09/20/2011 05:10 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2011

Writing In An Ambivalent Time

Just the other day, I stopped at an intersection: there are usually destitute people at this corner. They wander into traffic with handmade signs that say things like "No work. Need food for children." But on this day, I saw a young man carrying a sign that said "Border's liquidation sale. 20 to 40 percent off."

It's strange to be a writer these days, when the entire medium seems to be wavering mirage-like before our eyes and under our hands. Once upon a time, I couldn't have imagined anything more certain than the act of writing. Scratched on the side of a cave wall or inked on a piece of papyrus, writing is an act of both mind and body. Like making war and love and food, like all of our most fundamental acts.

Apparently, everything changes.

I knew the first Borders-a gorgeous shop of polished wood near the University of Michigan campus. They hosted some of my first readings: they served mint tea and baklava; they brought in crowds.

There were no other Borders back then, and maybe it seems incongruous to mourn what eventually became a giant franchise, but still, I do.

Borders was one of the few places where I could actually get some work done. Quiet and spacious, they had nice tables near windows. Jeffrey, the manager, might be around to say hi and chat about our writing projects. Tammy in the café made a beautiful latte with a velvety layer of steamed milk.

One of my other favorite places to work in Miami is the lovely independent store, Books & Books. I hope that the Borders customers will come to them and to our other independents. But for me it's impossible not to feel the loss, a sense of cultural diminishment. If this country must be ruled by corporations and chain stories, this one, at least, sold books.

I don't know if e-readers are the main culprit behind Borders' downfall, but they couldn't have helped. I still write my books by hand-yes, long-hand, with pen and paper. And I like to read 'by hand' as well. I often have to read student work on computers, but I much prefer physical contact with the printed page. Oh, I can practically hear my students rolling their eyes as I write this, but I thank heaven that a page of paper is not a screen.

Everything changes, sure. But as newspapers, magazines, books, and bookstores flatten into screens and more screens, I'm not convinced that all change is for the better. Border's children section was one of our toddler's favorite cool retreats during the sweltering Miami summer. No more. I suppose she won't mind too much: now she can stay home and play on the computer.