Review: The Booksellers

D.W. Young’s engrossing documentary attempts to make a case for the physically printed word as the most viable means of extending culture into the future, but  because it focuses on rare booksellers it invariably makes that case as a construct of capitalism, and I don’t think that was Young’s intention. At one point near the end of the movie an expert comes out and says that young people, or, at least, young New Yorkers, are rejecting digital reading platforms for paper and theorizes that technology like Kindle was developed and used mainly by boomers whose eyesight was starting to go. It’s a quaint but rather difficult idea to defend empirically (he seems to base this theory on observations he made on the subway), and, in any event, contrasted with the narrative that Young presented prior to this assertion, simply sounds like the conclusion of someone with a vested interest in trade paperbacks.

The main subject of the movie is books as artifacts–as works of art distinct but not separate from the art of the writing they contain. Revived New York essayist/iconoclast Fran Lebowitz puts it best when she says saltily that she would kill anyone who dared place their drink on a book, any book. Books are living things, she says, which is why she can’t countenance anyone “throwing them away,” no matter what kind of literature they deliver. In that regard, Young might have gained a lot of traction by reporting on regular book stores that are going out of business (or coming back, as some media have reported) due to or despite digital pressure, but instead he hangs out with the fringe of the business, those who collect books obsessively and then trade the rarest of them for ever-increasing amounts of money. As such, the movie has the kind of musty, low-lit atmosphere that antique book stores give off. The sellers themselves are, for the most part, quiet and serious, though Young makes a point of interviewing members who don’t fit the stereotyped majority, meaning middle aged men in tweedy outfits with bad haircuts. There are women and people of color, who point out how hard a time they have doing business with the leaders in the field. There’s also a brief shout-out to rare magazine fans, which at least brings the business into the 20th century.

Unfortunately, Young seems to assume that the viewer cares more about the state of books than the state of literature, and consequently it feels like it’s aimed at a niche audience that already has its mind made up. For one thing, he often neglects to identify the person on screen or the place where the interview is taking place, which is odd for a documentary about documentation. In a sense, he’s more interested in conveying the excitement of the physical world of books than he is in the act of reading, and, in my mind, at least, the two are inseparable. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645). 

The Booksellers home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Blackletter Films LLC

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