it mildly. Churches in America are powerful, “values voters” are claimed to have dominated the last two national elections, and even the American left has been looking for opportunities to adopt some of the values of the right. Therefore, in an environment like this, in a society with so many competing influences and opportunities, to blame one industry for the change in American culture – as opposed to the motivations of the individuals who are themselves making these changes – seems completely out of whack. Pornography cannot be that powerful. Can it?

That’s an interesting question all by itself. In Pornified, Paul goes out of her way to prove this point – and fails, utterly. In some places, she claims that the problem is the reach of the porn industry: “Fueled by a combination of access, anonymity, and affordability, the Internet has propelled pornography consumption – bringing in new viewers (including children), encouraging more use from existing fans, escalating consumers from softcore to harder-core material, and propelling some over the edge into sexual compulsivity.” (P. 60) In other places, she quotes psychologists, such as David Marcus: “‘More is being asked of men emotionally these days,’ he explains, ‘Many men are still providers and they’re still in the workforce... the workplace is more competitive and there are fewer jobs... But at home, the kind of behavior that works in the workplace is simply unacceptable. ... They feel like they’re mastering neither home nor work and that, overall, they’re not in control.” P. 35. Paul mentions different studies, such as the Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann study from 1982 about how pornography negatively changed people’s perceptions about rape and violent sex. (PP. 77-78) And she makes statements – such as: “But there’s a vast difference between sexuality and its artistic representation, and pornography, a commercialized means to arousal. To pretend they are equivalent is nothing short of deceit.” (P. 241) – thats sound correct, but fail on closer analysis. That art and porn are not equal does not automatically mean that the commercialized arousal of pornography is or must be bad.

Worst of all, Paul uses a series of warped anecdotes to highlight people – pornography users – in ways that cast aspersions on their actions while attempting to maintain a neutral tone. For example, telling the tale of “Christina” (PP. 116-117), who is in her mid-thirties and has two kids, she starts off by saying Christina “...got started on pornography at age twelve...” and from there goes on to imply that everything else that happened – her drug use, her having a child at 19, even her subsequent marriage and divorce – are all the result of her continued attachment to porn. This despite the fact that Christina herself says “I just find porn really enticing.” We are supposed to feel sorry for the 5’9” blond, blue-eyed, thin, busty Christina because, I suppose, she isn’t even aware that she’s delusional. This in direct contrast to Keisha, a few pages later, who responds to an absurd porn film plot-line by saying “I was like, ugh, gross!” (P. 119) Clearly, Paul wants to make clear that Keisha gets it and Christina doesn’t.

What I don’t get – and what Paul never really explains – is: why do we humans (or, at least, we Americans) find pornography so compelling? If we accept Paul’s statistics on the scope of the industry, the massive numbers of people who buy, look at, or are otherwise connected to porn in some way, including both men and women, then we need more research into what, exactly, is behind this, at a biological and psychological level. Only once we have a better understanding of what truly motivates our consumption of pornography – beyond just the excuses about someone’s difficulty relating to people, or that it’s easier than trying to date, or that it adds a little spice to stale relationship – can we explore the scope of its impact and assess whether that impact is negative. There may be good reasons why contemporary pornography is hardly the expression of female liberation that some claim, but the kind of anecdotal back-stabbing Paul engages in only weakens the arguments. Moreover, if there are victims of pornography, they need to paint a more compelling portrait than that “Christina” – or that of “Christopher,” who is fat but is picky about his women, and hasn’t had a girlfriend in four years in part because it’s just easier to masturbate to pornography. (PP. 24-25) Something tells me fat, dateless sad-sacks like “Christopher” were around long before the creation of the internet. Ditto for busty, self-confident women like “Christina” who wisely opted not to blame their problems on someone else.


This is where Jenna Jameson comes in. The woman is certainly a wonder, and I mean that in a variety of positive and negative ways. Her book is disastrous, with a tortuous narrative flow that must surely have bothered not-quite-a-ghost-writer Neil Strauss as much as any reader. And reading it is, in many ways, like reading several hundred pages of “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey” – absent the self-conscious irony and evident humor. For example, in one passage, explaining why people sometimes make the (poor) decisions they do, driven as humans are by complex desires: “And emotions always overpower thoughts.” (P. 60). Well, yes, that’s been known to happen. Or how about this one: “The best sex takes place in the mind first.” (P. 72) Hmmm. “Perception, I quickly learned, is reality.” (P. 404) Here, here! Or what about: “...success requires some familiarity with the fatal flaw of narcissism.” (P. 402) All too true.

