After learning of the Borders liquidation bid, I, akin to many a blue-blooded bibliophile, donned the proper mourning clothes and entered a state of reflective solemnity. A prominent literary stomping ground – a corporate giant of a literary stomping ground – gone the way of countless independently run “Shops Around the Corner” (see: You’ve Got Mail)? Inconceivable! Unfortunately, contending with this book seller’s absence is far from the most jarring repercussion of its passing. NPR contributor Rachel Syme examines the consequences of this loss in her recent article “Bye Bye Borders: What The Chain’s Closing Means For Bookstores, Authors And You”, and comes to the following conclusion:
“Borders closing [will] have a huge effect on how many physical copies [of books] will be out in the world. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the old-fashioned brick and mortar, paper and gum book business as the world zooms toward an ever-more-digital model. So what Borders closing means, at the basic level, is that fewer paper books will be produced. There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go.”
A striking yet reasonable assessment of the future of the “tangible” book. Syme logically asserts that, unless embarking upon a financial suicide mission, it would be unwise for publishing companies to continue producing paper books at the same rate after the closing of one of their major vendors – especially in a fluctuating literary marketplace with ever-increasing electronic leanings. However, Syme’s (unnecessarily smarmy) succeeding statement lacks the cogency of her first point:
“This harsh reality can feel tragic to those who love the physicality of books and still haven’t gotten used to the Kindle, but a new generation is learning to adapt to e-reading. I suspect that the children who are just learning to read today on iPads won’t grow up nostalgic for the Borders that they never knew. I certainly don’t feel wistful about no longer getting to snag CDs at Sam Goody. There is no other future for reading but a digital one, and getting misty about the decline of tangible books is an exercise in futility.”
Call me an aging antiquarian (a bold insult to aim at someone still in her twenties), but characterizing those who question the implications of an “inevitable” nonexistent future for physical books as engaging in “an exercise in futility” seems overly presumptuous. (Though admittedly it’s not as perplexing as the analogy between the move away from CDs, a technology that has enjoyed at most a thirty-year prominence, to the decline of a media form whose journey to the cultural mainstream traces back to the Renaissance.) Believe it or not, this stubborn old coot has the audacity to persist in championing paper books’ cause – a decision that extends beyond a simple matter of personal preference for “outdated” technology – and to contend that the tangible tome will likely remain a viable option next to electronic alternatives. The e-book will definitely come to represent a significant portion of the literary marketplace, and will continue to bring beneficial innovations to the experience of interacting with a text – but not as the sole venue for literature. So I pop in my dentures and readjust my grip on my walker to declare that sustaining concurrent physical book production is far from impractical. Yes, dear Reader, there’s still prudence in paper. Consider the following:
1) Myth: E-reading is 128% eco-friendly. Scientific studies and digital enthusiasts abound argue that e-books facilitate a happier, healthier planet in comparison to paper books – but e-reading devices are a different story. The e-reader disposal process releases hazardous toxins into the environment known as “e-waste,” which includes high concentrations of mercury, lead, and copper. What’s more, workers must break up the devices by hand, bringing them into an inadvisably close proximity with these dangerous substances. While the e-reader disposal process varies little from that of other modern gadgets, creating (and then disposing of) e-reading devices in excess (i.e., supplying devices for every literate individual across the globe following the “impending extinction” of physical print media) certainly isn’t the greenest alternative to paper books.
2) Brother, can you spare $200? Statistics indicate that 50 percent of the population still does not have ready access to the Internet, an amenity many have come to consider a most basic convenience – nay, a necessity – for life in the twenty-first century. In a world in which one out of two people lack a fundamental modern technology, it seems overwhelmingly bourgeois to assume that e-reading will and should completely replace tangible print culture. Is an e-reader monetarily feasible for someone who cannot regularly access and/or afford the Internet? At $200 a pop on average (and that’s excluding Apple’s tablet e-reader, the iPad, which costs about $600 for the simplest model), an e-reading device hardly seems a viable investment for those of limited means – nor would it be a judicious purchase at any price without the Internet, essential for the functionality of an e-reader.
3) An ephemeral book is, well, just that: ephemeral. As Jonathan Shaw explains in the July-August issue of Harvard Magazine, paper books face noticeably fewer threats than their electronic counterparts since comfortably reliable digital preservation methods have yet to emerge. In addition to needing routine updates to maintain compatibility with the latest technological advancements, e-books and other digital text formats are susceptible to the same sorts of corruption and potential elimination as any traditional computer file. From an extremist standpoint, image how easy implementing a contemporary Fahrenheit 451 would be if all books and assorted written records only existed electronically: a truly unsettling thought.
Now, this blogger is by no means advocating an outright rejection of e-reading, which would indeed be “futile,” ironic (since Borders’ late entry in the e-publishing industry largely contributed to the company’s demise), and just plain ridiculous. I fully endorse electronic print culture and the expanded reading possibilities it facilitates, but as an alternative to physical books, not a replacement.1 E-books’ merits aren’t strong enough to completely eclipse the benefits of the continued presence of tangible books. I share MIT Technology Review contributor Christopher Mims’ feelings that “The Death of the Book has Been Greatly Exaggerated”:
“Books have a kind of usability that, for most people, isn’t about to be trumped by bourgeois concerns about portability: They are the only auto-playing, backwards-compatible to the dawn of the English language, entirely self-contained medium we have left.”
Call us mawkish idealists if you will, Syme, but in the spirit of this comment, I say the Borders closing merely represents the dissolution of a corporate chain rather than the “End of a Reading Era.” Supporting the concurrent production of tangible books with e-formats shouldn’t translate as an asinine nostalgic longing to cling to obsolete technologies, but the desire to ensure the protection, prevalence, and widest possible availability of literature, an integral part of the human experience.
—Emily K. Cody
1. Who in the bookworm-scholar demographic could possibly resist the oh-so-compelling allure of the newly minted British Library Apple applications?