Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An endangered species

I wrote the following editorial for a newspaper column at the beginning of this year. Although the editor assured me it would be published, it never was. I don't know why. Perhaps it was nixed because someone felt it would arouse too much controversy. Or maybe it was simply too long compared to the editorials they usually print.

In any case, I am reproducing it below. One thing to note is that it was written months before Borders declared bankruptcy and began closing many of its brick-and-mortar stores. Every Borders store in Broward County has now closed down. I and many fellow book lovers (even those who are proponents of ebooks) sorely miss them. I read recently that an additional fifty Borders stores around the country will close as part of the terms of the bankruptcy. Will the closing of Barnes & Noble stores be far behind? The issue was (and still is) a very real concern for all of us. I don't think we have thoroughly considered the impact that digital media will have on us in the long run.

Here it is:
You sit your grandson on your lap and read him a story from a large, brightly-colored picture book, letting him turn the pages and touch the illustrations. You watch a folk dancing performance at the public library, and while you’re there, you pick up the mystery novel you’ve been meaning to read. During a leisurely Sunday breakfast, you peruse the morning paper, work the crossword puzzle, and clip out some grocery coupons or a recipe that sounds perfect for your next dinner party. You visit your local bookstore, browse the stacks, have coffee in the cafĂ©, and buy a magazine on your way out. You page through an old photo album, viewing your grandparents when they were your age, or your first apartment, or your dated hairdo in an old class photo.
What do all these things have in common? They’re endangered activities. They involve media and institutions that are slowly disappearing from our world, to be replaced by electronic versions that have lost the substance and permanence of their physical counterparts.
No, I’m not a technophobe. I worked for years as a communications software developer, and still use a computer regularly. I own a smart phone. I use a GPS navigation system in my car. But would I buy an e-book, or put photos up on a web-based album?  Never!
Before you buy a Kindle or Nook, think carefully about it. Electronic books are merely vaporware, yet the cost per book is not as low as you might think. Bestsellers in physical form are routinely on sale for between a third and a half off the cover price. E-books are not on sale very often, and they usually wind up costing only a few dollars less than their paper counterparts. And those same books, plus many more, are available from the public library for free!  It doesn’t matter if an e-reader can hold 500 books. How many can you really read while on vacation? What if you drop the reader and break its delicate electronics?  What if the battery runs down while you’re reading at the beach? Can you give e-books to friends, or sell them at a garage sale, or photocopy a page? What happens when today’s e-reader becomes tomorrow’s dinosaur? Where will all your purchased e-books be then? Don’t say that you’d convert them from one format to another. If you’ve already read them, you wouldn’t bother to go though the hassle of uploading them to a PC, converting them, and downloading them to a new reader. And that's making the assumption that there will actually be a way to convert from a 2015 KindlePad to a 2025 SuperNook.
The same holds true for digital photos. Will Picasa still be online years from now? Will electronic photos on CD or in a digital album still be viewable then? Would a home-burned CD last as long as photos in an album?  I doubt it. How will our great-great grandchildren learn that they resemble us?
If books are made obsolete by their digital counterparts, brick-and-mortar bookstores and public libraries will most likely disappear. Could you browse through stacks of e-titles, scanning through the contents to get a feel for the writing style or contents, as you can at a bookstore?  Would there still be paper coloring books, pop-up books, road maps, or oversized art books? If so, where would they be sold? If libraries turn into electronic, Internet-based entities, what would become of their community-outreach and cultural programs?
I have a book-lined study. Seeing my books on the shelves gives me almost as much joy as reading them. There is a physical and aesthetic pleasure associated with opening a book, turning its deckle-edge pages, and smelling the paper and ink, that can never be duplicated with an e-reader. Books, photo albums, and scrapbooks can sit on a shelf for fifty years, or even a hundred, and still be paged through and enjoyed. They are memories and gifts to bestow to future generations. Don’t let electronic media destroy them.


  1. There's nothing like books/ppr. I have a library, too and reread them. We also had a Borders close in Springfield, MO, and that was truly painful. Very nice blog.

  2. Wow! You kinda make me afraid of the future.....

  3. Great post! I sometimes feel like a bit of a luddite with my preference for paper but I also love my personal library. Borders has closed its doors here in Australia, my daughter said she went into her nearest store during the 2nd last day they were trading and it made her cry, she said she was not the only one that felt that, it was like it was more than just the end of one book store but felt like it was the end of book stores in general. Lovely post.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I didn't know that Borders had stores in Australia. I know how your daughter felt, "A reader." When I went to the store closing sale at our local Borders, there were crowds of people picking the shelves clean. The lines at the registers were very long. It was a sad sight. I thought to myself: "Where were all you book shoppers before? Why didn't you patronize the store when they were still in business, rather than buying over the Internet? If you had, we wouldn't be seeing the store close its doors."

    There are still a lot of details about the new age of e-books that I am concerned about. As new developments occur, I will post further blog entries about the ramifications of electronic media. So stay tuned...