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Posted at 1:03 PM ET, 02/15/2011

The worst part about the Borders bankruptcy

By Alexandra Petri

Pearls Before Swine

This comic strip from October sums up perfectly how I feel about the Borders bankruptcy.

Barnes & Noble is reportedly considering buying the unused inventory and picking up a few of the choicest store locations. But with the loss of any major bookstore chain, we move closer to the end.

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!

By Alexandra Petri  | 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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Comments

Read Shirky:
http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/11/local-bookstores-social-hubs-and-mutualization/

Posted by: wiredog | February 15, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

"The fewer physical bookstores, the fewer physical books, the less real reading we'll do."

My Kindle has had the exact opposite effect on me.

Posted by: reiflame1 | February 15, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, I found YOUR article on-line, which may have never happened if this south-central Kansan had depended solely on coming across a print version a half-continent away.

That being said, I value print books and am saddened by seeing their extinction looming, even if not imminent. Remember vinyl records? They're still around. So there's hope.

Still, if print books, newspapers, magazines, etc., DO disappear, I'll be picking a special spot for all the printed material I DO own--even if the safest place is buried somewhere in the back yard! Because the 1984 that George Orwell warned us about is far more likely to happen in an e-book-only world.

Posted by: stevecaks | February 15, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"The fewer physical bookstores, the fewer physical books, the less real reading we'll do."

Based on what? Since I got my Kindle in October, my reading has increased five-fold. I can't explain it, except I guess that reading e-ink is easier on my eyes.

It's all about the words, not the platform.

Posted by: garyg5 | February 15, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Bookstore coffee was always the best, even when it technically was not. One could just sit there imagining how many peeps', right at that moment, were stuck in commuter traffic somewhere, or how many trees in the Amazon Jungle it took to 'make' that particular store "appear".
Yet, like the olde record stores, they will eventually pass, disappear. Of course, one could learn how to print and bind these banners of lapel like stature from info on the web. Book making might actually flourish, with new, small time authors publishing their own, advertising and sell them on the WORLDWIDE Web.
So be of good cheer. The sharing of human knowledge just might finally become available to everyone .... anywhere. .... Shame 'bout the coffee though.
Someday ... there might be 145 million publishers, shipping synthetic paper books to a market of of 7 billion peeps'.... as objects de 'art.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 15, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Few mega-stores? Visit your local used bookstore!

The friendly neighborhood used bookstore almost always offers a unique selection - especially when compared to the phalanx of bestsellers that greet you at mega-bookstores and discounters.

Or return to your local independent bookseller. And really shop there. Order if you've heard about an interesting book they they don't happen to have in stock. They can get it for you!

The simple purchasing choices we make every day affect whether our neighborhoods have local shops. The other option is to become grafted onto the machine and always plugged into that big internet bookseller in the sky.

Posted by: pat27 | February 15, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

add my voice to the "surprisingly, I read more with my Kindle" crowd. You can call it war if you want, but it actually is a better platform. And I was quite skeptical myself.

Posted by: Section406 | February 15, 2011 9:02 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, I found YOUR article on-line, which may have never happened if this south-central Kansan had depended solely on coming across a print version a half-continent away.

That being said, I value print books and am saddened by seeing their extinction looming, even if not imminent. Remember vinyl records? They're still around. So there's hope.

Still, if print books, newspapers, magazines, etc., DO disappear, I'll be picking a special spot for all the printed material I DO own--even if the safest place is buried somewhere in the back yard! Because the 1984 that George Orwell warned us about is far more likely to happen in an e-book-only world.

Posted by: stevecaks | February 15, 2011 10:22 PM | Report abuse

i'm also one of the kindle owners who is reading more now. open your mind and consider that it may be better.

Posted by: mpl33 | February 16, 2011 12:40 AM | Report abuse

Um, weren't you discouraging reading?

Posted by: jimward21 | February 16, 2011 7:58 AM | Report abuse

I also mourn the loss of Borders, and I love the feel of real books. But I have to agree with the other comments - I read at least five times as many books using my Kindle. (And I too was a big skeptic of the device.)

This is not to say it is superior to a physical book - I don't believe it is - only that I have never heard from anyone who owns one (my wife and my friends make up my sample survey) ever say they read LESS with a Kindle.

Thus, the assertion (from one who admits they will never pick this device up) that "the fewer physical bookstores, the fewer physical books, the less real reading we'll do" does not seem to be based on any empirical evidence whatsoever.

Posted by: CTG2 | February 16, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

While I share your love of books, what's truly important is that people don't stop reading.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | February 16, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse

When my doctor's nurse saw me reading on my weapon of mass destruction Kindle, she was so excited. She'd received one for Christmas, which she thought was a joke gift since, "I haven't read a novel since I had to do book reports in high school English." Since Christmas she's read over twenty, and has at least a couple dozen more waiting for her in her library. My bank teller is going crazy catching up on all of the classics she never seemed to get to before and are now a luxury item (in print) not in her budget, but free as downloads and my reader mail (I'm an author) now runs toward, "How soon will (name of book) be available on Kindle?"

I don't relish the demise of print books, but have learned and accepted that digital books aren't just the future, they're now. But I'm certain that the printed page isn't quite the dinosaur you appear to be.

As much as I love my Kindle, the majority of books I've "read" in the last couple of years were in my car in audio format. But not for my iPod I would never have lived in Harry Potter's world, as I picked up and put down the printed version at least a dozen times. Listening to Jim Dale bring Harry Potter to life? Heaven.

There are more ways than YOUR way to enjoy a book.

As far as the "If you liked this, you might like that" offerings by Amazon, that method has been used for centuries. It's called word of mouth.

A closed mind is a terrible waste of space, but luckily, not all that much space.

Posted by: PSUFan2 | February 16, 2011 11:46 PM | Report abuse

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