Or, more to the point of my review: “People often say that the world would be so much better if it were run by women. But women have as many faults as men. Their faults are just different. So he truth is that the world would not be better if it were run by a woman, it would be better if it were run by the right woman. When men race or fight, they are only striving to prove their masculinity or protect their sense of pride. But women do not compartmentalize in the same way. Our actions are a reflection of our complete selves, worthiness, and deservedness. For the worst of our species, any other attractive female is seen as competition and a threat.” (P. 70)

Or, on standing up for herself: “If any journalist makes me feel uncomfortable or shows any disrespect, I’ll cancel the interview. In this business, you get to see all the double standards that women are held to in society, and it is important to keep from perpetuating them. One way is by refusing to allow anyone to disrespect you.” (P. 415)

She may be onto something here. There’s no irony in those statements, either.

My two biggest pet peeves in reading this book are simple. First, Jenna describes herself as, at times, being in “mouse mode” (e.g., P. 105) while, mere paragraphs later, we are to believe she has flipped some kind of switch and the mouse is gone. This happens repeatedly, from her early experiences as a stripper, to her first movies, to how she deals with many “industry” people, Jenna goes from shy to shrewd in a few sentences. In other words: it is difficult to believe; I am not saying she doesn’t feel mousy inside, but it doesn’t ring true with the subsequent actions, never mind the public persona. Second: Jenna has a penchant for describing the “camaraderie” in the porn industry (e.g., P. 334, P. 376), as if to make us feel better about it – which usually fails, because such “camaraderie” is usually followed a page or two later with a story about how someone has (you should pardon the pun) dicked her over. Why bother. The story works better when pornography is work, and described as such in matter-of-fact terms.

Now, this may sound ridiculous in light of my review of Pornified and my general agreement that pornography has become a deep and deeply negative influence on our society, but I have to admit: I admire Jenna Jameson. Yes, yes, she’s “successful” and likely richer than I’ll ever be; it isn’t that, though. And yes, yes, Jenna has played as much of a role as anyone in popularizing porn in the last decade, contributing to our “pornified” culture and all that this implies. I admire Jenna because – in spite of the many bad things that happened to her, or that she allowed to happen to her, or that she did to herself – she has had the guts to be who and what she is. I don’t even mean the “porn star” part per se, so much as her unselfconscious attitude towards explaining how she got where she did. If Toni Bentley was brave to talk about her penchant for anal sex, Jenna takes it all so much further, in a way that seems so much more honest for its charting of her (many, and varied) ups-and-downs.

Jenna Jameson is not the most astute observer of the world, or of human relationships, and it is too easy to dismiss this book for its flaws (or as a glibly successful effort to make money). Nor am I sure I want to advocate that people should read it. I cannot quite go that far. However, the book’s subtitle is “A Cautionary Tale” for good reason and in that, no matter what else one wants to talk about, there is merit. If we live in a “pornified” culture, we deserve to read about some of the pitfalls, straight from a key source. On that score, Jenna delivers.

21 June 2006

Double Trouble

A TTAISI alert...

I have noticed that a number of posts in the last few months have not posted properly: they are readable from the main page, but the links to them do not work properly. This affects everything from archives to RSS feeds. (Perhaps you noticed and were too polite to say anything?)

So: a number of items have been reposted in the last several hours. For those with RSS/Atom feeds, you may receive copies of posts from several months ago. I apologize for the duplication, but it was important to fix the problem.

As for what the issue is or was ... I suspect it had to do with the length of the name of the post. Somewhere between Blogger and my host server, there was an issue. Apologies for anyone who was confused by the broken links. You weren't alone...

An Iraq Story Unfolds

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The U.K. Newspaper The Independent ran an article yesterday (20 June 2006) about a confidential letter that was leaked, a letter from the American Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. (The Independent posted an abridged text of the letter here.) According to the same article, the memo “paints a grim picture of Iraq as a country disintegrating in which the real rulers are the militias, and the central government counts for nothing,” an account “wholly at odds with the optimistic account of developments given by President George Bush and Tony Blair.”

This story has not, as far as I can tell, been widely picked up here in the U.S. There was an Associated Press article that ran yesterday afternoon (e.g., in the Boston Globe here, or ABC News.com here) – but the AP article claims that “The author was not known,” attempting to neutralize the idea that it actually was from Ambassador Khalilzad despite being under his name officially. This also received some coverage in the Washington Post, though it appears that an article in their “Outlook” section – which is mentioned in other articles – is not yet accessible online. Other than that, coverage in the U.S. appears slim, as was noted by the Media Matters for America site.


