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Overview


Over the past half-century, bookselling, like many retail industries, has evolved from an arena dominated by small independent shops to one in which chain stores have significant market share. And as other retail fields, this transformation has often been a less-than-smooth process. But this has been especially pronounced in bookselling, argues Laura J. Miller, because more than most other consumer goods, books are the focus of passionate debate about commercialism. What drives that debate? And why do so many people believe that bookselling should be immune to questions of profit?

In Reluctant Capitalists, Miller looks at a century of book retailing, demonstrating that the independent-chain dynamic is not entirely new. It began a hundred years ago when department stores began selling books, continued through the 1960s with the emergence of national chain stores, and exploded with the formation of “superstores” in the 1990s. The advent of the Internet has further spurred tremendous changes in how booksellers approach their business. All of these changes have met resistance from book professionals and readers who believe that the book business should not be captive to market forces, but should also embrace more noble priorities.
 
Miller uses historical data and interviews with bookstore customers and members of the book industry to explain why books evoke such distinct and heated reactions. She reveals why customers seek out certain bookstores and why book professionals identify so strongly with different types of books. In the process, she also teases out the meanings of retailing and consumption in American culture at large, underscoring her point that consumer behavior is inevitably political, with consequences for communities as well as commercial institutions.  

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though independent booksellers may believe they already understand all that there is to know about maintaining the delicate balance between economic success and cultural integrity, those who dip into Miller's impressive examination will find their curiosity well rewarded. Miller's historical analysis reveals, for example, how independent booksellers' opposition to mass market competitors has shifted dramatically. Nearly a century ago, when department stores and five-and-dimes began selling books, the owners of established bookstores insisted that large commercial enterprises couldn't guide customers to suitably uplifting reading material. As the cultural elitism behind this argument became unpalatable, the indies changed their tune, claiming that superstores were laying down homogenized inventories that stifled intellectual diversity. Miller also discusses the internal pressures that led the American Booksellers Association to adopt a more activist stance toward the chains in recent years. One of the book's few disappointments is a closing chapter on consumption as political choice, which never quite explains how such choices operate. But that's a rare ambiguity in this otherwise carefully articulated investigation. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Elizabeth Long

“From beginning to end, this book is a pleasure to read. Reluctant Capitalists is the first good history of American bookselling to appear in a very long time. Here, Laura Miller provides a fascinating analysis of conflicts within the book industry between the understanding of bookselling as a capitalist venture, and an almost diametrically opposed view of the same venture as something higher and worthier by virtue of books’ content and place within our culture.”--Elizabeth Long, author of Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life
Juliet Schor

“Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists is a compelling account of the complex world of bookselling, focusing on the persistent dynamic between the book as a commodity and as a form of expression antithetical to market principles. Miller discovers that today’s conflicts between independents, chains and Big Box stores have historical precedents, and how despite repeated episodes of consolidation and price-cutting, readers and sellers remain passionate about the book’s extra-commercial status. In addition to producing a top-rate study of  bookselling, Miller has provided a fascinating framework for thinking about consumer culture more generally, by highlighting the ever-present tensions between commodification and singularity, sentiment and consumer rationality, emotion and economics.”--Juliet B. Schor, author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture

 

Sharon Zukin

“This detailed account of the bookselling industry makes clear how difficult it is to maintain a moral boundary between local commerce and the rampant commercialism of retail websites and chains. Laura Miller shows that with books, as with every other commodity, the culture of consumption is shaped more by marketing strategies than by Americans’ desire to read.”--Sharon Zukin, author of Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture
Chronicle of Higher Education - Nina C. Ayoub

"Books are different. Commodities, to be sure. Bought and sold, no doubt. Yet in the world of commerce, books retain a certain mystique.

That regard has held true, traditionally, for booksellers as well, notes Laura J. Miller, a Brandeis University sociologist. In Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, she uses the bookstore wars between independents and big chains to explore the ambivalence toward business values in the world of books and wider concerns about consumption and highly 'rationalized' systems of retailing.

