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What will become of books? February 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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.”

“Good idea.”

“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.


1. Tatyana - February 20, 2011

It is so true and so sad. As a parent of two middle school students, I see changes which amaze and sometimes scare me. Homework assignments, projects, reports, grades – everything is moving on-line. Typing instead of writing… Cursive writing is disappearing… Well, it is what people call ‘progress’. Life is changing, and we are changing. I don’t have a cell phone, but got myself an I-pad. It doesn’t replace paper books although… Thanks for your article!

Thanks, Tatyana! What you say is true. We wouldn’t know what to do without online access and our laptops to write on, either! But we’re still avid readers of paper books.

2. Benjamin - February 20, 2011

Look, people just don’t read as much as they used to. Maybe ereaders will change that, but I doubt it. I got a kindle for Christmas and am still trying to get used to it, but I don’t see myself reading book books on it–just long pdfs and docs so I don’t have to be at the computer all day. I order cheap books off of Amazon because it’s easy, and I know in 50 years I’ll be that strange old guy in the woods who has thousands of books in paper–what a waste of space and money! It’s like entering the pleistocene or something.

But on another note, I recently read that some indie pub hub has gotten a lot of indie bookstores to sign up for a special program that allows people to come into their stores and download ebooks for a good price. This for people who still want the store experience, to see and feel the books, but not read them.

We’re right there in the woods with you, Benjamin! But how interesting about the indie store downloads. Anything that keeps real books in the stores!

3. Hamish - February 20, 2011

Sorry but I don’t agree that “people just don’t read as much as they used to”. I’ve always been an avid reader, and now I read more on the Kindle than I ever did.

It’s ideal for me as I travel a lot due to my work. I have my own mini-library with me wherever I go. In the event that I do run out of something to read, I can download a new book in a matter of minutes.

I can also download a whole host of out-of-copyright books for free, right from the Amazon Kindle store. Good books – Homer, Tacitus, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens – the sort of titles that should be on everybody’s reading list, and might have a better chance of making it now that they’re available for free.

It’s a very personal thing of course. I love reading more than I love books. When I’m reading a good book on my Kindle I am unaware that I’m using an electronic device rather than leafing through the pages of a physical book. However, others will definitely miss a “real” book. Each to his/her own I guess.

Ha! Good points, Hamish. Our friend Delilah echoed your sentiments almost exactly in a private e-mail she sent us after reading our post. I think lifestyle has a lot to do with what and how you read—we spend all day (and often all night) writing, researching, and editing online, so the last thing we want to do is read books on a screen as recreation! It’s a nice break for us to head to the shelves and pull down something, and we have old favorite editions that are well-thumbed and well-loved. But if you don’t spend your work hours reading online, it might be just the thing for all the reasons you say.

4. Alan - February 21, 2011

It seems to me that much of the thought, philosophy, science, religion that formed the base for western civilization exists because of some book hording monks who kept the knowledge intact after the collapse of a world dominating civilization. The move toward digital information worries me because it is so fragile and so easily manipulated. Hopefully there are enough of us book horders out there that humanity wont lose all its important ideas because of a solar flare or a computer virus. Keep hording!

We’re with you, Alan!

5. Elephant's Eye - February 23, 2011

Downloading ebooks. There is also some talk of going to a bookshop and ordering your book. Which is then printed on demand, one copy, for you. No stock piled up to be remaindered and pulped. Seems like a good new way forward. NOT willing to read for pleasure on a screen. I WANT a book. Paper. Printed in black on white. Thank you. (Nice to see you at Blotanical again ;~)

Interesting idea, Diana, the print-on-demand! But wouldn’t it take forever to print out, and (shudder) think of the, uh, quality, especially of images… And thanks, happy to be strolling around Blotanical! But I’m still livid that Google won’t let me post responses about 3/4 of the time. (See tomorrow’s post for more on that.) Grrrr!!!

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