Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Post-Bookpocalypse

Today I was a witness to a sad thing: the closing of Borders in Merrillville, IN. With the lackluster economy and the popularity of ebooks and the kindle on the rise, bookstores - even the big chains - are finding it harder to stay in business. Already I've witnessed several local, independent bookstores fall by the wayside; Barnes & Noble closed its doors a few weeks ago; and now this: Borders is closing too. The good news? There is another Borders nearby (the only bookstore besides the Christian one left in town), but how long before this one closes too?

There's a lot to say about the economic situation in the US but that's a different post. This one is more concerned with the ereading and its effect on paper books.

One of the things I've always loved about reading is not the words (though, of course, they are a rather large part of the experience - one might argue 99.9% of it, still...), but the weight of it in your hands, the smell of its pages as you flip through them, the glossy or nonglossy cover. The cover art can tell you so much about the contents inside, or it can make what awaits within its bindings more mysterious. I don't have a kindle so I cannot speak to the experience of reading from it directly but I do not believe that it can be as wonderful or as immersive as having the book - all of that paper and glue - in your hands.

Yet I know that, when the time comes (read: when I have money) I too will purchase a kindle or an ereader or some such electronic device to read books with. It isn't that I'm abased to reading electronically - hell, I love online magazines, fiction and nonfiction, and I regularly submit stories to them. There are many reasons the kindle is useful; for one, it will make those harder to find books (i.e. books not sold in most stores unless you happen to have a totally awesome indie bookstore nearby and the owner knows her shit) easier to find, assuming they are available for ereading. Whether or not these writers sell any more on the kindle than they would have in paperback depends on the marketing campaign by themselves and their publishers, but the opportunity is greater because, instead of searching through the shelves where the book is not going to be anyway or having to wait several days as the book is shipped, a reader can search through online sources and download with the click of a button. Ebooks are cheaper, too, so the potential of greater readership because of the inexpensiveness of books is higher. It's ecologically aware. And for those of us with bad eyesight, you can manipulate the font size of a book.

Still, what I am afraid of is a world wherein the paperback has become a collectible item like vinyl records. I admit it is sort of fun to walk into a record store and find something like Blue Monk Time or Silver Apple on vinyl, knowing you've found something somewhat rare but can you imagine how easily pretentious that can get? (I already feel kind of pretentious for not holding out on itunes and the ipod, for god's sake!)

Anyway, this post was supposed to be a plea to keep reading books - real books, trees be damned, prices be damned, larger font sizes be damned! Once, fans went to records store and bought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in mono and, if you were an aficiando, in stereo and there was something magical in this experience, in taking that record home and putting it on your player and listening to it. The same goes for books: is it not exhilarating to walk into a bookstore and peruse the shelves, pick out something you might not have picked out had you not gone in, the weight of it in your hands, daring you to read it?


  1. Well said, and I think you've got a hell of a lot of insight as to the nostalgia and worth of paperbacks vs. the practical ereader issue -- I'm going to be unbelievably sad as books become more and more obsolete, but I think that one hope we have as we move into a more electronic future is that books are a much better educational tool.

    I think books are still going to be the main viable library resource for a long time. And, much like you, I can't imagine browsing for books without the tangible evidence of their existence in front of me, just picking a file out of other files. It does not compute.

    (There's a joke to be made in there about 'compute.')

  2. I think that as time passes, what indie bookstores that do survive will have to offer (and maybe what they had to offer all along) will be the aesthetic sensibility and knowledge base of the staff as much as the actual books.

    The internet is great, I find, if you know what you want. But I've tried a hundred times to go on Amazon just to browse and see what they've got, and the experience is less than fulfilling. But when I go into a bookstore I can actually see and hold and look inside of what they have. I can make discoveries, find books I never knew about, and, in the right place, I can ask somebody who loves books as much as I do about them.

    I too have considered the e-reader. In some ways it makes a lot of sense. But I like owning books. I like the weight of them in my hand, the smell of the paper when I flip the pages, the stacks of them on my bookshelf, reminding me of all the worlds I've fallen into and the luxurious prose I've been privy to. At the end of the day, I don't think I want the e-reader, though maybe I do.

    Oddly enough, I feel completely differently about my music collection. I love my ipod and have boxed up my cd collection. Someday I will finish ripping them into my computer and then they will be gone. Arbitrary? Maybe.

    But books? I'd rather have the thing. Others' mileage may vary.


  3. I hate blogs. I miss zines.

    By the by, the Kindle is about to become to independent writers what MySpace was to independent musicians in the mid-aughts. I wouldn't start complaining quite yet. More peeps reading, more peeps writing. Win, win. Righto?

    I'll miss the bookstores to, but what can you do?

  4. @Dallas, I agree with you totally on your feelings toward books, but at the end of the day, the ereader is the future of reading. It just takes some getting used to.

    @Dr. Whizgig: Well, I wasn't trying to complain, necessarily, as much as I was trying to bring attention to this trend. I don't want to see bookstores go out of business, just as I don't want to see other stores closing either; but, as people move more toward electronic-based reading, I suppose it can't be helped. It's still disheartening.

  5. A bit late to the party, but posting anyway.

    I too love collecting books, even those I never end up reading, as you know. I love the concept of the book, but having fooled around with a kindle it's unavoidable how much better of an idea it is. Happened to horses and records and CDs too. I never collected horses or records, but I did with the CDs, and now I only keep them around long enough to get onto some digital media somewhere (I do hate iTunes, but that's a different issue). The future is going to be about buying a license to something and then consuming it on any variety of media technologies. Books will be for collectors, and I guess I intend to be one.