Traditional booksellers felt stressed long before the first of the 'superstores.' From the end of the 19th century to the 1960s, Ms. Miller writes, department stores took a heavy chunk of bookstore sales. Five-and-dimes and similar outlets also joined in, putting pressure on bookshops and making one commentator in 1954 fume that booksellers 'must now compete with everything from delicatessens to whore houses.'

A major jolt would come with the expansion of chain stores in the 1970s and 80s. Early on, writes Ms. Miller, chain bookstores tended to be small sites in mall locations with a focus on popular titles. Their discounts, previously rare in bookshops, threatened independents, but they had little in the way of selection. With superstores, things changed. The first superstores, opened by Crown Books in 1990, seem modest by later standards: 6,000 to 8,000 square feet, with 30,000 to 40,000 titles. By 2002 Borders stores carried 62,000 to 209,000 titles. Tracing the chains' growth, Ms. Miller shows how they centralized and standardized selection, ordering, and other procedures while attracting a new public previously intimidated by bookstores.

Among her topics are the standardized design of superstores, with their mix of gentility and flash and their tactics of display. Just as in supermarkets, prime positions are for sale. Publishers with big marketing budgets, she says, can purchase good real estate for their titles, such as on the end of a row of shelves facing the aisle. While some books are promoted, others, especially those more esoteric or from smaller presses, may end up as 'wallpaper,' there to create ambience but not pushed to sell.

Ms. Miller describes how independent booksellers, still feeling a mission along with the pinch, have fought back by transforming the American Booksellers Association into a champion for independents, pursuing lawsuits against trade practices they claim favor the big chains, and seeking support from an often fickle reading public."

Voice Literary Supplement - Paul Collins

"Chain superstores, notes Laura J. Miller's fascinating new study Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, are the latest manifestation of a centuries-old struggle between bookselling Davids and Goliaths—a battle over where Americans actually shop versus stores with, Miller tartly notes, 'a style of retailing that Americans at least profess to miss.'"

Slate.com - Tyler Cowen

“[Miller] wishes to make the bookstore into a political arena. By patronizing the indies, consumers can protest excess commercialization and the proliferation of chains. It is one small way of striking back.”
Business History Review - Michael Winship

"A diligent and fascinating account of important new developments in the distribution and retailing of trade books in the United States. Anyone with an interest in the study of books, business and book historians both, will find much of interest in here."
Media International - Simone Murray

"What emerges from Miller's nuanced and exceptionally well-documentd survey of the book wars is an exemplary piece of scholarship and a model for how to undertake a sociology of the contemporary book world. . . . A fascinating and complex meditation on the broader politics of cultural consumption and the collective ethical implications of individual acts of consumer choice."
Chronicle of Higher Education
Books are different. Commodities, to be sure. Bought and sold, no doubt. Yet in the world of commerce, books retain a certain mystique.

That regard has held true, traditionally, for booksellers as well, notes Laura J. Miller, a Brandeis University sociologist. In Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, she uses the bookstore wars between independents and big chains to explore the ambivalence toward business values in the world of books and wider concerns about consumption and highly 'rationalized' systems of retailing.

Traditional booksellers felt stressed long before the first of the 'superstores.' From the end of the 19th century to the 1960s, Ms. Miller writes, department stores took a heavy chunk of bookstore sales. Five-and-dimes and similar outlets also joined in, putting pressure on bookshops and making one commentator in 1954 fume that booksellers 'must now compete with everything from delicatessens to whore houses.'

A major jolt would come with the expansion of chain stores in the 1970s and 80s. Early on, writes Ms. Miller, chain bookstores tended to be small sites in mall locations with a focus on popular titles. Their discounts, previously rare in bookshops, threatened independents, but they had little in the way of selection. With superstores, things changed. The first superstores, opened by Crown Books in 1990, seem modest by later standards: 6,000 to 8,000 square feet, with 30,000 to 40,000 titles. By 2002 Borders stores carried 62,000 to 209,000 titles. Tracing the chains' growth, Ms. Miller shows how they centralized and standardized selection, ordering, and other procedures while attracting a new public previously intimidated by bookstores.

