The End of Books

The closing of Borders marks the beginning of the end  of a planetary era.  Not to say that Borders in itself as a bookstore is this unique epic phenomenom. Borders, along with all bookstores, have provided a continuation of the culture of the printed word.

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians utilized papyrus, (a writing material that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant*), to record texts that filled the temples, libraries, and schools, for scholars, doctors, students, and government.  We have discovered the inner workings and the magic of the ancient world through written texts. Without the printed word, all of the knowledge and history of the past would indeed be a great mystery. And more importantly humankind has evolved as a result of the recorded knowledge left by our ancestors.  Civilization has evolved throughout time utilizing the tool of the printed word, whether it be a written constitution that has expressed the principles of democracy for the modern world, or spiritual texts that have solidified the existence, continuity, and faith of world religions throughout time, placed in the hands of billions of people over the course of thousands of years.

In this lifetime, sitting in churches and temples, will people pray with a Kindle in hand?

The Borders bookstore stands in my fairly small university town.  Aside from two very small used bookstores, it is the only major bookstore for miles.  Therefore, people in three border towns that have no bookstores have relied on our Borders.  That’s a combination of at least one university, one community college, four high schools, and seven middle schools that use our Borders as an access to books. This doesn’t include the non-academic general public that comprises an older generation who shop at Borders for their reading pleasure.  Yes, there are libraries, but most are limited, and any newer books or classics that a student may need flies off of the shelf in a heartbeat.  For any of you that have kids, how many times have they come home to say they need to read Animal Farm by Monday on a Friday night?  Borders has always come to the rescue for me in that way, book in hand right when it’s needed.

The day after the announcement was made that Borders was closing, I visited the store, shocked to see that the coffee shop inside of the store that is always filled to capacity with people day and night, was already vacated, tables and chairs stacked on top of one another, boxes already packed, leaving an empty dark space.  That was fast!  I then walked over to the  Young Adult section. Teenagers sat scattered on the floor near bookshelves, quietly reading the latest sequel of their favorite sci-fi and teen novels. Many students I know go to the bookstore as an escape from a not-so-good home life or they are latch-key kids wanting to hang out in a safe place. Their presence has always been a constant in the store, and I wondered how they would fill their time in a small town now that their favorite pastime at Borders will no longer exist for them. 

I eyed the plethora of magazines, some hard to find lit journals and international publications that I’d have to drive to a major city to obtain.  Yes, I guess I could order subscriptions but I simply wouldn’t have time to read them all, not to mention the cost.  I will miss being able to sit and thumb through magazines, or stumbling upon that unique magazine that has content that can transform my world.  Leaving the store, I realized I will simply miss going to the bookstore.

When I was a kid, when the power would go out due to a stormy night, there was no stress or fretting about having nothing to do.  We’d simply light candles and read by candlelight. If I had writing to do, I’d continue tapping away on my typewriter.  I’m sure this is true for millions of people from the era of words in print.

With the introduction of the digital age, our own lure towards embracing consumerist trends has led us to the erosion of our freedom to choose as individuals.  Video store franchises have closed, limiting the exposure and outlet for many independent films on a domestic and international basis. Bookstores are closing. Libraries will close. I can’t even begin to count how many times I have stumbled upon a great book or film simply by allowing my eyes to browse the shelves of a bookstore or library. A great title or book cover would catch my eye that beckoned me to pick it up, most often resulting in an engaging, and sometimes transformative experience. I discovered some of my favorite authors in this way, authors I would never have encountered otherwise. 

The intuitive experience of choosing is the experience of discovery.  It is an experience that I feel is being shaped for me while being stripped from me, and as a writer, discovery is an experience that has shaped my writing life.  We will ultimately be forced to purchase most of what we need online and/or in a digital format, and if this is the case, I will have to be on the internet hours on end in my attempts to “discover” what it is that I may need or want.  The world culture has now been shaped for humans to have their eyes on a digital screen, whether in hand crossing the street or succumbing to the lethargy of sitting at a computer for hours every week, not because you want to, but simply because you have to in order to navigate successfully in a modern world.    

The closing of Borders has left me with feelings of great loss, as it not only represents the convenience of having a bookstore in my town, but on a much deeper level, it marks the shift and ending of the way civilization has functioned for thousands of years. This is profound, and also a bit frightening, as it has felt like the rug being pulled beneath me. Ultimately, bookstore closings are a signal to us all that the future is bringing to us a world without books.  I can only wonder what the implications will be…   

 *Encarta dictionary

 

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Posted on July 21, 2011, in My Favorites and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hmm.

    After reading your article thoroughly, I have to say that I disagree on many of the points you’ve made.

    When I was a teenager looking for something to read, it wasn’t the bookstores that helped me. It was the library. And, I can tell you now, that the library kid in me would have KILLED for something like the Kindle, or even just the internet as we know it today. It would have made so many thing so very much easier.

