A lot of pixels have been spilled lamenting the death of Borders books, a rather large fraction of them being used to say stupid things. Particularly in the “they killed off independent bookstores so good riddance to them” vein– it’s great that you lived in a place that had good indie bookstores and enough hipsters to support them, but for large swaths of the country, the big-box chains were the best thing ever to happen to readers. Going from a cramped little B. Waldencrown in the local mall to a full-size Borders or Barnes and Noble store was a world-changing experience for a lot of people in smaller cities and towns, and seeing those stores die off is a step backwards for those people.
I’m also not entirely convinced by the argument that nothing can possibly replace the customized recommendations of bookstore staffers. It may be true for people whose tastes generally align with those of their local store owners, and who spend a long time building a relationship with them. But if you’re a reader of trashy genre fiction, and your local indie store owner is of a more literary bent, you’re not going to find much more help there than you can get from the “People who bought this also bought…” feature on Amazon. Which, the claims of various commenters aside, has always been pretty useful for me.
(I do agree, however, that it’s easier to visually scan a shelf of print books for possibly interesting items than to browse any of the online stores I’ve dealt with. Which is why I still do regular sweeps through Barnes and Noble looking at new releases, even though I mostly use them to make mental lists of things to download when I get home.)
There are two things that print books are good for, though, that ebooks don’t quite capture yet, and may never be able to reproduce. Both of them have to do with signaling.
The more intractable of the two problems is that a library of print books is a very effective way to project an image of yourself to other people. Anybody coming into Chateau Steelypips will see a large room full of books to their left just past the entrance, and this sends a few messages: first, that we’re people who like to read and own books, and second, that we’re readers of a certain kind of books. It would require maybe five seconds of glancing over our shelves to know something about our taste in literature, and that tells you something about a person.
I haven’t yet seen a good way of doing that with electronic books. The closest is probably those “recent reading” blog plug-ins that put cover images in people’s sidebars, which gives you a selection of their recent reading. This runs afoul of two issues, though: the first is that images in the sidebar of a blog register as ads to me, and thus I tend not to look directly at them lest they start blinking and playing music. The second is that I mostly read blogs via rss these days, and thus don’t see anybody’s fancy blog designs.
The other sort of signaling is on a smaller scale, and with print books comes from the packaging. If you see somebody reading a print book on the subway (or whatever), you can often tell something about them, or at least how they want to be seen. Someone who’s reading trashy genre fiction on public transit is sending one sort of message to the world, while somebody who’s reading great literature is sending a different sort of message. This kind of thing is useful in the event that you want to strike up a conversation, etc. (though you should always be aware that reading in public often means “I don’t want to talk to any of you people,” and be prepared to be blown off).
Electronic books don’t have the same sort of signaling property. For the moment, I suppose, the relative novelty of ebooks is a conversational opening of its own (“Excuse me, is that the new Kindle?”), but in the future, not so much. If someone’s reading an ebook in public, you can probably determine whether they’re reading prose vs. a graphic novel, but that’s about it. Which isn’t all that useful as a signaling mechanism.
I was talking about ebooks at Readercon this past weekend, and somebody brought this up, with the joking suggestion that next-generation e-readers ought to come with two screens: an e-ink one for reading, and a color display on the back to show the cover art. And of course, you could always hack that to display the cover of a much more prestigious sort of book than whatever you’re actually reading, the electronic equivalent of putting a different dust jacket over the cover of a trashy print book…
Neither of these things is really a deal-breaker, of course– as I said earlier, I’ve made the switch to electronic reading, and these days use print stores just for casual browsing before buying stuff online (I feel vaguely guilty about this, but not quite enough to buy a Nook. I settle for buying the occasional overpriced pastry in the cafe area.). But those are a couple of aspects of the inevitable death of print (coming Any Day Now!) that I don’t see talked about all that much, and that have more significance in my mind than schadenfreude at Borders’s demise due to their “killing” of a retail category that was never all that widespread to begin with.