"I use a library the same way I’ve been describing the creative process as a writer — I don’t go in with lists of things to read, I go in blindly and reach up on shelves and take down books and open them and fall in love immediately. And if I don’t fall in love that quickly, shut the book, back on the shelf, find another book, and fall in love with it. You can only go with loves in this life." - Ray Bradbury
Has Netflix for books finally arrived? Boasting over 100,000 volumes, a $9.95 per month subscription rate, and a gorgeous, minimalistic design, Oyster's entrance into the world of subscription based entertainment is nothing short of ambitious.
But, does it deliver?
The sign up process was easy to navigate and the download and logins for both iPhone and iPad were simple. Connecting my social networks (facebook and Twitter) were relatively easy with one sole exception: I had yet set up Twitter in the settings of iOS 7, once I had that set, the process was embarrassingly breezy. Oddly enough, Oyster's website proved more cumbersome than the iPhone and iPad app. (I say this with deference toward the skill of any development team. We have become spoiled children in our current Amazonian state where everything-Bezos enhances our proclivity for impatience). The entire set-up process for the Oyster platforms and my Oyster profile took less time than navigating my Roku (why is Roku so cumbersome?).
But the keystone of 'Netflix for books' isn't its gorgeous UI or brilliant navigation (though it nails both respectively), it's the every-bookstore-conundrum of selection (or, rather, lack thereof). After all, if your name is Books-A-Million and you can't deliver, you've either grossly misread your mission statement or you've misunderstood Amazon's. Where Oyster has the ability to rise to its implied moniker (the world being yours if you sign up) or absolutely clam shut (sorry) is in the hallowed halls of its shelves.
Browsing its elegant, pixelated library of 'Recently Added', 'Critically Acclaimed', 'Award-Winning Fiction' sections and more, I stumble across a surprisingly diverse and deeply stocked wealth of fascinating titles. I can't claim to be an expert but I can verify by experience: my personal library of physical books numbers somewhere around 1500 volumes. So, I can validate at least a decently stocked bookstore. On a recent trip to Boston, I visited three famous Beantown bookstores and the one that boasted the largest number of titles actually featured a shallow selection - it lacked depth. The primary problem with any subscription model is delivering on its promise each month. I have no idea what this requires behind the scenes at Oyster HQ but among publishers I can only surmise it's a significant obstacle. The ultimate compliment I can pay the team at Oyster is that their service resembles Spotify more than Netflix. Netflix has earned a reputation for some significant titles and many (many) duds. Spotify, on the other hand, exhibits a wealth of musical diversion and eclecticism. Being a subscriber of both services, I'm rarely disappointed in Spotify, I'm frequently bummed by Netflix (perhaps more so in its early days; Amazon's subscription model too, for that matter). This is why Oyster's advent is momentous.
For example, I quickly added the following books to my 'to be read' list (don't let my predilection toward boring subjects become indicative of Oyster's offering): Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Winter Count by Barry Lopez, Onward by Howard "Starbucks" Schultz, The Prague Cemetary (Umberto Eco), Intellectuals (Paul Johnson), The Ethics of Ambiguity (Simone de Beauvoir), The Book of Salt (Truong), Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (Egan), Just Kids (Patti Smith), The Art Forger (B. A. Shapiro) and more. I also noted many popular authors: William Styron, James Salter, Richard Dawkins, Alice Walker, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Philip Roth and Michael Crichton. (Note: though there are classics, Oyster is not a hall of fame for decrepit, by-gone thinkers).
As a side note: it's no small irony that the very first section of a book I read was, of all things, an essay by Barbara Kingsolver about Wendell Berry and their aversion to technological fundamentalism and consumerism. I wonder how both authors would feel knowing I discovered their work amid the wonder of as disruptive a force as Oyster portends to be (methinks there would be much protest). "I was...stung by the prevailing material truth of our times: how the mad dash toward new things predictably creates problems for anyone left behind. So I've turned my vigilance to other skirmishes in the hundred years' war between New Shiny Things and What We Already Have". Ouch.
The bottom line, Oyster has a 30-day free trial. Sure, you have to fork over your credit card number but it's worth perusing for a month just to see if it works for you (just mark your calendar with an alert to cancel the week before your 30 days are up). I don't gain anything by promoting Oyster, I'm no affiliate (I doubt they even have such a program), I'm just a fan of reading, a bundle of contradictions, concerned and excited at the cross-section of nostalgia and discovery. I won't abandon my physical library anytime soon but I've readily embraced the convenience technology provides and secretly, I hope Oyster becomes the first truly social reading platform of note, as Spotify is to social listening.
Schumpteter's gale force winds of creative destructionism have shuttered countless bookstores and, carried along on its headwinds, above the fray, lofty in countenance, burdened with promise, is the newcomer ship Oyster and I'll be damned if it doesn't deliver.