Book Shopping in the 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, September 22, 2019

It’s early Sunday morning. My wife isn’t up. The stores are closed. And I’m book shopping. I just bought Those Idiots From Earth by Richard Wilson, an author I don’t even remember. I just loved the cover and title. Book shopping is so different from how it was back in the ancient times of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, I perused thousands of booksellers from around the globe in a fraction of a second. From the time I decided I wanted this book till the time I pressed the order button was about 25 seconds. Of course, I’ll have to wait several days for Mr. Wilson’s collection of SF stories to show up in my mailbox.

Maybe I should jump back before I even knew about Those Idiots From Earth. I’m in a Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year created by Paul Fraser. It’s devoted to collections and anthologies of science fiction short stories. I hadn’t posted in a while, so I wanted to find a unique old science fiction anthology that had a cool cover. I was using the Internet Science Fiction Database and searching on anthologies edited by Groff Conklin. Several of his paperbacks had cover art by Richard Powers, a favorite artist of mine. I then clicked over to look at books with covers by Powers. That’s when I noticed Those Idiots From Earth. Checking Richard Wilson’s entry showed a few novels and a lot of short stories. He was a writer I don’t remember at all. If you follow those links you’ll see just how truly useful is for book shoppers.

Once I saw that cover and title I was intrigued. I’ve owned hundreds of science fiction magazines, so I’m sure I’ve seen the name before, and maybe even read a story of Wilson’s. I just didn’t recall anything this morning. So I got on Google and found a review of the collection by Joe. He gave four stories 5-stars, and the rest either 4-stars or 4.5-stars. I’ve never read any reviews by Joe before, but he did make Wilson’s stories sound like something I wanted to read. I love finding new SF authors with a different slant.

I wanted to test read the title story, but it was never published in a magazine. Luckily, the first 5-star story, “The Inhabited” was in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I checked my collection of Galaxy but didn’t have that copy. But I do have a complete run of the magazine on digital scans. You can read the story on the Internet Archive.

The Inhabited by Richard Wilson

“The Inhabited” is about an alien mind coming to Earth to scout out our planet. Are we worth invading? The alien mind occupies a cat, two men, a boy, and a pregnant woman before ending up in the mind of an insane man. The alien ends up confessing to a psychiatrist. It’s a neat little story. I decided I wanted Those Idiots From Earth and went to and ordered a copy. The original paperback was in fine condition and cost $4 (plus $4 shipping).

It took me a pleasurable ten minutes to find out about the book, but only about 25 seconds to find and buy it on ABEbooks. I’m hoping you’re getting the power of the internet for 21st-century book shoppers. ABEbooks claims it has thousands of booksellers in 50 countries selling millions of books. There were three copies available from all those locations. Now that’s efficient book browsing!

I remember the first bookstore I went to back in 1964. It was a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a strip mall in Perrine, Florida. The shop was dark and dusty. I was twelve. It was before I earned my own money. Back then a used paperback was a nickel or a dime – candy money. I had no idea what I was buying, but it was exciting. I knew I loved science fiction, and I’d buy books based on how cool their covers looked.

As I got older I would go all over town looking through old book shops. Whenever I visited another town, I’d look up their used bookstores. There were books I searched for years in several states and cities before finding them. The hunt for a book used to be quite thrilling. Then in my late teens, I learned how to use mailorder rare book dealers, which had its own kind of fun. I could almost always get my book, but sometimes it took years. There were some books I never found until the internet and ABEbooks.

In the 21st-century it’s much easier to track down a used book, but not quite as fun. Without the internet though, I would never have heard of Those Idiots From Earth. I often surprise my friends when they mention a book they’ve been searching for years and I find it in minutes.

I sometimes wish the internet had never been invented. I’m not sure if living in the hive mind of social media is healthy. Nor do I love keeping up with data overload. It does let me find the few people that share my exact interests. But then I have those highly specialized interests because of the internet. I remember when there were only three TV channels, Top 40 radio, and the science fiction section was two shelves of books at the new bookstore. At school, we all talked about the same movies, television shows, and songs. Nowadays every friend seems to have their own favorite show, so there’s less sharing, even though on social media what we do is called sharing.