Among her topics are the standardized design of superstores, with their mix of gentility and flash and their tactics of display. Just as in supermarkets, prime positions are for sale. Publishers with big marketing budgets, she says, can purchase good real estate for their titles, such as on the end of a row of shelves facing the aisle. While some books are promoted, others, especially those more esoteric or from smaller presses, may end up as 'wallpaper,' there to create ambience but not pushed to sell.

Ms. Miller describes how independent booksellers, still feeling a mission along with the pinch, have fought back by transforming the American Booksellers Association into a champion for independents, pursuing lawsuits against trade practices they claim favor the big chains, and seeking support from an often fickle reading public.

— Nina C. Ayoub

Voice Literary Supplement
Chain superstores, notes Laura J. Miller's fascinating new study Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, are the latest manifestation of a centuries-old struggle between bookselling Davids and Goliaths—a battle over where Americans actually shop versus stores with, Miller tartly notes, 'a style of retailing that Americans at least profess to miss.'

— Paul Collins

Slate.com
[Miller] wishes to make the bookstore into a political arena. By patronizing the indies, consumers can protest excess commercialization and the proliferation of chains. It is one small way of striking back.”

— Tyler Cowen

London Review of Books

“Laura Miller sees what has happened since the 1960s as a long 'book war,' with implications that extend far beyond the book trade. Books are a particularly illustrative commodity. . . . They cut through to the central issues of modern capitalism. How 'reluctant' should retailers be in their surrender to the profit motive? What kind of retailing should consumers, by their purchasing practices, encourage?”
Business History Review
A diligent and fascinating account of important new developments in the distribution and retailing of trade books in the United States. Anyone with an interest in the study of books, business and book historians both, will find much of interest in here.

— Michael Winship

Media International
What emerges from Miller's nuanced and exceptionally well-documentd survey of the book wars is an exemplary piece of scholarship and a model for how to undertake a sociology of the contemporary book world. . . . A fascinating and complex meditation on the broader politics of cultural consumption and the collective ethical implications of individual acts of consumer choice.

— Simone Murray

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226525914
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Laura J. Miller is assistant professor of sociology at Brandeis University.

 

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Read an Excerpt

Reluctant Capitalists

Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption


By Laura J. Miller The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-52590-7



Chapter One

Commercial Culture and Its Discontents

In the early 1960s, Edward Shils wrote an essay examining "the bookshop in America." Shils praised the bookseller, a special kind of person who willingly forgoes a lucrative salary simply to be around books. The bookseller, he noted, performs an important public service, running an enterprise with a unique role in the reproduction and distribution of culture:

A good bookshop blows the breeze of contemporaneity on one; it puts one "in touch"; it permits first contacts and offers prospects of greater intensity. It is a place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a "civilized art" but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.

Yet, despite the bookshop's value for American society, Shils believed that the retail book trade was in a very sorry state, and its future looked only worse. The problem, he argued, was that Americans showed little interest in reading, and publishers often bypassed bookstores to sell directly to the public - a set of conditions that only compounded the already unprofitable character of bookselling. As a result, most bookshopsspecialized in bestsellers and other popular titles and few carried a satisfactory and varied selection - not a good thing, as Shils warned:

It may well be that we live in an epoch in which the bookshop is an institution suspended between "the dying old society" and the "society struggling to be born." It has few defenders. Its protagonists are feeble fellows rubbing their eyes dreamily and perplexedly at the entrance to their caves. Those who benefit from their existence (the publishers on the one hand, and readers and potential readers on the other) are hard at work intentionally and unintentionally scuttling them. Perhaps the bookshop belongs to the good things of the bourgeois epoch, like the rule of law, representative institutions, public liberties, and the right of habeas corpus, things from which there is a general benefit but which have been so much taken for granted that their beneficiaries have grown careless about their well-being.

