Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Dying Way of Life

It started when I heard the news about just how badly Borders is doing. I was hit with a wave of grief. I think it must be similar to what those who have had excellent independent bookstores felt, as I tried to imagine a world without Borders. Already the number of bookstores has diminished, it's not uncommon to realize a large shopping center is missing a bookstore. Large and beautiful big box stores are closing all over the country, but the idea of Borders being wiped out completely is almost terrifying.

I have never had a really local independent bookstore, but I did have Borders. In fact, I could go five minutes in any direction when I was in high school and go to Borders or Barnes & Noble. And the bookworm in me loved that. I remember study sessions at Borders in high school, sitting with classmates, laughing and doing assignments. My friends and I would find spending hours at Borders an entirely acceptable way to pass a Friday night. I remember the feeling of brushing my fingertips over the spines of the books I longed to own imagining the mysterious knowledge, adventure, and delight they contained. I could lose myself for hours in the large and extensive music section, discovering new artists, trying to find the next one who would have the keys to unlock my heart. Borders was a center of a kind of culture and possibility I didn't have anywhere else. I loved it.

Then yesterday, the devastating news that the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood L.A. is closing at the end of January hit my inbox. I've only been there once, it's a very long drive for me. But what a store! It's a small store crammed full of fantastic mystery books, and steeped in memory and tradition. I went for an author event. It was the most intimate author event I'd ever been to, Kwei Quartey sat at a table and talked to us. I lingered afterwards, chatting with the good people of Mystery Books and letting them handsell a few books to me. I have wanted to go back so many times, but the drive (and the traffic I encounter) has kept me from it. I hope to make it back before they close.

Today the news that our current governor is proposing a budget that eliminates all state funding for public libraries drove the point home to me.

Our bookish way of life is dying.

No, reading is not dying. No, publishing may not be dying.

What is dying? The physical book. The mystery of the bookstore. The shared collective delight over the same books.

And yes I mourn the loss. Earlier this week, Wendy of Caribousmom wrote about the increased move to e-reading. She wrote,

There is something about sitting with a traditional book in one’s hand, curled beneath a quilt perhaps, or snuggled under the covers at night. There is no back-light – just words on a page. There is the feel of a book, the smell of its pages, the weight of its words which sit heavily in one’s hands. No digital medium can replicate the feel, smell, and bliss of a traditional book…a book with actual pages.

I know what she means about the tactile experience of a book. I have a Sony Reader and I love reading on it. I recognize the benefit of it from a storage standpoint, but I'm not fully sold nor have I fully acclimated to reviewing from one. This is not a complaint against e-readers so much as it is an acknowledgement of the inevitable. It's happening.

I've lived through this once. I lived through it with music and it certainly took me a long time to adjust. I still feel less connected to an album if I haven't held the liner notes in my hand. It sometimes feels far too easy to simply click download and the music is in my possession. There's no longer the rush of going to a store on release date, the accidental bumping into other fans. I watched the music stores close and the other stores reduce their music inventory. I watched artists I loved struggle to make music as fans felt the right to download music without paying for it. And now, with horror, I'm watching that happen with books. The e-piracy of books is on the rise.

One of the common arguments in favor of this brave new e-reading world is how many different books will be available to us. Self-publishing will be much more feasible. Part of me cheers this. It means so much for those who haven't found a platform before, who have been shut out because their books weren't marketable in a certain way. Part of me is saddened by the continued fragmentation of our entertainment choices, as the points of connection continue to diminish the more choices we have. No physical bookstore could ever hope to compete.

The combination of these events, the loss of our bookstores, the devaluing of our libraries confirms to me that indeed our bookish way of life is ending. The push for e-readers and e-reading will continue, and Michael Hyatt predicts that e-readers will go below $100 this year. We'll have less need than ever to leave our house to go get a book.

While I celebrate some of the good that comes from e-reading, while I readily acknowledge the benefits it brings, I also finally see the world I knew collapsing. I'm watching it die slowly everyday. So even in the midst of celebrating the new, I find myself grieving what is lost.

After all, every hello means a good-bye.


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