Books as a Trompe-L'oeil: On Fools and What Fools the Eye

Photo Copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

I have been watching closely the war between Amazon and Hachette, as well as the conflict Amazon encounters in France. It seems that in both cases the parties cannot move beyond rigid and passive-aggressive exchanges. My position is that, in essence, we are looking at an intercultural misunderstanding, which if acknowledged, might be a great starting point for equitable negotiations and an amiable resolution. This is a great intercultural management case study, in which subconscious cultural values clash and disturb the business relationship. It definitely doesn't have to be that way.

On one hand we have a New World, global, online only retailer, organized mainly around values like efficiency and utilitarianism. Amazon considers books a commodity, like cars or computers: an object that has no other inherent value, but only the value dictated by how often it is demanded or offered by the majority of us, i.e., the market. Amazon managers probably pay little or no attention to the artistic, aesthetic and emotional efforts needed to create a book. Unless, of course, that can be also commoditized and marketed, with the potential of increasing the commercial value of the book-object. The main reason and purpose of Amazon's book selling is exactly that: to sell, to entice as many of us to buy and contribute to the creation of a "best-seller." Amazon's main way of enticing people to buy books is the same one they use for any of their millions of products: low prices, "compare and save," etc. From Amazon's perspective, savings is what a book buyer should mainly focus on. And while that works great in countries like United States, where people apply this formula to every single product or service, the "great savings!" philosophy runs directly against the French (and European in general) cultural values. As a curiosity, browse and notice how many amazing books, inspiring and timeless through their wisdom, humor and depth, can be bought with exactly 0.01 dollars, often only within a year of being published. Of course, you add to that $3.99 shipping and handling, from which about 60 percent goes to Amazon.

Opposing Amazon we have the traditional cultural values, according to which a book has, besides a market value, an emotional-aesthetic value, given by days and nights of struggle and turmoil of the writer-creator who gave it birth. As with food, clothes and fragrances, Old World folks associate books with pleasure, sensuality, and emotional and intellectual knowledge. There is a reason for which the Bouquinistes can (still) be found along the Seine and not along the Potomac. French authors and readers talk about the pleasure of holding a real book in their hands, of smelling it and touching it, cuddled in a big chair, under the lamp's light, on a cold rainy evening. For many people around the globe books are alive, they are collected, cherished and contemplated periodically with love. They are milestones that punctuate one's emotional and social life.

More than 30 years ago, in his seminal book Simulacra and Simulations, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard predicted that we are vigorously marching toward a utilitarian world, where there will be no books, but only the signs of books, which carry no real objects behind them. Baudrillard calls that a simulacrum of the 3rd Order, where something pretends to be a faithful copy, but a copy that has no original. This idea is perfectly illustrated by the picture that I chose for the beginning of this article: a living room table made out of something that looks like books, but which are in fact empty boxes.

Was Baudrillard right? Are we moving toward a utilitarian (Amazonian?) society? For a while now the New World has praised itself for invention of the short versions of mostly any book. Why "waste time" and energy trying to understand intricate and carefully crafted sentences, plots and phrases? Why read 300-400 pages when you can get the point in a concise version of only 50 pages or less? The book-products coming from these knowledge-condensing companies are treated and sold like any other commodity: they are "valuable" because they come with the famous 100 percent money-back full refund guaranteed, and they seem to be enjoyed by 30 percent of the Fortune 500 -- just in case you had any doubt about the Fortune 500 guys. Well, the next logical step, predicted by Baudrillard, could be that only a discreet sign of a book will be enough to satisfy our thirst of knowledge. Maybe just the cover with the title and the author. And in between those covers, nothing.

There is no wonder that Amazon is at war with Hachette and other European cultures. Of course, Amazon has a much bigger power of negotiation and it has been using it to force anybody into accepting its condition. This attitude surprises me very much, since I believe that Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is a smart, culturally and emotionally intelligent man.

Obviously, Bezos' qualities cannot be found in each and every Amazon employees. But those in key managerial positions, in both French and American companies, might benefit from intercultural management and cultural intelligence training, specifically when working abroad or recruiting locals for managerial positions.

Here are some of the writers who have protested Amazon's tactics: Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera. For more information you can read David Streitfeld's articles in the New York Times.