Paper Treasures

I grew up in a small town. There was this little, locally owned store there, a craft store, as I recall, that my mother frequented, as she was a creative, arts and crafts type. I don’t really remember so much about that, because I remember the second half of the store, in which, in the back, was a section composed of bookshelves that took up two entire walls. Each shelf was crammed with books, floor to ceiling. They formed a corridor of books. These were old books, books or editions of books that you didn’t find in the new book chain stores. I found some treasures there.

A few months ago, I was walking around a local bookstore. In the back, in the pre-owned section, lost in a similar floor-to-ceiling book environment, I found an old copy of a Pulitzer-winning play by one of my favorite playwrights.

I suppose I’m sort of tackling a subject yet again that I’ve talked about here on more than one occasion, but this is back on my radar, so to speak, after this poignant article that I read Monday about the closing of¬†Border’s first bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You should take the time to read the article, because it says something that’s worth saying. I found myself appreciative of the public’s sense of loss, about how the passion for the knowledge of literature became lost as the company transitioned to a “big box chain store.” I particularly love the story about how someone could stand in a spot at the front of the store, and call out the sort of question that we would type into Google today, and someone within earshot would know the answer. I’m left thinking of the loss of knowledge and growth of illiteracy in our culture.

I’m also finding myself re-exploring this conundrum, though. I love that, as ebook selections grow, I can find more and more obscure titles that I can read wherever I happen to be when I have time to read, without having the physical book with me. I love that I can find most of my book club’s monthly reading choices and download them virtually instantly. I’m enamored with the idea of being a doctoral student and having a semester’s worth of textbooks in a slim little device weighing less than a pound.

Yet, all the while, I remember my undergraduate days. There were no Borders in my college town…there, it was their imprint, Waldenbooks. I knew the manager of the Waldenbooks well, because I spent a lot of time there. He nearly always found the books I needed for papers and my own reading. He loaned me books that I needed for papers but couldn’t afford on his own account. I even got a friend a job there on my recommendation. Being connected to that bookstore was part of an experience. Regardless of how much I love the convenience of digital reading, part of the experience is missing. Even though I use a Nook, and thus receive special incentives to go to my local Barnes & Noble, there’s still something missing from the complete experience. It’s more present than Amazon, but still not totally complete.

So, here I am again. I love the progress of technology, but somehow I see more to lose as we move books to our digital realm. I have a friend who insists that you should treat books like friends. I think what he’s saying there is that there’s a different sort of relationship that we have with books than we have with music, for example. The time commitment is different, the intellectual engagement is different. I’m not placing one over another, I’m just saying that it’s different.

I’m sort of in this place where I want to have my proverbial cake and eat it, too. I want to buy books by downloading them to my Nook, but I want to go to local bookstores and find treasures in back corners in which I’ve lost myself. If the transition that the music industry made is any indication, this will likely not be the case. Record stores, after all, have vanished. I just don’t think we’ve lost with that what we stand to lose if bookstores suffer the same fate.

I’d like to see this ideal solution: Frequently, special edition DVDs include a code that can be redeemed for a download of the same film via iTunes. What if publishers included a code with new, hardcover books, that would give me an ebook edition to accompany the physical purchase? As a writer, I plan to publish my first novel as an ebook, and I’m thrilled about the self-publishing opportunities that are available now. I don’t want to do that exclusively, though, because I really want there to be physical copies of my book to pass on to my daughter.

Sort of like how Karen and I spent time in a local bookstore this weekend…the same bookstore in which I found that old play…purchasing physical books for our soon-to-be-born daughter, carefully choosing the editions in anticipation of when she’s old enough to read.

Sort of like how, some months ago, I entertained the idea of one day buying a Nook Color for our daughter, so that could enjoy multi-media children’s books. Karen scoffed at that idea, thinking that there’s just too much to lose. ¬†Somehow, I think she was right.

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