Why Didn’t London’s Looters Hit the Books?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 12 2011 8:09 AM

Why Didn’t London’s Looters Hit the Books?

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Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

One of the more evocative tidbits to emerge from the wreckage of the London riots is the observation that, amid all the destruction, bookstores went mostly untouched. At a time when the media and public are groping at explanations for the violence—trying to understand who the perpetrators are and what drives them—it has the ring of a telling detail. But what, exactly, does it tell us?

The Huffington Post posited a pair of contradictory alternatives. The first would be heartening to those who want to see in the riots a kernel of legitimate protest, the other reassuring to those who prefer to view the rioters as brainless cretins: "Did the bookstores survive because the rioters respect reading—or because they simply don't care about books?”

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It’s a compelling question, and it sparked thousands of responses on Twitter. The verdict of the majority was clear. “Dumb asses [sic] are probably illiterate,” one surmised. “Says a lot about these types of people,” another concluded. “They can’t read, but they sure can watch big screen TVs,” a third sniped.

Before we add Philistinism to the looters’ list of sins, however, let’s rampage a block or two in their shoes. Imagine you’re out on Tottenham High Road, knapsack on your back, looking for a shop to pillage. Here’s one full of high-end electronics; here’s one full of football jerseys and athletic shoes that can fetch $100 a pair on Craigslist; and here’s one full of books. Lover of literature though you may be, would you really start stocking up on the hardbacks? Not only are they comparatively heavy, they’re free at the library. And once you’ve made your choice and knocked over the athletic store, why go back and torch WH Smith?

In this light, the looters look less like halfwits—or reverent book-worshippers, for that matter—and more like rational consumers of free goods, whose cost is measured not in dollars but in the effort required to lug them home. This hypothesis should be testable. All we need to know is whether the looters also skipped over other items that offer relatively low price-to-size ratios. London merchants: Are you missing your beach balls and paper towel rolls?

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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