Indulge me in a tangent for one minute. Separate and apart from the details of the memo, all of which certainly seem believable, the contradictory perspectives on the Iraq situation strike me as covering up a broader conspiracy, a theory that was tossed around back when President Bush was so actively falsifying his evidence for war and trying to terrorize the nation into accepting its necessity. That conspiracy theory (bolstered by the President’s use of the word “crusade”) was that what President Bush really wanted in Iraq was chaos: he wanted sectarian violence and he wanted a war that would broaden itself to be perceived as a massive clash of religious titans – not of Sunni versus Shia, but of Islam versus Christianity. In other words, this is all part of some doctrinaire Christian take on the end-of-days and how to provoke the Second Coming of Christ.

Yes, ok, it’s far-fetched. I asked for your indulgence. It is not that I necessarily believe this theory to be true; I still think that, Presidential denials notwithstanding, this was a war about oil more than anything else. However, if you start lining up the details – of how we have bungled the post-war planning and continued to fail at any substantive resolution of Iraq’s growing civil strife; how we have so selectively chosen to support the new regime in Afghanistan (which is to say: we support the part that can appear easily on television from Kabul, leaving the poppy-growing majority to go about their heroin-producing business); how Osama bin Laden was supposed to be Public Enemy #1, and yet he remains at large; how President Bush has handled Syria, Iran, and the Palestinians to date; and so on – it does, sadly, look as though there is no consistent approach beyond some very hidden ulterior motive. Our President denounces dictatorships on the one hand (Iraq under Saddam) while, on the other hand, supporting dictatorships (Libya); he calls for democracy in Iraq, but leaves Egypt and Saudi Arabia to move ever-so-slowly in what might (possibly) be a democratic direction, while also denouncing the democratic choices made by people in Iran or the occupied Palestinian territories...

I could go on, but presumably you get the point. Pragmatically, what is Mr. Bush to do about ALL of these situations? Nothing; the United States is strong, but we don’t have the military forces to take them on all at once. But from the perspective of a Christian conspiracy theory, we don’t have to address these all issues at once – all we have to do is stir the pot enough to create a broader religious war, a clash of civilizations. Indeed, that seems to be the one thing at which President Bush and his administration have been most effective.


Update: The Independent has also published an editorial today (21 June 2006) about the leaked memo and the Iraq situation. (Subscription required for full text.)

18 June 2006


SASCHA DOT COM has a new look. To celebrate, there are two new items up:
  • A review of Amanda Filipacchi's Love Creeps (also mentioned previously here); and
  • A review of regina spektor's new album begin to hope.
Looking for something good to read? Looking for some good new music? Well, you get the picture...

11 June 2006

Our Darkest Secrets

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The amazing thing about the recent news is not that America, through the CIA, did little to round-up certain high-profile Nazis after World War II, including the infamous Adolf Eichmann. Anyone who has studied the history of the U.S. involvement in that war and its aftermath knows that the nation’s response was often ambivalent, or driven by political (rather than humanitarian) motives. Rather, the amazing thing is that because of the recent declassification of a trove of documents, we have a chance to find out exactly how little the U.S. government did, over a broad period of time and in great detail.

This is all the more remarkable since it has seemed very clear, since his inauguration in 2001, that the direction in which George W. Bush’s United States has been heading is an environment of constant, indeed omnipresent, secrecy. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have orchestrated a very careful, persistent campaign of incrementalism, leading the country towards a greater acceptance of undemocratic and unconstitutional principles of governance. This includes steps like...

  • Reclassifying documents from previous presidents, changing what had been a standard process of (slowly) allowing scholars and historians access to the records of past administrations.

  • Demanding – and achieving – confidentiality for some invented notion of executive advice, as epitomized by Vice President Cheney’s energy task force.

  • Using “security” as a justification for everything from rendition to torture, but also for explaining why the American public should have less access to information about the operation of their government.

  • Ignoring the writ of habeas corpus, in deciding to lock up Jose Padilla and other American citizens, while working to deny them access to the courts, or the information needed to defend themselves. (This is to say nothing of those “enemy combatants” locked up in Guantanamo.)

  • Repressing free speech and new coverage, from suppressing protests at the time of the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 (by arresting law-abiding protesters) to preventing the news media from showing pictures of the coffins of dead American soldiers.

