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Words and E-Words: Electronic Books at the Community Bookstore

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E-books arrived at America's bookstores on December 6, 2010, with the announcement that Google eBooks would be sold through independent bookstores. My own bookstore -- Book Passage in Northern California -- is one of these stores. The news about e-books was welcomed by booksellers with hope, excitement, and a little bit of trepidation.

Many of the more breathless digerati have been heralding the arrival of e-books as a sign that the day of the printed word is over. Soon, they claim, everyone will be reading digital type on backlit screens. Not so fast, booksellers say. Bookstore owners are happy to have a wide array of electronic books to offer to their customers, but hardly any of them believe that electronic books will replace printed books.

Booksellers have a special affection for the items they sell. Hardware-store owners may rave over a favorite screwdriver and kitchen-store owners may fall in love with a set of pottery, but there's nothing to match the love that a bookseller feels for a well-written book. Go to any meeting of independent booksellers, and you'll find them swarming over authors, gobbling up advance-reader copies, and debating passionately the merits of some new book. Booksellers are in the book business because they consider themselves the inheritors of a 600 year-old tradition. They will do almost anything to maintain the quality of books that they offer to their customers, and they bristle at the thought of anything that might undermine that.

The demise of printed books has been predicted several times -- Gutenberg probably heard some of the death threats himself. Nevertheless, the printed book has survived a host of technological challenges from radio, movies, television, copy machines, videotape, CD-ROMs, DVDs, computers, internet browsers, and many other electronic advances. Books have outlived some of them and learned to live with the others. There's every reason to believe that books and e-books will learn to accommodate each other and find their proper place in any reader's collection.

The Need for an E-Book
My mother once noted that as a kid I carried a book with me everywhere. She was probably right -- being caught somewhere without a book to read is one of my worst nightmares. That's why my experience last September with Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was so maddening. I was about 50 pages into this riveting work when I lost it in the Heathrow Airport lounge -- at the start to a three-week vacation. Damn! I groused about it for days, knowing that I'd have a hard time finding another copy in a small town in Italy. Would I have read an e-book copy if I had one? Probably, yes. I can also see why travelers might want to have a few e-books on hand to get around the increasingly maddening restrictions on airplane luggage. And if my vision was impaired, I would welcome the opportunity for an e-book with adjustable print-size. Electronic books definitely have their place.

The Love of Print
Although I might take out an e-book for an occasional date, my true love remains the printed word. Once again, the Tony Judt book shows why. Everything ended happily when I returned to the bookstore and secured another copy. I spent the next several weeks devouring the insight that the late Professor Judt poured into that book. During that time, my copy migrated from living room, to kitchen, to bathroom, to car seat, to lawn chair, and several other places that I've probably forgotten. More than once, it fell down on top of me as I was reading it in bed - even at 831 pages, it didn't do as much damage as an electronic reader might have done.

Finally -- and reluctantly -- I finished the book, but even then I didn't want to let it out of my sight. I kept going back to earlier passages, flipping through the bibliography and looking at the index. Eventually, it found its way onto my bookshelf where it now sits next to some of my favorite history books, like Margaret McMillan's Paris 1919, Niall Ferguson's The War of the World, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Am I a more thoughtful person because I walk by these books every day? Probably not, but glancing at them every now and then makes me feel better. I like knowing they are there, reminding me of what they have to say, waiting for me to thumb through them once again.

Often the book itself is the experience. My wife, Elaine, and I have accumulated many books about food that are truly visceral in their impact. Sure, the recipes might be found on a website somewhere, and a lot of the photos have probably wandered into the bowels of Flickr. But nothing can match the totality of the experience in these books. The same is true of the children's books that are scattered around our house. I can still see the pictures of the first book I had as a child and feel the touch of it on my lap. (Can I remember the first webpage I ever saw? Hardly.) And the warm feeling that comes from reading with someone special continues up to the moment. The thought of curling up on the couch with one of my grandchildren and trying to read to them from a computer screen makes me wince.

We Are What We Read
My attitude towards people has been influenced by what they read. Often I've walked into a living room and quietly scanned the owners' book shelves, trying to get a sense of what they are like and what they might be thinking. No one book tells the story, but a large collection of varied titles starts to give you a good idea. Is this a superficial impression? Perhaps. But it's at least as accurate as looking at someone's Facebook page or Twitter feed. And when there are no books or bookshelves in a house, my opinion of my host -- maybe unfairly -- starts to plummet.

The sheer physicality of books is part of their strength. Books on a library or bookstore wall support each other in a myriad of subtle ways, with one leading to another. Pick any book off the shelf, and your attention may be drawn to the ones next to it. "Pick me," they seem to say: "I have something you want to know." Even before you reach the book you're looking for, you might pass shelves of books -- some of them familiar, others new and intriguing. Whether or not you stop to browse, the presence of so many books can reset your mind and impart a seriousness of purpose. By the time you reach the book you want, your mood may have changed from when you entered the door. You're ready to read, and the book is ready to do its work.

Like the books on a living room bookshelf, those found in good independent bookstores reflect the sensibility of the booksellers who work there. No two stores are alike. But once you are in such a store, book selection becomes a two-way street: you are no longer just heading towards a book, because the books are seeking you out. Bookstores do this in many different ways. Some emphasize their careful selection of books, the manner in which they are displayed, and the shelf-talkers with staff recommendations. In other stores, book selling becomes a more people-to-people business with booksellers making active recommendations, readers forming into book clubs, customers arguing in the aisles over the merits of a book, or maybe visiting authors reading from their work. Much of this is pure serendipity, but it arises from a setting in which books and book lovers find themselves at home.

The New Relatives
Can an electronic book business re-create any of this? Maybe -- but not without great expense and difficulty. For all of its flaws, the craft of putting printed pages between a pair of book covers has proven to be a remarkably resilient, economical, and effective way to carry on our literary traditions.

That's not to say that as lovers of printed books we don't welcome our new electronic cousins into the household. We'll learn to love and respect each other -- just as long as they don't barge into the kitchen and start trying to run things.