In recent years, pundits have been lamenting the loss of the neighborhood bookstore in America. In a PBS interview on 21 July 2011, Jeffrey Brown spoke with Slate’s Annie Lowrey. They talked about the emerging eBook markets, the mistakes Border’s made, the changing landscape of literacy. And then this:
BROWN: And their corner bookstore is now gone.
LOWREY: They have fewer and fewer choices in that sense, it is true.
In October 2011, cartoonist Tom Batiuk addressed the issue in his Funky Winkerbean strip. The character named Crazy is about to enter the Village Booksmith when he notices the sign: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS taped to the window. Over several days Crazy has flashbacks to his boyhood when he bought Tarzan books there. But the owner now tells him that a bookstore is now more like an antique shop.
In late January 2012, the New York Times ran a long feature piece—“The Bookstore’s Last Stand” (by Julie Bosman)—about publishers’ worries about the emerging eBook business, the domination of Amazon, the fragility of the country’s final big book chain, Barnes & Noble. Bosman spoke with William J. Lynch, Jr., B&N’s CEO, who said, “Our stores are not going anywhere.” (We’ll see!)
Recent research, by the way, is showing that readers of physical books retain more, are moved more, than are readers of eBooks. And surveys of college students show that they prefer actual books for their classes. Still, it’s unlikely the eBook business will go away. Convenience is a powerful factor in modern life.
I have had several Kindles and use them, mostly, for reading thrillers and other snack-food fare. I have tried to read scholarly books on them but have found I much prefer a physical book for that purpose. I’ve sometimes used Kindle, too, for my book reviewing—not for the new book but for the author’s previous titles. But I find that somehow dissatisfying, too. I’d rather hold an actual text in my hand.
I realized, of course, that all of this could be just an older man’s preference for older technology. My dad, who died in 1999, for example, didn’t ever use a cellphone, didn’t like the ATM and would always go to the drive-thru—or actually enter the bank—to cash a check or make a deposit. And I can not see my father in an automated check-out line at the grocery store. Even a fresh jar of dry-roasted peanuts (his favorite) was not worth learning some newfangled purchase process.
But William Godwin (1756–1836) lived in a much different time. Newspapers, pamphlets, books, magazines—all flooded London with ink, buried the city in pages. And people read and read and read. He could have never dreamed that the whole enterprise would one day slouch not towards Bethlehem but towards the City of the Dead.