This weeks’ Studium Generale lecture was delivered by Maarten Asscher, director of the Athenaeum Bookstore in Amsterdam, in which he contemplated the current position of the bookstore in the Netherlands. In his lecture he gave a broad perspective on the book selling business and at the same time he tried to cope with the pessimistic spirit haunting the book world. For one, Asscher does not believe the ‘overproduction’ of book titles on the Dutch market is necessary a bad thing, for a certain amount of overproduction ensures the pluriformity of the book market. For there are certain selection mechanisms that ensure that those titles that are the most important artifacts for cultural transmission are brought to the public. First of all there is the publisher, who selects those titles that are to be published from the even larger amount of delivered manuscripts. From this selection the second selection is made when reviewers and critics only pay attention to a certain fraction of the published books. The last selection is in the hands of the people who decide what to buy for their libraries or bookstores. Together, these mechanisms make sure the book culture is sustained.
A second strain of cultural pessimism Asscher mentions, has to do with the fear of digitization and e-books. For a lot of people in the book business are afraid that with the coming of e-books people will buy and read less books. In Asscher’s view these fears are exaggerated. For instance, he believes that especially ‘information’ based books will be susceptible to digitization. On the other hand academic books in for example the humanities will for long hold their position in the paper world. Asscher foresees that if these books will eventually only appear as e-books they will loose the contact with the general public, for they will draw back into their peer-reviewed virtual surroundings without reaching a broader audience. And this is where the bookstore plays an important role as it is not concerned so much with information as well as with ‘written culture’. And in this sense the bookstore needs to be a public meeting place or a cultural haven, a place were culture and society meet, in other words, the bookstore needs to establish relationships with its artistic and cultural surroundings. And to establish and sustain this the bookstore also needs to be active on the Internet. Asscher promotes the virtual bookstore, which, with its expertise and knowledge, can be a valuable asset to the digital cultural landscape. In this way, Asscher says, a bookstore can and must be a little bit of everything: a library, a publisher, a museum, a theater, a debating centre, but most of all, it needs to be a bookstore: a place where our written culture is sustained and transmitted.
And in this regard it is very interesting to see how even in the digital era, the bookstore might still function as an important connection between the academic world and the general public, between science and society.