What will become of books? February 20, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, books, Borders, e-books, future of books, Kindle, Nook
Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were having supper with our friend Rob when the topic of books came up, as it often does, all of us being avid readers. “Between Borders declaring bankruptcy—did you know they’re closing their only store in this area?—and Barnes & Noble’s book selection shrinking every time we go in there, what’s going to become of the printed book?” Silence wailed.
Rob was characteristically optimistic. “Maybe the demise of the chains will mean that independent bookstores, the mom-and-pop operations that the chains, Wal*Mart-like, drove out of business, will make a comeback. I remember there was a wonderful independent bookstore at the mall before Borders took over. And think of Malaprop’s in Asheville. It seems to still be thriving!”
Silence shook her head sadly. “How could any individual afford the overhead to open a bookstore in a mall, Rob? Much less pay the rent malls charge nowadays…”
Our friend Ben was equally pessimistic. “Malaprop’s is something of a special case. It’s in Asheville, a city of artists and intellectuals that values independence and originality. And, as far as I know, there are no chain bookstores in Asheville to challenge it with lower prices. We had a wonderful privately-owned bookstore in my native Nashville, Davis-Kidd, that finally closed because it couldn’t compete with the chains. I’m not sure any private bookstore could, if a chain store opened near it.”
“What about Bethlehem’s Moravian Book Shop?” Rob persisted. “It’s not only still open, it’s the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world!”
“Yes, yes,” Silence muttered. “But consider: What percentage of what it sells are books? It seems to me it has two rooms of books and six rooms of food, candy, ornaments, cookware, cards, jewelry, housewares, and the like. Diversifying may have saved it, but I’d hardly call it a bookstore any more, even though the staff obviously and carefully selects the books they do carry.”
“And what about Amazon?” our friend Ben added, playing Devil’s advocate as usual. “We buy a lot of our books on Amazon. Especially some of us who are addicted to cookbooks.”
Silence, stung by this comment, replied, “Face facts, Ben, Amazon can’t be beat when it comes to convenience. If you already know what you want, it’s not only effortless to order with a few clicks from the comfort of home, but you get deep discounts and free Super Saver shipping.”
“True, but you’ll miss the serendipity of looking through the shelves,” Rob noted. “In a store, you can find books you’d never have thought existed, books that call your name, not just in the cooking racks but in history, crafts, historical fiction, nature… The beauty of a bookstore is that you can browse and discover. Even though we all browse the online bookstores to the best of our ability, it’s just not the same as being able to wander around, picking up, opening, and exploring any book that strikes your fancy.”
“I just wish we could have all the options,” Silence said. “I love the convenience of Amazon, the idea that if I read about a book and want it, I know they’ll have it, or I can buy a used copy through them even if it’s no longer in print. I love going to the big chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and seeing what they have available, the ‘kid in the candy shop’ syndrome. And I love going into a privately-owned bookstore where it’s clear that the owners personally selected every single book in the store based on its merit, rather than having to offer them because the chain buyers managed to swing a great deal with the publishers.”
“We’re ignoring the elephant in the room here,” our friend Ben reluctantly pointed out, “and that’s e-books and e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Amazon claims that Kindle is its bestselling product, and more and more of B&N’s efforts seem to be directed towards selling its Nook. We’re already looking at three generations who are used to getting all their information, and much of their social interaction and education, online, with plenty more to follow. Amazon and B&N have seen that future and moved to meet it. How soon will virtual publishing replace books altogether?”
“Don’t make me cry, Ben,” Silence said, her eyes suspiciously moist. “I know some of our friends point out how convenient e-readers are. They say that it’s easy to load them up with vacation reading, for example, rather than hauling 50 pounds of books along on every trip. And the price is certainly right, given how expensive real books are these days.”
“So what is the future of books?” our friend Ben asked. “Will those of us who love to browse, who love to hold a real book in our hands, be forced to rely on libraries and used-book stores? Will publishers stop printing books and switch to an all-virtual format? Will real books, beautifully illustrated books, rare books, again become the province of the wealthy, the educated, the collector, as was the case through most of human history, while the rest of the world goes virtual?” We all looked at each other, stricken.
“You know, Ben, I think it’s time we made another visit to the Saucony Book Shop to see what Brendan’s acquired in the used-book line,” Silence finally said. “And maybe we can figure out a way to add a few more bookcases to Hawk’s Haven, while there’s still time.”
“Gee, I think I’ll check my own bookshelves, then stop by Moravian Book Shop tomorrow to fill in some gaps,” Rob added. “I’ve been putting it off, but I think maybe now I’ll make it a priority.”
Yeesh. Our friend Ben has long wondered if society would split between the book hoarders and the non-readers. Silence and I have built up a massive library just in case, and so have many of our friends. Call me a pessimist, but just yesterday, high winds took our power down for 6 hours. What if a bolt of concentrated energy wiped out every e-reader in existence? What if an asteroid hit the earth? Then books, those humble, paper repositories of human history, human knowledge, and the human imagination, would be the only thing between us and oblivion. We don’t plan to trade our library for a virtual reader anytime soon.