    For instance, let’s take the kid who needs to read “Animal Farm”, something I both read and watched the animated version of in high school. I don’t know about you, but we always got lists of the required reading books we needed well in advance of when we’d read the actual book. If the school didn’t have it for sale (which, 9 times out of 10, they sold the RR books along with regular textbooks), then the school library had it. If the school library didn’t have it, then the city library most likely would. If the city library didn’t have it, then they were happy to order it for me. Never were we asked to read a book within one weekend; we always knew what we were going to read and when.

    But let’s say, for some reason, the modern-day kid can’t get the book this way. And let’s say the kid is in your area, and he really does only have one weekend to read it. If he has internet access, chances are he can find the book online, in completion, without having to order it. He could do this with the Kindle software, or without. I’m sure someone out there has copied “Animal Farm” to the Internet, verbatim. And the Kindle software provides thousands of free books that they know are widely used in literary classes all over the country.

    Now on to the demise of the printed word. Honestly, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Also perhaps just as honestly (if not more), it’s always slightly bothered me that people in bookstores are crinkling up books and magazines that they have no intention to buy. Imagine MY disdain, as a proud book owner, when I go to look for said book and see that it’s already well-worn! Why would I buy such a thing at full-price, when I could buy a brand-new, untouched version from Amazon.com for less, and get the bonus of free shipping? Or find a much less worn, used copy for a worn, used copy price instead of full? What’s worse, if people were only reading the materials and never actually buying the books, magazines, or what-have-you, then the store wasn’t making much money. If the store isn’t making much money, then it’s no surprise it went out of business. A store has to actually be able to SELL things in order to stay in business. The fewer the sales….the less likely the business is going to stay afloat.

    Blockbuster, Movie Gallery, and the like went out of business because no one wants to pay $5 to rent a couple of movies…or even just one…that they have to keep up with and remember to return the next day. Why do that when Netflix is only around $10 a month, and provides one with an unlimited selection of movies and TV programs? What’s more, yes, it is just as easy to search Netflix for something new as it was to search Blockbuster, just like it’s just as easy to search a library or used book store or even Amazon or Ebay as it is to search Borders or Books-A-Million.

    Which segues nicely into what you said about a writer’s research. I don’t think one iota has been lost for writers from not having a bookstore to go to for research. I think Jules Verne, or even Isaac Asimov would have given their left feet for something like the Internet! Asimov in fact predicted digital books, way back in the 1950s! (He just didn’t realize it would be implemented so very soon.) If anything, the Internet has made research so very much easier, and more accessible. But, if it isn’t your thing…libraries still exist. They are quite well used, even now. Libraries even have computers, because they realize how important the Internet has become to research and even daily life.

    On the loss of a social gathering place. This is the only point I can empathize with. It sucks to lose a place you’ve become used to hanging out in, but I really think this post makes the difficulty to be more of a problem than it likely is. If folks want to hang out, they will find a way to hang out. (Though with all the business that Borders supposedly got, I’m confused as to why they closed it down. Generally, it’s bad business to close down stores that are actually making money. But then again, if folks never actually BOUGHT anything, then it’s no wonder they closed down. Borders *is* a business, and generally businesses like making…y’know….money.)

    As for the latchkey kids and such, what is to keep you yourself from putting together a community project to provide an alternative for these kids? Relying on a business to solve social problems is…well…problematic for this exact reason. But seriously, if you want a community center, that’s something the COMMUNITY has to work together to provide. If a business *contributes* to that, then that’s fine. But it should always be understood that if one’s gathering place is a business…especially huge corporate giant of chain stores…one should keep in mind that that business’ primary purpose isn’t the good of society, necessarily: It’s primary purpose is to make money.

    I’m sure you’ll disagree with me on quite a few points, and that’s okay. However, you asked me on another blog to come and give my thoughts, and I have. I wish you the best in your writing endeavors, and hope one day you’ll be able to see the benefits of the digital age to the modern writer rather than detriments which may or may not actually be there.

    • A.L. Radcliffe

      I appreciate your comments, and I cannot say I disagree because everyone has a take on how things are evolving in our society. I just happen to stand in the circle of writers who value books in print over digital. I’m actually working on a novella to e-publish as an experiment because I think e-books are a cool advantage for writers. I don’t disagree with the digital evolution, but I don’t like where I see it going. I don’t believe in absolutes, however I do value freedom of individual choice which is a big point that I made. I value the internet, I blog, I email, and I learned to Skype last year, which I think is really cool.

      I cannot comment at length as you did, but I can address a few things you mentioned.
      • You are absolutely right. If consumers are embracing the digital age, obviously books are in less demand.
      • Yes, kids get assignments well in advance, but students often have so much work that they may forget a book that’s to be read. Happened to me while in college a lot, the all nighters because I forgot something!
      • You’re absolutely right. With the extreme budget cuts that are happening in our state continuously, it limits the school districts from purchasing more books. The schools will have to move toward digital options. I don’t see how more computers or software can be purchased when teachers are still presently losing their jobs. The library is great but unless you live in a big city, which I don’t, smaller libraries don’t have several copies of one book.
      • I don’t want to watch movies online or download them, and that includes books. I prefer dvd’s, and even moreso, I miss going to the video store.
      • The Borders in my town was always busy. Borders is closing due to the economy, not just due to local numbers.
      • I am a mother. I’ve worked in the community with children & teenagers as a counselor for many years. I’m sure those of us that value books will come together to ensure they stay accessible for our children.