It might be fairly easy to dismiss Shils's ruminations as mere nostalgia on thepartofasociologistdistressedbythechallengesthenbeingposedtomany institutions, including an institution seen as an important source of "good" (i.e., elite) culture. But such a dismissal would be a mistake. The sentiments expressed by Shils about the bookshop echoed those heard decades earlier, and similar complaints can still be heard today. They combine reverence for this retail enterprise with alarm that the qualities that make it so valuable are endangered. The persistence of such sentiments suggests that it is worth asking whether Shils's fears have come to pass. Has a new social order truly vanquished the conditions that kept the old-fashioned bookshop alive? And why is there such regret about the perceived loss of both the bookstore and the kind of individuals who supposedly sustained it? These questions can be clarified by looking at a more recent manifestation of the issues that Shils was engaging.

In May of 1990, Crown Books, then the third largest chain of bookstores in theUnitedStates,openeditsfirst"SuperCrown"inastripmallinAlexandria, Virginia. The new Super Crown was distinguished by the fact that it carried 30-40,000 different titles - three or four times as many as the typical Crown store. Similar developments could be seen in the other national bookstore chains. Earlier that year, Waldenbooks had announced that it was converting some of its outlets to a "superstore" format with a greatly expanded selection of titles. And in September, Barnes & Noble launched its version of the superstore in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul. The new store, located in a mall that housed several large discount stores, outdid its competitors in terms of size, boasting an impressive 15,000 square feet and 100,000 titles.

Of course, huge bookshops were nothing all that new in the United States. Especially since the 1980s, several such stores had dotted the American landscape. But the move by Barnes & Noble, Crown, and Waldenbooks marked a significant shift from the chains' previous strategy of establishing small, standardized outlets specializing in bestsellers and other quick-turnover titles, frequently in areas underserved by other bookstores. Observers were now curious to see how the chains would combine their technological sophistication, marketing savvy, and policies on discounting with the large-store format.

At first, press accounts of the superstore phenomenon were relatively enthusiastic. "They Look Like Libraries!" proclaimed an admiring editorial headline in a major magazine for librarians. "After years of maligning the chains for stocking too few titles, book lovers cautiously salute them for broadening their mix," noted another report in a business journal. Reporters remarked not only on the large number of titles being sold, but also on the decor of the new stores. In contrast to the bright, contemporary interiors of the chains' smaller outlets, the superstores included soft lighting, classical music, and comfortable chairs. These stores were trying to communicate the message that they were designed with the serious booklover in mind.

However, within a year, journalists were acknowledging that not everyone in the book world applauded these developments. Antagonists raised many of the same concerns identified by Shils three decades earlier. But the context in which these issues were discussed had changed in the intervening years. The debate that accompanied the building of the superstores marked the latest battle in an ongoing war between independent booksellers and the national chain bookstores. Although the roots of this conflict go back over a century to disagreements over the bookselling practices of department stores, the controversy took on its present tone with the development of the modern chain bookstore in the early 1960s. After a period of escalation, there appeared to be a lull in the hostilities during the late 1980s, as the chains and the independent bookstores claimed different public images and often appealed to different audiences. But the rise of the superstores ended any talk of rapprochement in the book wars. Questions were now being raised as to whether this new kind of chain posed a lethal threat to independent booksellers, and what that threat might mean for books and readers in the United States.

Independent booksellers accused the chains of harboring monopolist designs, and of engaging in unfair competition to achieve those goals. Pointing to the chains' corporate owners, critics claimed that the superstores' actions were guided more by profit-and-loss statements than by literary considerations. While supporters continued to marvel over the superstores' breadth of selection, detractors insisted that book buyers were simply being treated to more of the same safe, standardized fare found in the smaller chain outlets. And while some congratulated the chains for building the kind of store that could make book buying almost as popular as renting a video, others scoffed that the superstores were better at promoting coffee drinking than an interest in ideas and the intellect. These debates over their impact grew more heated as the superstores began to account for an increasing proportion of the nation's book sales, and as greater numbers of independents succumbed to their competition.