  • Again, using “security” to justify its actions, after the fact, such as with the National Security Agency’s program to spy on Americans by tapping our phones without warrants, in a very evident violation of a very clear law.

Inch by inch, we grow more and more accepting of the Bush-Cheney bottom line justification: what we know might hurt us. Moreover, the logic appears infallible: Americans shouldn’t know that the phones are tapped because then we might not use phones to plot attacks. We shouldn’t know that our e-mail is being read, or our web activity researched, because then we might behave differently in trying to organize our nefarious activities. In other words, if we know they’re coming for us, we might hide. “We” meaning terrorists, of course – it’s only terrorists that have anything to fear. We-the-people shouldn’t worry about unconstitutional government activity: if we have nothing to hide then what do we have to fear?

A few weeks ago, I wondered out loud to a friend how long it would be before any history about the American Revolutionary War needs to be hidden – exhibitions at the Smithsonian and elsewhere closed, textbooks revised, etc. After all, the most basic message of our founding war was the fight for liberty and freedom from government interference: it was a citizen's rebellion against a distant, confused chief executive (King George III) with overly-invasive policies. At what point will our history from the 18th century – the actions and words of our Founding Fathers – start to resonate with today’s Americans? When will they begin to see that the policies of our present-day King George have been at odds with the intent of our own Constitution?

As I thought about this article, I again recalled the famous “poem” by the German reverend Martin Niemöller – one of the most telling statements about the potential horrors of incrementalism. No irony is lost here in quoting Niemöller in an article that began by commenting on the U.S. government’s efforts to whitewash the history of certain Nazis and German anti-Semites; Niemöller’s past does not diminish the raw truth of his words. We may not feel that we are in imminent fear of being rounded up and imprisoned, and perhaps that is true. That, however, is the point: the biggest danger of Bush-Cheney style incrementalism is how difficult it can be to see what the next set of government actions will look like. We should have demanded better of our government in the aftermath of World War II, and we should continue to do so now – but “better” actions (and the intentions behind them) cannot take place under a veil of secrecy.

Jobbing It - Stories

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Today's New York Times has an article about companies and their job recruiters using “social networking” sites like MySpace and Friendster to scope out and check on potential employees. It seems to me that there are two elements of the story that, alas, escape deeper analysis.

The first is an evolution away from people having “private” lives, as evidenced by these very public, online displays of an individual’s activities and predilections. In another era (that is, pre-internet), these things would generally have been kept behind solidly closed doors. This is not to say that one should be embarrassed or ashamed about one’s interests and hobbies – but there is a distinction between shamefulness and privacy, and it seems like both are being lost. Moreover, in losing this distinction, this borderline between different aspects of their lives, people also seem to lose any sense of the impact that their personal life may have on their professional life.

The second is the sense among college grads from the last five years, many of whom are now job hunting, that the manner in which they present themselves does not matter; this extends to online presentations, such as drunken photos posted to someone’s “profile” page, as noted in the Times article. The issue here is less whether one makes a decision to hire someone on the basis of their MySpace profile or other things that they say about themselves. The question is whether young job-seekers are presenting a complete, solid, well-thought-through package to a prospective employer – in which case an employer can evaluate that individual’s qualifications, and for a strong prospective employee might be more willing to make an exception for “private” behavior that is not to their liking.

Companies looking to hire people have to adapt to changing times, there is no doubt about that, and that includes accepting that sites like Facebook are a normal part of the life of a twenty-something adult. Changing times, though, do not necessarily mean changing business values; companies still need to hire employees who are qualified and capable and prepared to do their jobs. As someone who reviews resumes, cover letters, writing samples, and letters of reference on a regular basis, and who interviews job candidates too ... well, I have said it before (in 2005), and before that (in 2004), and before that (in 2003), and even before that (in 2002): if you do not want the job, don’t apply for it; if you are not prepared to say why you want it, figure that out first; and if you are unwilling or unable to meet the professional standards of the company – in your interview, and at work – then that might not be the company for you. After all, the “company” you keep says a lot about who you are, whether in MySpace or on the job.

04 June 2006

Small, Persistent Pleasures

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I rarely buy books solely on the basis of their cover art and title, but in 1993, largely on an impulse I purchased Amanda Filipacchi’s first novel, Nude Men. At the small bookstore where I bought it, the staff said it was a fun read and indeed, I liked it – it felt vigorous, alive, and was very funny. Since then, about once a year, in whatever bookstore I was then perusing, I would look to see whether Ms. Filipacchi had published anything else. Somehow I missed Vapor, which came out in 1998 or 1999, and apparently I have not checked in the last 12 months, because Ms. Filipacchi’s novel Love Creeps was published in June 2005.