      I welcome your input, and as I stated, this blog post is about my personal preference and where I see things going as it pertains to books in print.

  2. Hi A. L. Radcliffe. You may be interested to know I also blogged about the closing of Borders in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I live, in April of this year, and what that meant to me and to many of us who found in the bookstore a haven not only for reading, but for conversation and sharing of a kind that is growing increasingly unique in a world dominated by technological forms of communication.

    The passing of Borders means that those of us who crave literature and the companionship of like-minded souls who share in that passion must create our own avenues — outside of convention if need be — to continue to perpetuate the legacy of all book lovers. To read a good book means many things, among them to appreciate its cover, design, feel, along with the art of the language, the legacy of the writer, the connections he or she makes to our own experience. Books and the places that promote them have enriched our lives, and now many of us feel deprived because book havens, like books themselves are disappearing. We simply have to take book loving and catering to those who love literature into our hands, just as we do creating a better world. Readers, the end of literature and bookstores is here — only if you let it happen.

    • A.L. Radcliffe

      Thanks Arya for your comments!!!

      It is amazing that prior to college, one of my plans has always been to open my own bookstore. Never did I imagine what a benefit this will become for us book lovers! As a writer, bookstores are like sacred places for me. All over this country, and Canada, I’ve met the most fascinating bookstore owners from the coziest, smallest used bookstores, to the bigger mainstream stores. As far back as 2008, many of the independent bookstore owners I have met told me how much they have feared having to go out of business due to demand for ordering books online. All of this drives me more and actually makes it more exciting when the day comes and I do open a bookstore. The bookstore is a culture that enriches lives, yes. It is a holy place for me! Read “The Angel’s Game” or “The Shadow of The Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. First & foremost, these novels are classic books and a great read. Most importantly, Zafon explores the holiness, if you will, of the historical culture of booksellers in Barcelona. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. I thought you wrote a nice article about the Borders closure in your town, but the thing that really struck me is that you don’t enter the bookstore as a customer, you enter it as a patron. Specifically, you go there not with the intention of actually buying anything, but only to enjoy everything it has to offer for free. What you’re really looking for is a library. Stores can only stay open if they can sell things. Libraries stay open because they are given cash for free (or through local taxes and volunteers).

    My suggestion to all of the other bookstores who are hoping to survive would be to make the environment friendly for the customers, but weed out the patrons. Get rid of the soft seating in the store. Keep the cafe and bookstore separate (like Target, Wal-Mart, Costco and so many others). Get rid of the free WiFi… you don’t need someone spending 4 hours sitting in the cafe nursing a cold cup of coffee, that’s what libraries are for. Coffee shops need to sell more coffee to stay in business, and get people in an out (just like every other food service establishment). Besides, after the “patron” has spent 20 minutes getting recommendations for some great reads from the associate behind the information desk, they just use the free WiFi to order it from Amazon anyway. Great service at the the place the patron isn’t spending any money, but then the patron uses your WiFi to give their money to the business that doesn’t offer them any services. Bookstores should also be proactive in asking loiterers to move on… it’s not a dorm room or a playground or a bus stop. Can you imagine a group of kids opening toys and playing with them in an aisle at Target? Taking magazines from the Wal-Mart store into the adjoining fast food restaurant without paying for them? Sitting in the middle of Costco on a bed of blue jeans reading the latest James Patterson book? Of course not. But “patrons” feel it’s somehow okay in a bookstore.

    Again, nice article, and I feel for the loss to your community, but do you feel that you really did your part to support it? [Don’t even get me started on the “reading magazines for free because they’re too expensive” thing. If everyone adopts that same attitude, they’ll stop being published soon enough].

    Best,

    Steve

    • Heh. I think we’re of like minds on this. 🙂

      While it’s a fun idea to have a play area and all, I think the book lovers are missing the point that Borders was a business that, in the end, wasn’t making any money.

      If bookstores go out of business, it isn’t going to be because of a huge hostile take-over. It’s just going to be for the simple reason that people aren’t financially supporting them by buying the products they provide.

      I sometimes wonder if our culture has gotten all-too-used to the “something for nothing” concept. We feel offended if something we love is taken from us….even though it’s taken from us because we didn’t take care of it properly. You can’t have the happy furriness of a pet dog if you aren’t willing to spend the money to feed it, water it, and take it to the vet when it gets sick. Our money is food and water for our favorite businesses.

      On the other hand, I’ve never heard of a library that offers coffee, but it sounds like a wonderful and lovely idea. 🙂

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