The worst part about the Borders bankruptcy
This comic strip from October sums up perfectly how I feel about the Borders bankruptcy.
Much ink has been spilled about the death of print media, some of this ink rushing to spill itself onto the burning pile of newspaper as a gesture of solidarity. And I love books. I will continue reading actual books until they tear them from my cold, malfunctioning 2063-era robot prostheses. If anyone gives me a Kindle, I will consider it an act of war.
But this isn't about the books. It's about the bookstores.
Many have torn their hair, beaten their breasts, and keened about the demise of independent and used bookstores. That old man who comes and sifts through the remainders with an air of knowledge, or the flannel-clad hipsters talking about how they were into Melville before he sold out, or the woman with a lot of bags who organizes poetry readings -- these familiar sprites of the indie bookstore scene come to us in the middle of the night to show harrowing visions of a world where they no longer exist. Although that could have been something I ate.
But nobody has stuck up for the megastores.
Megastores are like megachurches -- you get the same basic product, but louder and more commercial, and there's a guy behind you who sounds like he needs to be exorcised.
But there's more to it than that.
One of the appeals of a bookstore is the serendipity. This is, frankly, impossible to recreate online. Yes, Amazon.com suggests other books, but they're books you might actually want to read. There's no online equivalent to walking past a rack of novellas for teens to discover that angel werewolves are the new regular werewolves.
In a real bookstore, you can feel the cashier judging you, so you feel the need to purchase a copy of Roget's Thesaurus with everything. "This is for research," you mutter, as you place Snooki's book on the counter. "There is literally someone holding a metaphorical gun to my head as I buy this."
And until they develop a feature that allows you to bump into nervous but friendly lawyers while browsing through the Business Tomes section, Amazon can go whistle. In a real bookstore, you can tell that it's unwise to approach someone because he's standing in the self-help section reading a book called, "Sex for The Incompetent" upside down. You can't tell that online. And even with a Bumping Into People app for online bookshops, you would never be 100 percent certain that the other party wasn't secretly watching pornography at the time.
In a real bookstore, some of the copies are autographed. What are we going to do, have David Sedaris sign our Kindle, like a skateboard?
Yes, we'll have our iPads and our Nooks, but we're going to lose something. The fewer physical bookstores, the fewer physical books, the less real reading we'll do.
A personal library is a physical manifestation of a human mind. A megabookstore is a physical manifestation of our collective mind, as embarrassing and exhilarating as that implies. There, Miley Cyrus autobiographies lounge cheek-by-jowl with The Iliad and the Audacity of Hope. They encompass all of us: The people straying in and out with coffee, the ruck of humanity scrambling for the outlets, the smell of new books and returned books and that one man at the end of the aisle in one of the more advanced stages of decomposition. Online, we're cabined up in our own preferences. People suggest to us things that we would like, based on the other things that we have liked, or the things that people who like the things we like have liked. It's personalized. That's what we've been told we want, after all. More of what we like.
But sometimes we want things we don't know exist. How else to account for the popularity of meeting new people?
The other thing the Internet promotes is the blending of content. Books require concentration. Walking into a bookstore says either, "I am one of the homeless men who lives in the café and won't let you use the large tables" or, "I intend to buy a book." Online, there is no such clear purpose. Go online to look up the correct number of hours of sleep and, several days later, you emerge, Rip Van Winkle-like, blinking, having skimmed articles, watched videos, posted several ill-advised tweets that seemed funny at the time, and purchased six shakeweights.* That doesn't happen at Borders. Books, by definition, require concentration. They often have plots, or symbolism, or at least arguments you need to follow. In them, form and function mesh. They require focus, and with their decorous rows of text reposing on the page, they promote it.
Sure, eReaders offer a measure of insulation. But they allow you to converse with other readers, to play games, and to access parts of the web. Read books on your iPad, and you can dash off to the web to buy shoes at a moment's whim.
And this evolution is bound to change books. Soon, Anna Karenina may come with a link to family therapy on the opening page. "All unhappy families are unhappy in different ways," it will say, "but you don't have to be, with Ron's Counseling!" Animal Farm? Pork recipes. Fahrenheit 451? Links to Best Buy, to purchase a wall-sized screen.
*for regular readers, this brings me to twelve shakeweights this week! Keep track! It'll come up in the chat!
| February 15, 2011; 1:03 PM ET
Categories: Big Deals, Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever | Tags: Borders, books, bookstores, reading
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