We read Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I am not going to buy a computer” in one of the high-school essay-writing classes I teach. We talked about one of the Berry essay’s many points: what is gained, and what is lost, when technological change alters how we live and work. I asked my students to think about the gains and losses of transitioning from print books to electronic books. Some students praised e-books and the recommendation algorithms that brought individual titles to their awareness, but no one in that class could seem to come up with any real benefits that physical bookstores provide.
This is a small sample of students living in a small town 20-plus miles from the nearest new bookstore, so it’s possible some of them had never been to one. But what I tried to explain to them was the beauty of the accidental find, of wanting a book but not knowing which one, of the physical browse. This is a feature of bookstores discussed in this blog post at the New Yorker:
Yet bookstores provide something irreplaceable that we shouldn’t easily relinquish. Their knowing charms and surprises (even, admittedly, their parochialism and occasional cluelessness) spring from the people who run them and who decide what they will carry. Bookstores are, in essence, personal libraries. In this way, they are macrocosms of the books they contain—there is life inside them.
The post-writer also talks about choosing which books to stocking the shelves of a used-book store, which reminded me of the used-book stores I went to as a college student at Urbana-Champaign in the mid-’90s. Like my students, I didn’t go to bookstores much before I could drive myself. We had lots of books growing up, but they were borrowed from the library or purchased second-hand. In high school and during summers after, I drove to nearby college-town Dekalb and bought, among others, a history of philosophy book at the Junction Book Room and the “Slacker” movie script at Northern Lights Bookstore. As this article foretells, Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores came in early 2000s. Northern Lights is gone, Junction Book Room, and now Borders are all gone.
It’s all too easy to be sad about these losses, ignoring the realities of profit margins and Internet accessibility and readers’ habits. (It’s also easy to be sad about the three, perhaps four, new- and used-record stores that have disappeared from Dekalb in the last 20 years.) It feels wrong to be only 38 and to be missing this lost world. Maybe this is what my ancestors felt when they lived through the advent and wide-availability of autos and then air-travel replacing the travel means they had known. In one of my grumpier old-man moments, I told a graduating student a couple years ago that at some point, she, too, would get tired of having to learn new things. (I was talking about how I have been holding off on learning how to text — I do so now, reluctantly and infrequently, partly because of the confusion of asynchronous communication: just yesterday I had a text-exchange with someone that confused both of us; had we heard each others’ voices, we could’ve figured out our confusion. )
But I don’t want to merely bemoan the loss. Obviously, I use and benefit from technology (though I try not to patronize Amazon, perhaps out of a sense of cussedness that I may have inherited from paternal grandparents who stopped going to a church that adopted Daylight-Savings time), and I don’t want to go back to pre-Internet days. My life in rural Illinois is culturally/intellectually/literarily enriched by having Internet access. And of course, none of us know how things will shake out — maybe bookstores will come back in one form or another. There is a great small bookstore not too far from me that serves snacks and also has live music on Saturday nights. I really like the idea of the print-on-demand books (though I haven’t tried it yet).
And quite frankly, I don’t have the time or money to spend at bookstores that I once did, and also, lately I’m just more interested in doing my own writing than I am in reading others’. Not exclusively, of course, but that’s where I find myself. I feel almost apologetic about this, especially when talking to other readers, but this feels like a natural change. I feel that I need to be learning from my own thinking and writing — not that others haven’t written helpful things, but my process isn’t about research so much as about asking and trying to answer.
Part of what I needed to learn in my growth as a writer is that I no longer had to see myself as inferior to the Great Writers, but that I could be a peer (of sorts) to them. And part of my growth also has been recognizing that I don’t necessarily have to publish my work in books (there are other possible forms) and I don’t necessarily have to spend my energy in marketing my writing (I’d rather spend time writing than marketing my writing — and I’d rather write for free than for a pittance).
So I don’t see myself and my writing as connected to bookstores. But I have been shaped by bookstores, and may one day again find myself more closely attached to them. I still want there to be bookstores.
(P.S. Thanks to The Dish for posting link to the New Yorker story.)