Imagine a New Year’s Day wedding; a devoted couple, a classic string quartet, and simple but elegant decorations of …book shelves?
A fixture in downtown Ashland, Bloomsbury Books is a part of many peoples’ lives. Frequently a venue for author readings, events and book-club meetings, the store recently added a wedding to their repertoire.
Reading lovers are partly shaped by not only the books they have read, but also the stores where they browse and buy.
I remember visiting Bloomsbury, chatting with Orlando, the beloved book store cat, relishing the rustle of pages as I perused a new read. I can still recall the earthy scent of the dusty air as I entered Cal’s, feeling like I was walking into a cave filled with not stalactites, but books.
Taking wedding vows in Bloomsbury is a sweet example of the devotion readers have to their books, demonstrating that bookstores are more than places of literary commerce. The fate of books, and subsequently bookstores, in the digital information age is uncertain. Despite the unknown future status of local bookstores, I believe they will continue to evolve, staying alive well into the future.
Robert Darnton’s book, The Case for Books, is a cohesive, well-articulated collection of essays arguing that books are far from becoming extinct; the traditional codex will out live the e-book; libraries will survive past Google and that many inherent joys of reading cannot be digitized.
Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, covers a range of book-related topics, from the legislative struggles between Google and the authors or book right holders to the history of the modern book and the future of reading. With a background in journalism and his current position at Harvard’s library, the former Princeton University professor is well poised to navigate our current, complex information landscape.
Google Books is a topic in which Darnton is well-versed, and through reading his book, my understanding of the 2009 settlement between Google and various authors and book rights holders has deepened and broadened. Darnton makes a good case for traditional books and bookstores by writing that Google is not a bibliographer.
Bookstores are not bibliographers either, but the book lovers who work in them organize books differently than the internet. Google and Amazon organize their results based on a specialized algorithm, not on the qualities of the publications. Data is gathered on how often people visit or use connected sites and digital texts. When book browsing online, search results are prioritized by how often sites or texts are frequented, rather than their pertinence or quality.
Finding the first publication date for a book (or the original name under which an author was published), tracking down books with only a key phrase or piece of an author’s name, these are the adventures of working in a bookstore. I enjoy the treasure hunt, and never organize my results based on a mathematical equation designed to recycle the most popular information. This is one of the many reasons people continue to shop at bookstores–the human element.
Darnton paints the future landscape as a combination of new and old information technology, maintaining a strong case for books, without trying to remove the ebook from the picture. He stresses the qualities that make a book appealing: the heft, the texture of the paper, the scents that speak of time and place of origin.
An experience for all of the senses, Martyn Lyon’s new work, Books: A Living History, is the epitome of what Darnton describes. Decorated with a row of worn book spines, the dust jacket is buttery-soft, and the weight balances easily in the hand. The glossy pages have a sharp, tangy scent, vaguely like varnish. As a photographic and textual history of the modern book, each fascinating page is a tribute to the evolution of text and reading.
The digital information age seems to have exploded over night, and the ebook is the first major formatting change since the development of the codex in the third century B.C.E. Both Lyons and Darnton note the tumultuous life of text as proof of the book-shaped place carved into the heart of society.
True, people read differently today, gleaning stories, facts and entertainment from a variety of magazines, web-sites, and books, and most listen to music, or check Twitter updates as their eyes scan paragraphs. But this is not the first time in history that reading has changed. The industrialization of the book industry changed the way people read. The West has attained almost universal literacy, since reading materials are plentiful and can be cheaply acquired.
But books have been knocked from the highest shelf. Where a reverence for their rarity and cost once made them precious, books are now splattered with an attempt at a new spaghetti sauce recipe. They lay in the sand with sunbathing readers and fold into coat pockets. Books aren’t held in awe, but are a part of daily life, on par with our electronic devices. According to Lyons, books have existed for two and a half millenia, through the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. They don’t need to recharge or reboot, and neither do bookstores.
Bookstores are not just places to purchase books. They are a social hub, filled with the meeting of friends, the of rustling pages, the buzz of conversation, an electric charge of exchanging ideas. I have a difficult time picturing friends Skyping while simultaneously book browsing, though friends who live far apart might do this. However, when friends are together, a bookstore is the perfect place to meet. Ebooks and Google have their roles to play (a topic for a different blog entry), but bookstores have many offerings that can’t be provided digitally.
For readers interested in the life and future of books, Darnton and Lyons are two authors I would recommend. The future of books and bookstores seems uncertain, but I don’t believe their roles will be usurped by digital text. Even if an e-reader has a sticker that smells like a book (antique or new), and the plastic is textured to mimic paper, even if rows of book-lined shelves are projected into the mind, readers will detect the difference. Some experiences can’t be created digitally.