The hostility to the superstores, as well as to their smaller, mall-based predecessors, struck some observers as rather curious considering that the chains were in many ways answering criticisms that had been leveled at booksellers for years. For most of the previous century, book professionals had despaired over the archaic and inefficient systems in place for joining a book with the individual who might want to read it. Many bemoaned the small number of outlets for the purchase of books, the lengthy delays in the delivery of books from publisher to retailer, lackadaisical attitudes on the part of booksellers, ignorance of the book-buying market, and the inability of stores to stock the books customers wanted when they wanted them. Consistently, there were calls for the entire book distribution system to get itself more in step with contemporary business practices.

In the last four decades of the twentieth century, economic, technological, and cultural changes finally pushed the book trade to become more rationalized, that is, to calculate the most efficient means to sell books and then develop the organizational forms and procedures necessary to that task. The growth of the chain bookstore was certainly an important development along these lines, as the chains opened outlets in towns that never before had bookstores, as they invested in sophisticated computer systems that carefully tracked the market for books, and as they worked with wholesalers and publishers to move books more rapidly to where they were needed. However, as the debate over the superstores illustrates, such trends have not been welcomed as absolute progress by everyone in the book world. What Shils called bewilderment felt by those peering at the world beyond their "caves" might be better seen as a wide-eyed yet stubborn refusal to accept the techniques and philosophies that characterize the distribution of other consumer goods. In bookselling, one hears repeatedly, there are grave consequences to a single-minded devotion to efficiency and the bottom line.

The debate over the future of the bookstore is certainly not an isolated event in the history of the U.S. book industry. It is reminiscent of other controversies that have counterpoised dedication to the dissemination of books against crass commercialism. The tension it speaks to was also apparent in the outcries over the tide of publisher mergers and acquisitions in the 1970s and '80s, in criticisms of the new book clubs of the 1920s, and in turn-of-the-twentieth-century protests over the use of agents to negotiate authors' contracts. With each of these issues, some members of the book industry charged that hucksterism, greed, ruthless competition, and obsequence to the "mass" market should simply not be associated with something as valuable to society as are books. As the potential for profit making in bookselling has expanded, it is therefore not surprising that this sector has become a focal point for debates about commercialism.

However, conflict over the style and techniques of the book chains goes well beyond concerns about literary culture. It also points to a certain degree of distress over the very familiar process of rationalization in the sphere of commerce more generally. Ever since the end of the Civil War, there have been periodic outbreaks of opposition to large commercial organizations, including large retailers, which have played an ever more prominent role in American society. Beginning in the 1860s with the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P), chain stores achieved popularity and profitability by pursuing economies of scale, by emphasizing self-service, and by offering their goods at reduced prices. But some condemned these stores for destroying the independent, owner-operated shop, thus threatening monopoly and removing retail business from personalized, community control. Antichain sentiment has waxed and waned over time, with relatively little organized antichain activity taking place since the 1930s. However, with the growth of the so-called big-box retailers, such as the book superstore, opposition to chains has been reinvigorated. This movement not only revives older concerns about the undue power of giant retailers, but also condemns such stores for depersonalizing relations between seller and customer and standardizing the landscape of the nation's (and increasingly, the world's) communities.

The current controversy over bookselling is thus notable in that it combines abiding ambivalence toward business values in the world of books with ambivalence toward rationalization in the sphere of retailing. My purpose in this book is to explore that double ambivalence in order to address the following questions: Why do efforts to rationalize book retailing promote large amounts of controversy? And what is the significance of efforts to check the power of large retailers such as the book chains? Through these questions, I intend to examine a broader set of issues having to do with the extension of the market and processes of rationalization, the meaning of retailing and consumption in American culture, and the place of books in American society.

