Of Books and Sandwiches

In this week’s New Yorker, George Packer has an article speculating on whether Amazon is good for books.

Let me be clear on this.  I think Amazon is great for books.  I’m particularly a fan of the Kindle Paperwhite, which always makes me think of Walt Whitman’s phrase in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.”  In an age when finding anything in a brick and mortar bookstore that isn’t biblical, a best-seller, a coffee-table book, or self-help (or some combination of those) is well-nigh impossible, Amazon and its Kindle have made comparatively small and obscure books available.  It’s wonderful.

But.  The first thing I want to take issue with is Packer’s frontispiece.  Under a piece portraying Amazon’s logo as a bookshelf, we read “In the era of the Kindle, a book costs the same price as a sandwich.”

That may be true if you live in New York.  On average, I seem to pay right around $10 for each book I buy on my Kindle–sometimes more, sometimes less.  And that’s a heck of a lot more than I’ve paid for a sandwich lately.  But it got me to thinking about the relationship between sandwiches and books.

I have always loved to read, science fiction in particular, but paperbacks in general.  The paperback is the great democratizer of literature.  Paperbacks are designed to be small, portable, and inexpensive.  In my most extreme period of reading, which probably coincided with my college and graduate school years, I would prowl the bookstores for something new and interesting, and often had four books going at the same time.  And I often read while eating–a sandwich.

A quick Google suggests that in the mid-1980s, a paperback book cost around $2-3.  At the same time, a Big Mac cost 1.60.  Even if we accept for the sake of argument  McDonald’s claim that they provide a tremendous value, then there’s not all that much difference in price between a cheap sandwich and a cheap book.  Remember that there are premium hamburgers and paperback books as well.  Those have always been more costly though, one could argue, nutritionally indistinguishable.

OK, speaking of cheap, this is a cheap shot.  I haven’t yet read all of Packer’s article–on paper, incidentally, since I like my magazines in physical format.  I’ll try to read through it later today or this evening and see if I have more to say.  But for now, let me say this:

There are few things in this world as complete as a meal of a book and a sandwich (my mind flashes back to the Ideal Sandwich Shoppe on the Minneapolis West Bank, c. 1980, where I spent a rainy afternoon eating an excellent sandwich and reading Germinal (for which I paid a little more than the price of the sandwich).

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