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Ilana Ross

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A World Without Borders

Posted: 02/03/11 01:10 PM ET

I'll tell you what I'm not getting my best friend for her birthday: a Kindle. For one thing, she's turning twenty-three, not forty-five. For another thing, I only spend that kind of money on shoes.

But most importantly, I won't buy an e-reader because I refuse to be complicit in a phenomenon which threatens to destroy what I love most about America and consumerism: bookstores. For those of you keeping track on Amazon, e-books are an increasingly hot commodity, while old print editions of The Catcher in The Rye go for a bag of Fritos. And as books go out of fashion, so do the bookstores.

Books have been a dying breed of entertainment since before the emergence of the e-reader, or really whenever it was people discovered how great television and movies are. Why spend the day reading Little House on The Prairie, when you can watch the ladies all grown up in Sex and The City?

It's one thing to lament the inevitable decline of the book, but there are bigger things at stake here. After all, what's a bookstore without any books? A candle shop? The Papery?

These days, independent bookstores are few and far between. But it's not just the mom-and-pop establishments that are "biting the dust" or barely surviving in a brutal economy. Last year Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale, and Borders looks to be on its last legs as well. Don't be swayed by its seamless packaging and effortless efficiency; the e-reader spells trouble.

Bookstores are feeling the winds of change, and struggling to adapt. Last winter when I walked into my local B & N, I noticed that the "New in Paperback" section had been replaced by a stand advertising the new e-reader. I was appalled. The "booksellers" here were peddling the very instrument designed to destroy them.

Where were the books whose covers I liked to judge and whose pages I liked to bend before not buying them? They'd been moved to the next table over, like displaced persons in a corporate refugee camp. We ought to seriously consider just what we'll be missing if electronic reading becomes the norm. In a dystopian world without bookstores, where will I go when I need to find the right mind space, to read free magazines and pick out coffee table books for my imaginary coffee table? Bookstores are what's to do when you're half an hour early to a movie or a dinner date. It's where the homeless and privileged alike can sit in opposing armchairs and enjoy a Dean Koontz thriller or a Nora Ephron classic. Because rich or poor, we all feel bad about our neck.

Bookstores are places for imagination, for serious reflection, for a skinny vanilla latte. Bookstores recognize that the best part of life is in the browsing, that non-committal time when you let yourself believe that you could be the kind of person who reads Ishiguro. When you mosey through a bookstore, you don't rely on computerized "genius" estimations of what you might like, but instead leave it up to chance and a wandering eye.

When I walk through the "Teen Paranormal Romance" stacks, I can skim the bestselling books of all time. When I make my way into the nonfiction area, I give myself time to delight in the tables of Soviet era biographies that I'll never read but will think about maybe buying for my Dad.

Imagine that in a future world without bookstores, when the next Harry Potter book finally comes out, my kids won't be able to line up in their costumes and dance around at their local bookstore at midnight. No, they'll be out on the street, waiting to download it onto their personal touch Pads or whatever gadget they've come up with to replace all need for human interaction. I'll pick them up from the corner in my motorpod and I'll warn them not to associate too much with the Druids, because I don't trust a robot, or anybody who can't think for herself.

The rise of the electronic reader is no surprise in an era where machines are proving more capable and error-proof than ever. They have only automated check-outs now at my local CVS, giving lonely people one less opportunity to chat about the weather and whether the Mentos are on 2 for 1 sale.

I worry that when we foreclose bookstores to the online world, we are sending more than a message to our books that they're out of stock and unwanted, but to our next generation: that there's no time for browsing, for nonsense, for taking more time to do something that can be done with one or maybe two clicks.

Gutenberg would be very old today, and he probably would be more interested in the development of indoor plumbing than anything else, but I wonder what Johann van would have to say about what's become of his invention and the stores that housed them. Probably something in German.

I hate to argue against the passing of time, modernization and technological advance because it seems pointless. I'm not sure bookstores can be saved, and I'm not advocating a mass Kindle burning or anything radical. I'm just hoping that we can preserve some semblance of life outside our PCs (and/or Macs).

 

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