The Inevitable Death of the Book, Aleph-Nought in a Series

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.

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The lack of something for other people to see is the main thing I don't like about ebooks too, although we seem to have gotten over having CD collections pretty easily. I thought of the front-and-back screen thing too. I'm always curious what other people are reading and like the idea that if someone is interested in what I'm reading they might strike up a conversation. Of course ebooks also fail at fancy layouts and glossy colour graphics, but that will come with maturing technology.

You are so right about the step up from Waldenbooks to a Borders or B&N. I thought Border's was the greatest back in the 90's due to the extensive number of CD listening stations (probably 100 or more CD's to sample in various genres), although of course that is no longer needed.

I would buy that two-screen Kindle!

I live in the third world, and a high point of any visit to the US used to be a trip to Barnes and Noble to see real books, scads of them. No more though. On my last trip I could not contain myself---the Religion section was 15 times bigger than the Science section!!!!! The "Teenage paranormal romance" category (or something like that) was 4 times bigger than the Science section!!!!!!! Everywhere there was woo and religion and dubious self-help quackery. There was virtually nothing about reality. I was livid and I see no point in going back there.

You can't use a cardinal for numbering. I think you need ω instead.

It's none of my damn business what other people are reading in public; anyone who attempts to pass judgement on me based on my reading material on any single occasion is not getting a statistically significant sample. It bugs me a bit that people really, honestly think that what you're reading on the train could tell anyone anything except, possibly, what pose you're affecting today.

Every single friend I have has piles of books to be tripped over, and the selections are very eclectic and not always significant. For instance, I have an awful lot of books I've been given for free that I'd never have chosen, including some that I've never read but never quite got round to getting rid of. I think I even have some Enid Blyton novels I was given as a kid, still, and she was my least-favourite author ever. At best, you may be able to work out someone's undergrad degree, and something like a good collection of craft books or a complete run of Discworld novels will tell you something about the sort of in-jokes your host will get.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 21 Jul 2011 #permalink

Your article misses a major lack of understanding of the psyche of readers. 'Paper' book lovers do not buy books just to showcase their personality in their living rooms for visitors... atleast that is not the motivation for 'most.' The act of reading and collecting books is a ritual, ONLY to be enjoyed and understood by the book-loving generations who have grown up with it. It is a almost an artful hobby, quite similar to going to the theatre to enjoy a movie, as opposed to watch DVDs at home.

Also, are you saying that the people belonging to the large swaths of the country are not 'non-hipsters' enough to support the book stores that they so desperately need? That is a sorry excuse for those large group of people who have basically lost interest in working a little extra hard to pursue their interest in book-reading, if they have any. If they bought enough books, these franchises wouldn't have died an early death.

The future IMHO is ebooks with a print on demand option. (Amazon already does this in some cases). If you want a physical copy of an E-book, you just select it, Amazon prints it out and ships it (Perhaps using a local printer in some cases). This neatly eliminates a major expense of bookstores physical inventory, there is now none to have to pay for. Physical chain book stores are between the rock of the local independent shop and the hard place of Amazon. Of course my point of view is shaped by now living 60 miles from a big chain book store, so Amazon provides a way to get what you want, with a vastly larger selection than any chain store. I don't relie that much on staff recommendations anyway, for reviews there is the Economist and the like.

When Yglesias posted a thing about not being able to impress people with an e-bookshelf, I thought he was kidding. Now I'm less sure.

Also, the upside of the no-cover phenomenon is that it's possible for a dude to read a Regency romance in public now.

Ah, signaling. I seem to remember that as an undergrad, when guys would keep their liquor bottles on display long after emptying them.

I don't think the print-on-demand function will really satisfy bibliophiles unless there is a decent hardcover option, something along the lines of the Everyman's Library, so that a collection would be worthy of holding onto.

Just an additional option to bind the print on demand book in a fancy binding, not a big deal if the demand is there, or if the book is sold in paperback (not spiral bound) you take it to a bookbinder to do so. If the demand is there the former will occur.

My library isn't for popular consumption. It's for me. So I can stand about, surrounded by books, and ponder what to read and, whoops, there's THAT. Now I'm reading.

Why did Borders fold? I don't know generally, but I'm entirely apathetic because yesterday was my birthday, and today my mom and I went to Barnes and Noble so she could buy me a book. I stood in their SciFi/Fantasy section and scorned the shit out of that store.