I spent much of this past week in Portland, Oregon. I did not have much free time, but managed to escape my meetings for a few hours – long enough to get over to Powell’s City of Books, which is definitely one of the best bookstores in the United States. I will sidestep (for now) the broader arguments about supporting independent booksellers and instead tell you that Powell’s is a vast, multi-level store that is a wonder of organizational clarity: rooms and topics are color-coded; maps are available; and the staff at the various and copious information desks actually know their stuff, in a deeper way than I have ever found at any chain book retailer (or, for that matter, at just about any other bookstore).

Powell’s biggest strength – indeed, its pure genius – is that new and used books are shelved side by side, as are hardcovers and paperbacks. Looking for Lawrence Block’s The Topless Tulip Caper? On my visit, Powell’s had three copies on the shelf: a paperback, and two different hardcovers, all used, and ranging in price from $7.50 to $40. Current best-sellers, like The Da Vinci Code, are available in both formats, new and used, priced from $4.95 for a used copy of the paperback to $29.95 for a brand new hardcover (not to mention new and used version on CD and cassette). The same is true in all subject areas, which increases the likelihood one will find a desired book, as well as make it possible to economize (if that is an objective). All of these same format options are available on their web site, too, making Powell’s a powerhouse for online book orders. And in my experience, their descriptions of the condition of their used books is very accurate: I recently ordered a used, hardcover copy of Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary ($14.95) for my Feminism & Me series and it is indistinguishable in condition from a new copy that normally sells for an additional $11.

Wandering through Powell’s, after perusing for an hour and having run through much of my mental checklist of desired books, I remembered that it had been some time since I’d last checked the F’s in search of Filipacchi. I looked – and I found: a hardcover of Love Creeps, new, but on sale for $11.95. I opened up the front cover: a first edition – a nice bonus. I read the first page; it reminded me of A.M. Homes, another author with a dark and sensuous sense of humor. I bought it, went back to my hotel, and started reading. Half-way through, I discovered that the book really was new, not that there had been any doubt: the corners of the pages on a 30-page section in the middle had not even been fully cut or broken apart by another reader.

Several days later, and I’m home now. I would not normally plug a book before I have finished, but Love Creeps is clever and funny, and Amanda Filipacchi deserves a wider readership, and somehow I doubt this book will let me down. (A.M. Homes deserves readers, too; The Safety of Objects is terrific, as is In A Country of Mothers.) And here is where I’ll come back and plug independent bookstores, too, like the terrific Murder Ink. on New York’s Upper West Side (which is a much better store than its not-very-user-friendly web site would suggest) and Washington’s Politics & Prose, easily the best store in a city that desperately needs help generating new ideas.

The (otherwise) smart economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote an article for Slate with the obnoxious title “What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For? Not much.” I agree with Cowen that big-box booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders have brought many benefits to book consumers, particularly for out-of-the-way communities that might not otherwise be able to build or sustain stores of this scale and breadth. Likewise, I agree that there is an unwarranted pretentiousness that often goes along with non-chain stores and their clientèle – they are still stores, after all – and that the lower prices the large retailers have been able to negotiate with publishers are certainly to the advantage of us, the consumers. All fair points.

So, call it nostalgia (as Cowen does) for a different era, or an overly-intellectual desire not to have to spell “Kafka” when asking for one of his book (as Cowen notes that he did). But I think he’s wrong when he devalues the argument that because of independent bookstores, “high-quality but inaccessible books can slowly build their reputations through reader word-of-mouth and eventually take the literary world by storm.” I found Amanda Filipacchi because I shopped at a small store willing to stock a first novel from an unknown author, and I bought it because they said it was a good read. And in being man enough to admit that I have shopped at my fair share of big-box booksellers, I will also say that I have never found Ms. Filipacchi’s novels on those stores’ shelves. Is she a super-star author, whose career was launched because of indy bookstores? Maybe not. But while Cowen’s arguments make sense in the purer realms of economics, at the same time maybe the biggest benefit these small bookstores provide is the same diversity Cowen says he values as part of our economy: a diversity of opinion, of pricing, of merchandise, and of experience. That diversity seems worth sustaining, even if not a single big box store has to close to make it happen.