The internet lets me get up on a Sunday morning and search through millions of books in thousands of booksellers from around the planet in a matter of seconds. That’s pretty damn far out. It’s not the same as riding my bike down to an old shop and spending an hour looking through stacks of unordered SF titles trying to find just the right books to get the most for my quarter.

The times keep changing. I can’t imagine how we can go any faster. Maybe I should wonder how to go slower?




9 thoughts on “Book Shopping in the 21st Century”

  1. Something that’s been bothering me a bit is the fact that there’s no depth in my science fiction reading. I’ve read a story or two by almost anybody—but at the same time, I haven’t focused on individual authors enough to know much about any of them (with a handful of exceptions). This comes from reading anthologies and magazines almost exclusively.

    So, anyway—Richard Wilson. I’ve read “Harry Protagonist, Brain-Drainer”: Here’s a brilliant idea: What if the public could be connected to the crew of a space mission (for a price), interactively sharing everything, and I mean everything? And what if the mission ends in disaster?

    And “Mother to the World”: A Last Man scenario—or rather, the last man who has only a mentally challenged woman as a possible mate. Rather touching in its revelation of the gradual love that grows between the characters, and probably controversial in its day because of the unflinching consideration of the incest that would become necessary to repopulate the world.

      1. Yes, I’ve read all his short fiction collections that had mainstream publication, as well as some minor ones. Roughly 20 story collections.

        I covered Asimov quite well, reading several collections, but that was in the 70s and now I’ve mostly forgotten the stories. I’ve read about 75% of Heinlein’s short work (fortunately there isn’t terribly much). I’ve finished George R. R. Martin’s giant story collection, Dreamsongs, and he didn’t write much short fiction beyond that. Clarke: I’ve got his complete stories, but it’s just too big to tackle. I started with the Essential Ellison, but that’s huge, too. I have the 2012 Le Guin selection of her short work waiting to be read. I’ve read quite a bit of Silverberg. I’ve read De Camp’s NESFA collection of his time travel tales … offhand, I can’t think of any other authors of whom I’ve finished a story collection. And of course, a lot of anthologies waiting ever so patiently to be read. I’ve been meaning to make a shortlist of the ones I really want to get to, but it’ll be quite long. Life is so short …

  2. Oh, wait … I’ve read most of Gardner Dozois, including all the best ones, and I’ve read the Best of Gene Wolfe. Alfred Bester. Ted Chiang. Stephen King. Connie Willis. I’ve read at least one book of short fiction by each of those.

  3. It’s remarkable what can be found on line – and the speed with which it can be bought! I’m looking for alternatives to Amazon. For some reason, their care when packaging books has gone; stuff reaches me thrown into over-large boxes and left to rattle and crash about during transit. Or they throw a paperback into a soft envelope and despatch it without reinforcement. Book after book has arrived badly damaged – bunches of pages crumpled concertina-fashion, creased back, paperback covers bent and battered and so on. I’ve complained, but it keeps happening.

    The flip-side of the online experience is that there is also a certain pleasure in going into a bookshop and perusing – with the opportunity to find something serendipitously; but the selection is usually far less these days than in an online catalogue. Especially when it comes to science fiction.

    1. Matthew, it’s funny that you should say that about Amazon. There have been a couple times lately where I got my books and they had minor damage. I thought about sending them back for replacements. I like getting things in pristine condition when I buy something new. On the other hand, I thought I might be too anal about all this, so I didn’t send them back. But if this is a trend like you say, maybe the way to fight back is to always send something back. Did you?

      1. No – I didn’t want to put more good money after bad. They refund goods on return, but the cost to me of postage from New Zealand is high and has to be borne by me as customer. Not worth it – the net outcome would be that I’d have basically paid money for nothing. I have argued the case a few times and have had refunds anyway, but it’s a bit erratic.

  4. I use South African online suppliers. They’re slow, but they package well.
    I still prefer physical bookstores, though. I have fond memories of many occasions when I found favorite books in a store and bought them. I don’t think any such memories are ever associated with ebooks.

  5. Like Piet, I prefer physical bookstores. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of those. Like you, I enjoy online buying especially books. But, I have to control my purchasing because it is all too easy to give into impulse buying.

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