Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Beauty of the Book

Borders Bookstore chain is closing.  Over ten thousand people are losing their jobs, publishers are taking a huge hit as Borders fails to pay them money it owes, authors' print runs are shrinking (see a great NPR article here with the deets), but for me it's another sign of the death of the beauty of the book.

Reading will survive, of course. Books will continue to be written and read, perhaps even in greater numbers, as ebooks take over and almost all sales eventually shift to one electronic form or another.  That's the most important thing, I suppose.  (Well, the lives the Borders employees affected by this are probably the most important thing, really. But you see where I'm going.)

But I can remember going into Tower Records and holding my first Beatles LP in my hands. It sent a visceral thrill through me that downloading an mp3 on ITunes simply cannot duplicate.  The music was tangible, real, in my hands. The cover (it was Live at the Hollywood Bowl) had what looked like actual tickets to the concert on it.  I could imagine holding those tickets in my sweaty little hand as I joined my screams with the other girls at the concert.

Getting a page to print up with an electronic ticket in my email for concerts today does not generate that excitement.  Burning my own cds or watching files download from MySpace sites after I buy a file does not make my toes vibrate with love and passion the way holding this album cover did.

So it goes with books.  I still have some of my first books - the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes, Now We are Six by A.A. Milne.  I wrote in those books. I circled words I liked and tried to spell out my name on the inside cover. I can still see my four year old scrawl and my five year old comments in these books.  When I hold them now I remember with sudden swift vividness how it felt to recite "Bad King John" with my Dad as he held the book in front of me.

Kids can't circle words on their iPads today. Or if they do, the circles don't stay.  When they get older they won't see the wear and tear of the years on the "pages" of their Kindle editions, or remember how they smeared chocolate on the blank back pages of their Nook while they read House at Pooh Corner. 

And the smell of a new book!  The ivory gleam of pages ruffling through your fingers as you estimated how much further till Nancy Drew unraveled the Mystery of the Old Clock.  To enter a bookstore was to enter a cathedral of story.  To touch the spines of those books was to come into contact with a hundred new ideas, a thousand new adventures.  If you saw another kid eagerly reading a pink book with an octopus on the cover, you could hunt for that book yourself by spotting that distinctive shade of magenta on the shelf.  You can't do that by looking at the back of an iPad.

But Borders is closing.  And printed books are a dying breed.  A few afficionados will remain, and a few bookstores will live on by catering to collectors, the same way vinyl records still sell a few copies to those who want a multi-level experience when buying music.

This to me is a tragedy.  Reading will  live on, thank goodness.  But the visceral connection to the word will die.  Maybe it means more people will read books, and that is something to celebrate.  But I'm in mourning for the "real" book.  And for all those people who lost their jobs.

Updated to add: Just to be clear - I'm pro-ebook, pro-Kindle, Nook, e-reader, etc. Reading is fabulous, regardless of the means.  I just wish the rise of one method didn't have to mean the death of the other. 

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