My facebook status update today: “Idea for a remake of ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ Tom Hanks is going out of business from his big box book store, while Meg Ryan is running a successful web based downloading service. (Goodbye, Borders!)”
Border’s books, one of the premier original “big box” book stores, is going out of business nation wide. On the one hand, this isn’t exceptional. Large even legendary stores like Montgomery Wards and Circuit City have closed, and throughout the Midwest once prosperous steel and factory towns have lost out as the US manufacturing sector steadily declined to below 10% in the last 35 years. Success today does not insure success tomorrow.
Yet what I find interesting in this is what it says about our reading habits. Last night I was in Barnes and Nobles, in Augusta, Maine. I like going to book stores, especially the ‘big box’ stores that have a wide variety of titles. Often there is a pleasant surprise — this time I found They Fight Like Soldiers, they Die like Children, by Romeo Dallaire. Besides the fact I admire Dallaire for his work in documenting the Rwanda genocide, I co-teach a course on “Children and War,” and this may end up a perfect text for it.
In fact, some of the most powerful books I’ve read — War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, Before the Deluge by Otto Friedrich and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene were found exploring that store. I try to buy books locally — we have a great small bookstore downtown, and I ran across the Fall of an Empire book about Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly there. But the laws of probability state that you’re more likely to run across a book you want when the supply is large, so I still enjoy trips to Barnes and Nobles. The coffee isn’t bad either.
Yet more and more people are not only ordering books from on line websites like Amazon, but they’re downloading material for their Kindle or Nook. In a small device you can store hundreds (thousands?) of books to have with you at all times. Screens are getting easier to read too, especially for devices made solely for electronic reading.
Some people decry the loss of the book — the nice leather (or paper) bound set of pages you can skim through, hold in your hand, mark up, and keep on the bedstand. The book seems under violent attack from electronic media which seek to replace our romantic attachment to the printed word with cold bits and bytes, pages on a screen that are transient and sterile.
The book, of course, got to its position through violence — it has not always been the innocent victim it now appears to be. It came on the scene and challenged the tradition of oral histories and stories. Once we had vast memories and communities learned their past and their traditions in a way that could only be passed down by word of mouth. The printed page — cold and inhuman, just words on paper put there by a movable type press — banished our human memories and the social nature of reciting and singing our histories and traditions to the past. Who needs a memory if you can look it up? Who needs community if your knowledge is personal?
And while I enjoy strolling through bookstores (and stores in general), I’ve slowly become convinced that online shopping can be good, for books and other merchandise. I resisted it for a long time. I like to go to the store, compare items and mull it over. I sometimes leave the store, drive around, think about my potential purchase, maybe stop somewhere else, and then finally buy it (or not). I like to see, feel and hold what I’m going to buy, to know the item I am giving up my money to purchase. To click an image on the computer, give my credit card number and then have it sent seems a gamble. Am I sure I want it? Is it what it appears to be?
Yet living in rural Maine offers limited shopping possibilities. Walmart is fine for supplies like every day items, and basic electronics (Target is better, though that’s in Augusta), but good, enjoyable shopping requires at least a trip to Augusta, and probably to Portland. With kids along its not easy to ponder potential purchases. Living in rural Maine used to really limit shopping options; with the internet, as long as you can accept not being in the store, you’ve got the same kind of choice as someone in New York or Boston.
Beyond that, teaching at a university in rural Maine at one point meant very limited research options for students. The library is small and under funded, and to get journal articles one has to travel to one of the private schools or the campus in Orono (the system’s research university). Inter-library loan improved things, but now you can go on line and with data bases and other resources, have access to more than all but the top research universities used to have available. In fact, many professors are assigning web sights or articles from data bases rather than buying text books. This is hitting text book publishers and university book stores, while also lowering costs for students. I still order books, as for my classes as I haven’t found suitable replacement material on the web…yet.
The hard part about electronic books and buying via Amazon is that you have to know what you’re looking for. It’s not as easy to “browse” Amazon, or to page through a book, jumping from one section to another. And that’s the trouble with the information revolution. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re limited. One can’t aimlessly browse, at least not as easily. I like going to a store and just browsing, finding items I might never have known existed, or books I hadn’t heard of before.
So there’s more information out there, but we have to know what we’re looking for. Back 40 years ago there was a lot less news, but it was packaged so that the most important stories were put forth, and people could browse through the newspapers for what interested them. Now we choose our websites, perhaps slanted to the left or right (or to sports and entertainment) and might miss the big stories, or the interesting tidbits we’d run across browsing. That’s a small price to pay for the increased knowledge at our finger tips. Missing out on Borders is a small price for the ease of Amazon and access to just about every book one could buy. I can’t browse Blockbusters anymore, but I can search netflix. It is overall better. Still, there’ something lost when something’s gained.