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Posted at 04:15 PM ET, 08/21/2012

50 Shades of Grey and strange bedfellows for Barnes & Noble

I’ll do anything. Even that. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images) (Rob Kim - GETTY IMAGES)
As an avid reader and devotee of the megabookstore, I was delighted to see that Barnes & Noble had stemmed its bleeding a little this quarter, reporting fewer losses than expected. As an avid reader, I was a little less delighted to see that the reason this had happened was ... 50 Shades of Grey. That book is to literature as this really embarrassingly bad analogy is to analogies. I would have something better, but I once touched the book without gloves on and I’ve become infected.

One of the perennial challenges for the Self-Respecting Avid Reader is the caliber of the books people actually read.

“Kids aren’t reading any more!” you lament. Then Goosebumps comes along.

“Oh,” you say. “Ah. Ergh. Em.” You make a sort of strangled honking noise like a duck that has just been told about Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks. “Good that they’re reading anything,” you finally splutter.

“Fiction is dying!” you cry. Then 50 Shades of Grey comes along.

“All right,” you say, “and now fiction is dead. But good that they’re reading anything.”

But politics, and bookstore fanaticism, have always made for strange bedfellows. Frankly, I will buy whatever it takes to keep the stores in business. (I even bought a copy of 50 Shades myself. The cashier gave me a strange look. Possibly this was because I was buying it simultaneously with a copy of Atlas Shrugged, for work purposes. In fact, the cashier told me to “try not to kill yourself.” But I digress.)

As a devotee of the bookstore, it saddened me to read in the AP’s report that one of the reasons for the chain’s diminished losses was “mass merchants and other brick-and-mortar booksellers reducing the variety of books they carry as well as cutting shelf space for books.” The sad thing is that this has helped. Bookstores are not places you buy books. They are places you meet up with people before going to get coffee elsewhere. At best they are places you comparison shop for books before buying them on Amazon later.

If the only way the megabookstore can thrive is as a coffee shop full of interactive toys and copies of 50 Shades of Grey, where periodically over the loudspeaker a querulous voice demands to know why you haven’t purchased a Nook yet (they’re heading that way fast) well, it’s better than nothing. Barely. But Twain was right to call a classic a “book men praise and don’t read.” Generally the amount of critical acclaim a book gets is inversely proportional to how read it is. And we need books read.

The Beloit “You Feel Old Now Don’t You” Mindset List for the class of 2016 pointed out that 2/3 of the independent bookstores in the United States have closed in the lifetimes of today’s college freshmen. And megabookstores aren’t feeling so healthy either. So whatever it takes. Even, well, that.

By  |  04:15 PM ET, 08/21/2012

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