While these considerations will entail some examination of bookselling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as of some parallel developments in the wholesaling sector, the primary focus here will be on the development of the contemporary book chains and the resulting conflict with independent booksellers. This conflict not only includes a struggle for market share, but also an attempt to win a moral judgment on the appropriate organizational form for booksellers, and the appropriate conduct of booksellers and consumers alike. The competition between chains and independents gets played out, for example, in retailers' approaches to selecting the books for a store's displays and in the various methods used to market both individual books and the bookstore itself. But beyond these merchandising maneuvers, the conflict described here has also become explicitly politicized, with independent booksellers getting on their soapboxes and taking their cause to the courts, to legislative bodies, and to the public. The bookstore wars demonstrate that retailing is more than just a competitive field in which the economically powerful and agile survive, it is also the site of conflicting visions of how both individual and collective life benefit from the circulation of material goods.

The Culture of Commerce

Both within academic analysis and the popular imagination, there exists an assumption that the economy is in some way at odds with culture. This is reflected in popular images of the business world as a place where cultural niceties fall before Darwinian instincts, and in scholarly debates about whether structure or culture has the greatest social impact. Yet the business of books presents one of the best cases for seeing the importance of joining together an economic and cultural analysis.

Sociological or social historical work that examines book publishing in the twentieth century has been relatively sparse, with an even greater lack of empirical research on bookselling. Many of the available accounts of the contemporary book industry come in the form of memoirs, admiring biographies of editors or publishers, and practical reports aimed at professionals; consequently, this body of work tends to lack a critical edge. But whether historians, sociologists, practitioners, or journalists, almost all those writing about the book world have acknowledged the persistence of debates over commercialization. Such debates have most commonly been understood in terms of a tension between the pressures of the market and a commitment to "good" books. This tension is frequently expressed as an opposition between culture and commerce. As Coser, Kadushin, and Powell describe it,

The industry remains perilously poised between the requirements and restraints of commerce and the responsibilities and obligations that it must bear as a prime guardian of the symbolic culture of the nation. Although the tensions between the claims of commerce and culture seem to us always to have been with book publishing, they have become more acute and salient in the last twenty years.

For Coser and his colleagues (as for others who have adopted the culture/ commerce dichotomy), this tension describes the "quest for profit and the demands of excellence [that] have all too often refused to go hand in hand." While Coser, Kadushin, and Powell help to refute any conclusion that this tension is new to American society, they leave unexamined various assumptions about the transparency of those demands of excellence. The distinction between the meritorious and the unworthy, between serious and trashy books, is simply taken as a given.

Much scholarship on popular culture in recent years has taught us that such a notion of literary merit needs to be made more problematic; one cannot assume that literary merit is both transparent and commercially unprofitable. Rather, the process by which a book gets defined as "serious" is a social and political one. This is not to say that the culture-commerce tension is not salient. But instead of conceiving of culture as a shorthand for high culture, it is more useful, following Raymond Williams, to think about how intellectual and artistic life are related to a wide range of existing cultural meanings and practices. This can help us see how the very notion of artistic creativity has come to be in part defined by a sense of standing outside the logic of commerce.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Reluctant Capitalists by Laura J. Miller Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
1. Commercial Culture and Its Discontents
2. From Dry Goods Merchant to Internet Mogul: Bookselling through American History
3. Providing for the Sovereign Consumer: Selecting and Recommending Books
4. Designing the Bookstore for the Standardized Consumer
5. Serving the Entertained Consumer: The Multifunction Bookstore
6. Bargaining with the Rational Consumer: Selling the Low-Cost Book
7. The Revolt of the Retailers: Independent Bookseller Activism
8. Pursuing the Citizen-Consumer: Consumption as Politics
Appendix: Ownership Histories of Major American Chain Bookstores
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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  • Posted March 16, 2012

    An excellent book on an important topic

    This is the most important book on bookselling in America in the 20th century. Miller not only tells the story in a thorough and readable way, but places it in the broader social and cultural context. I found it engaging and enjoyable throughout.

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