My Terry Pratchett collection is something like five feet of shelving. The man is incredibly popular, incredibly good, and incredibly prolific. BN had 8 books. Their comic selection was two sections of shelving; four were devoted to manga. I mention this because I looked in vain for Buffy Season 8.

Walking in, I specifically wanted Pratchett's "Wintersmith", but they didn't have it. I ended up getting "Unseen Academicals". I didn't exactly lose out, but the fact is that I clearly am not the BN market. Nor would I have been the Borders market or the Books-A-Million market. Because they don't have a market.

The BN I was at devoted more space to their mediocre coffee shop than to speculative fiction. By trying to serve all markets, they serve none of them well and most of them poorly.

It used to be that when I wanted a specific book, I'd go to Amazon and that I'd browse at a BN or Borders... I'll never go to one of those big stores again; fuck 'em. The only thing they had going for them was that you could browse; the element of surprise. They don't even have that.

I still want book stores, because I still want books. I like having a library. I like lying in bed with an actual contraption of cardboard and paper. Or on my sofa, or in my barca. The ebook just doesn't do it for me. And neither do those big, shitty box stores.

I'm tempted to open a small book store devoted to speculative fiction. Then I know that Sir Pterry would get the space he deserves.

By Surgoshan (not verified) on 21 Jul 2011 #permalink

In the hazy past I had a nice library, in a room we called "the library," complete with world globe and leather chairs and a big dictionary on its own stand and, of course, walls of books.

Have you ever tried to move such a thing?

By Frank Merton (not verified) on 21 Jul 2011 #permalink

"Kindle 'em Danno" simply doesn't carry the panache of "Book 'em, Danno" and it can even be misleading....

Frank @12: I actually still do have a room I call the "library" (it's actually a spare bedroom), which is where I keep most of my books. I don't have the globe or the dictionary stand, I have a couch futon instead of leather chairs, and the bookcases are standalones rather than built-in (which of course would be impossible to move). I got the experience of moving it last year (twice) so I could repaint the room. Books are heavy. I can understand why somebody who expects to move frequently might prefer not to accumulate a significant library. But I still enjoy reading a physical book every now and then.

As to Borders, I can't feel too much emotion, mainly because they never were in my area (I visited the nearest Borders once--it was in a neighboring state). But we do have a Barnes and Noble, which I have occasionally visited, and I concur with other posters who say they're going downhill. The science and sci-fi sections have been shrinking (though our local B&N has done better than Surgoshan's about stocking Terry Pratchett titles), and the music selection is a shadow of its former self. B&N at least offer their own e-book reader, so they have an entry into the download market. But I agree that the Big Box Bookstore is losing (or has already lost) its market--squeezed by Amazon on one side and the handful of remaining local bookstores on the other.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jul 2011 #permalink

"trashy genre fiction" you say? Fie, I say. What value judgment are you making? Do you mean "trashy" as in of no redeeming merit? Or do you mean "trashy genre" as in (shudder) Romance or (sniff) Westerns? This kind of elitism pisses this bookseller off. Science Fiction is a genre, too. Nearly everything belongs to a genre of one kind or another, if one wishes to be picky (and in this case I do). Try not to be so snotty next time. Rosemary Kirstein, a genre writer, thinks highly of you; try not to disappoint her or me.

By Lindig Harris (not verified) on 22 Jul 2011 #permalink

"trashy genre fiction" you say? Fie, I say. What value judgment are you making? Do you mean "trashy" as in of no redeeming merit? Or do you mean "trashy genre" as in (shudder) Romance or (sniff) Westerns? This kind of elitism pisses this bookseller off. Science Fiction is a genre, too.

Absolutely. And to a lot of booksellers it's just as trashy as any other. That phrase is from the perspective of the sellers who look down on genre fiction of whatever sort.

I'm not looking down on SF or any other genre, here. In fact, a large part of the basis for that remark comes from going to stores touted as great independent bookstores and finding a only a meager selection of the sort of books I read, in a back corner where the staff don't have to look at them.

"I'm not looking down on SF or any other genre, here. In fact, a large part of the basis for that remark comes from going to stores touted as great independent bookstores and finding a only a meager selection of the sort of books I read, in a back corner where the staff don't have to look at them."

Oh. Well, okay then. I apologize. I not only read genre, trashy or otherwise, but read all sorts of other stuff, too. I'm just a proponent of all kinds of reading. My staff better not treat any sort of books as "back-corner".

By Lindig Harris (not verified) on 23 Jul 2011 #permalink

A possible solution: put your list of books in your facebook profile.

Hmm.. A nice idea for a Facebook app!

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink