I remember years ago me and my brother watching “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” a series on public television based on the books by Douglas Adams, the madcap sci-fi was centered around the adventures of Arthur Dent, an Englishman from earth, and his friend from somewhere in the cosmos Ford Prefect.He (Ford) rescues his friend from the destruction of Earth in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The Guide itself was an electronic book that Ford used to great advantage to get them out of and also into trouble. We both thought the electronic book was fantastic and talked excitedly like kids about the prospect of owning one, wishing that it did indeed exist. But now roughly twenty-five years later it does exist at least in its early stages, and I find it deserves the label of “silicon snake oil” So as they say be careful what you wish for…
This winter finds me staying in (despite my remarks in previous stories to the contrary) and reading voraciously instead of venturing to the wilds of New York City. The severe weather we have had and lack of finances has kept me home. I just finished reading “Life” by Keith Richards, before that it was “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene and currently I’m almost finished with “Eating The Dinosaur” by Chuck Klosterman. But recently I read with a sinking heart the news that Borders bookstores were expected to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week. I already knew they were closing about one-third of their stores nationwide but didn’t realize how grave the situation might actually be. They are considered the number 2 bookstore in the US behind I’m guessing Barnes & Noble. Borders has posted a drop in sales the past few years and a disappointing holiday season this past Xmas.
While there recently I was told by a clerk (who has been there for years) that my local store is an active one and in no danger of closing, but as we all know the employees are the last to be told. I know that many people are using the web to purchase books from Borders online,(which could explain the drop in store sales) and yet I can’t help feeling that the drop in sales is directly liked to the insidious rise of the Amazon Kindle, and the many other e-readers on the market which seen to be growing daily. These e-reader’s has begun to chip away at book sales over the last few years, and yes I know. Borders has its own that its hawking in the stores and online too. But the thing that fills me with dread is what all this might mean for the future of books.
We have already seen the demise of the mom and pop book shops, they just couldn’t compete with the large chain stores which does by the way include Borders. But the fact is that the small bookstores didn’t have the inventory, the cafe’s and didn’t provide the comfy chairs to sit and relax, read and in some cases sleep in. There are of course specialty book shops selling priceless sets and antiquarian volumes. But many of these are by appointment only. I’ve traipsed through a few of these shops in my time under the watchful eye of the store owner, who I’m sure – realised before I did, that I couldn’t afford to buy anything he had on the shelves. But that’s New York City-whaddya expect! My problem with e-readers is more complex than mere hatred for technology, I mean I love my computer. It brings me the world 24/7 and presents me to those who read my essays and stories. What I detest is the possibility that my local bookstores will close one by one. A sad result of the obsession with technology that grows yearly like the national debt. While I’m sure that the tree people applaud the notion of millions of trees being saved from the axe, (I’m a tree hugger too-at least to some degree) the greater problem is the millions of people employed by the publishing industry who will find themselves out of a job. This of course will take time…lots of time, but if I was in publishing I’d be worried. It’s not just about me and my selfish desire for a bookstore to lose myself in a few times a month. Think about it, very few of those people will be able to cross over to jobs producing e-books, I can’t imagine too many tree farmers being down for the sterile halls of a silicon chip factory. Many will have to go to school to start over and believe me, it’s not easy to do in your thirties or forties.
The loss will also be the tactile feel of a book with pages instead of plastic and metal, the smell of the paper and faintly too of ink. Then also the much-loved book signing events we all enjoy attending, the chance to meet ones idols and get a book signed will also be lost! How is a signing going to work with a Kindle? Yet another distraction from the everyday that will be lost in a post book binding world. The investment in a Kindle alone is a half-a-weeks pay for some, then the inevitable updates, crashes, re-boots and down loading of new books. Lets not forget about the battery charging that you have to add to your already full “To Do” list. It seems like too much bother when you can pick up a book for a few dollars, have a coffee and maybe even meet another human being to interact with socially.
The makers of this product I’m sure don’t see a problem going from your computer screen to the kindle screen and back again…and again, then add the TV screen to the equation and you can almost feel the eyestrain this will cause. We have become a world of people staring at screens, hypnotically pointing and clicking at work and at home. The future generations will grow up further and further from real books as the decades roll by. I’m sure to some who may read this I sound like a paranoid over-reactionary fool who’s panicking at something that will never happen in my lifetime. To others maybe a prophet of a very real future. I don’t know but I can say with conviction that I’d rather be guilty of the former than the latter. The path for me is clear, to buy more books and to urge others to do the same. Your local bookstores need you and if your like me you need them too. Don’t take it for granted thinking they will always be there. The bookstore could easily go the way of the general store that our great grandparents knew, replaced first by the five and dime them by the chain stores like Newberry’s and McCrory’s, only to be swallowed up by K-Mart and Target. Like the drive-in movie, arcades, and soda fountains. No one notices the loss till it’s too late.
Maybe I’m just feeling my age and wishing for a simpler time, or perhaps I’m just a tragic figure like Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” about a man who just wanted time to read. It ends with him stumbling around the ruins of a post apocalyptic library with broken glasses in hand saying over and over “That’s not fair, there was time to read now!”
I can safely say that I will never own an e-reader and hopefully I will find a kindred spirit and she and I will have the library together I always wanted. Of one thing I am also sure, I will definitely be buying a second pair or three of eye-glasses…just in case.