I’ve discovered a new fetish. These desirous folks are bibliophiles—like you, surely like me—but of literal touch and page-turn, of scent and typeface. I love the way a book smells, moans one blogger. Another, pictured sitting in a half-empty Borders, curled into a shelving fixture like a cat on a windowsill, posts as a caption to this photograph of herself: “I love the smell of a book [n.b.:again!]. The feeling of accomplishment as pages turn. The way I dog-ear the top corner to mark my page and dog-ear the bottom corners to mark something interesting for later reference. Sigh. I love books.”
Like many others before her in the wake of Borders’ bankruptcy and demise, this blogger finds the e-book and e-reader at fault for the chain’s downfall. “One of my favorite things to do is go to bookstores and browse the stacks, sit in a corner and read for hours… The Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Center used to be my favorite, but it closed. Now I finally found a similarly good one—Borders at Columbus Circle, but it’s closing. Sigh, where am I going to be able to browse stacks and read in corners? Can’t do that on your Nook, Kindle or iPad.” The book fetishist often likes to hedge this final bet—the physical experience of reading is always diminished on a piece of metal; the bookstore affords some sort of spiritual communion with the book. And, in case you’ve forgotten—the smell.
In March of this year, my local Borders folded early. The store (in East Liberty, Pittsburgh) had reached the point of selling the fixtures and shelves when I walked in and grabbed three paperbacks for $11. It was the first in-bookstore purchase I’d made in months. Between Amazon Prime and my iPad, I had my reading needs covered. And most of the people I knew, whether inside or outside of the literary community—writers or no; graduate students in English, as I was, or no—were similarly leaning on Amazon and e-readers for their reading needs. The holiday season had recently passed, leaving many of my once-skeptical friends with a Kindle or an iPad to reckon with. Suddenly, we were all plugged in, or beaming books from warehouses to apartments at the speed of Prime. We became the anti-fetishists, all aglow in Apple white, reading from anywhere we liked and buying our books from anywhere but a bookstore.
And too—my friends are readers. We’re active readers at that, sharing what we read online with each other and recommending books through Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. I lend books through Kindle for iPad much more often than I do from my bookcase. Some of my friends are writers, too, producing even as we “consume,” a word that hardly does the vast and renewing process of reading a text justice; some of these writer friends actively seek online publication, self-publication, and e-book-file-generating as primary modes of writerly output. (None of my friends, even the most Luddite among them, writes solely on paper anymore—I don’t know if any of us ever did.)
Put us together in a Borders, or a Barnes and Noble, and I wonder what we active readers would do—or, perhaps more importantly, what we would purchase. I doubt that many of us would buy a $26 hardcover. I know, at least, what I’ve done inside of a Barnes and Noble for the three years of my tenure as a graduate student: buy a coffee, grab a magazine, dawdle while reading said magazine, eventually open my laptop, study and/or write while helping myself wholesale to the Wi-Fi network, put back the read magazine without purchasing it, leave Barnes and Noble. I see hordes of people doing the same thing at big-box bookstores (less so at independents, where seating and coffee are rarer).
The goods Borders offered for a decade, and that Barnes and Noble still hock, were also more lifestyle, less literary. They’ve moved into coffee and pastries, DVDs and yoga mats, tchotchkes and children’s toys—I recently saw Vera Bradley tote bags and Jonathan Adler pencil holders at the Barnes and Noble in Pittsburgh. And there’s not enough space in this piece to lament adequately the shoddy selection of contemporary poetry that big-box stores stock and house. It’s hard to follow the e-book all the way to Borders’s destruction when you consider this turn away from simply selling books. And yet, it took the brunt of the blame.
The Wall Street Journal covered Borders’s bankruptcy in regular reportage and on its blog, where blogger Gina Cervetti noted: “The [bankruptcy] comes amid a shift in the book industry overall, as people buy more books online, and digital readers become more popular. More and more people are reading their books on Kindles, the iPad, and on other, digital reading devices.” Here again, the comparison is made: the e-book’s closing all the bookstores.
I think of my friends and me (and, likely, our peers, our “generation”) musically, how we readily switched to mp3 players without playing nearly the same number of dirges for the past. It could be the lack of recent bridge technology for the print book—which is its own technology, with its own conformities and impositions into how we read and metabolize ideas and narratives. We’re in the beginning of the era of the electronic reader, where we’ve been using portable devices to listen to music for decades, and stationary playback devices for even longer.
Somehow, our nostalgia for the print book has started immediately, even though the print book’s still here (and, I’d wager, will stay, and with more power and use than, say, the gramophone or the record player). This nostalgia might push us angrily or sadly against new technologies in literature and publishing, but it shouldn’t allow us to discount these new technologies, or to blame them for the downfall of insufficient business models or changing preferences in how we purchase and absorb what we read.
The WSJ article linked to the above-mentioned blog closes with an awfully familiar anecdote. “Joayla Victor, a 22-year-old who visits the café of a Murray Hill Borders in Manhattan twice a week to work with her tutor, says she can't remember the last time she bought a book at the store. She says she prefers Amazon's prices.”
What does it mean to long for what we still have beside us? We can reach out and touch a print book; we can buy and sell and archive it; we can read it and read it and read it; we can give it to someone we love. When a lover or a parent or a child leaves us for a time, or for good, we might say I miss them. We remember them as they were: as they dressed, as they talked, as they thought.
Confronted with my own static print library, with these people who miss what they can own and who post about it online, with my friends and I so eager to move onto another form of reading, I think of Daisy, face buried in Gatsby’s shirts: “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.” Gatsby’s beside her, still present, feeding her shirt after shirt from his shelves, while she muffles her face inside. And—as we all do with the left-behind shirts or pillows or other found objects of those we’re losing, or those we’ve already lost—she breathes in Gatsby’s smell.