"Humanity Over Technology": The Stucky Plan to Save Bookstores

Bravo to Janaka Stucky, whose new article in Poetry on struggling independent bookstores is both the most sensible and inspiring thing I’ve read on the subject. Stucky concedes what everyone in the industry knows, that a price war with Amazon is one small bookstores cannot win. Reasoning that these stores must therefore fight on different turf, he offers some concrete suggestions: establish a lively Web presence, feature expertly curated staff selections, and above all, host more events—that is, become a hub not just for reading material but for readings.


While not radically original, Stucky's advice is lucidly explained through anecdotes from his own experience (as the publisher of Black Ocean Press, he works frequently with indie bookshops). And where most book-business articles would rehash their theses in a neat concluding paragraph, Stucky builds instead to a rousing and unexpected finish. Since the Amazon Wars are an unusual topic for Poetry magazine, I might have seen this coming, but I didn’t:

People who read poetry are the unsung customer base for independent bookstores: they are avid readers, they love books as physical objects, they will religiously attend author readings, they read books on a variety of subjects, and they buy more books annually than anyone else I know. By catering to the type of person who reads poetry, these successful bookstores have perhaps unwittingly remained focused on what devoted patrons of bookstores really value: variety over homogeneity, literature over media, humanity over technology, and community over price…

If bookstores can learn to embrace these odd readers as secret representatives of the type of person who’s at the core of their customer base, rather than get sucked into a doomed downward spiral of price slashing on the latest best-selling hardcover, they will remain relevant and attractive to the customers they need in order to survive. Poetry, the least profitable and most esoteric of all the genres, can save the bookstore.

You can accuse Stucky of being self-serving or self-congratulatory—and can accuse me of the same, since I’m an MFA poetry student—but to me this rings absolutely true. More broadly, I think independent bookstores must seek their core customer base in the products of the modern creative writing boom. Some numerical context will help here: last year an estimated 1400 students graduated with MFAs in poetry, compared with around 700 in 2001. That’s about 10,000 over the past decade. Now include all other genres (fiction, memoir, etc.), and you’ve got at least double to triple that number.

Combine this with writers outside of programs, and you’re looking at a vast (and growing) pool of younger people not only interested but potentially invested in the bookstore experience. Like Prairie Lights and other outfits that thrive in prominent MFA communities, small bookstores everywhere need to greet these writers with open arms. Thousands of them would be willing to offer live entertainment, in the form of readings, to as many local bookstores as their time and travel budget allow. They would do so not for pay but for the opportunity to promote books, which they’ve typically published through small presses like Stucky’s—presses which in turn are finding new ways to survive thanks to print-on-demand technology, social media outreach, and, as Stucky describes, carefully cultivated ties with select stores.

In other words, the salvation of the independent bookstore is closely linked to the salvation of the independent publisher and the independent writer. Through the enhanced connections made possible by—what else?—the Web, this already cozy relationship can and must become an exuberant ménage à trois.

[Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, user eflon.]

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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