The weight of words: Why I hope bookstores stick around

The value of taking up space. (Flickr photo by MorBCN)

The value of taking up space. (Flickr photo by MorBCN)

I was taking video of my baby’s small, assisted zig-zag steps between the shelves at Ravenna’s Third Place Books when I looked at him and said something surprising.

“I hope bookstores still exist when you’re old enough to read.”

Immediately I checked myself. Did I mean that? Yeah. Apparently I did.

This was interesting. For years I’ve subscribed to the practical notion that ebooks are probably the future and print books — and the bookstores that sell them — are probably the past. When it comes to the fate of either, I observe. I don’t “hope.”

But I’d been missing something. Something books and bookstores have that digital itself can’t replace. Something I’ve sensed and respected more in the last few months than I have in years.

In a word, weight.

That day at Third Place Books, and a couple weeks ago at Harvard’s Coop Bookstore in Cambridge, I caught myself wanting to pick up A Dance With Dragons, the latest in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’d read the book a year earlier on my Kindle, but hadn’t felt its heft. I passed it from one hand to the other, noticing the distance between my tensed thumb and fingers, feeling the smoothness of its cover, sensing its mass. I remembered the story and relished that awe that something so complex and wonderful could even exist, let alone be created by one person.

British sci-fi author Terry Pratchett wrote a book called “Going Postal” that was turned into a BBC miniseries I saw this spring. A dysfunctional post office sits littered with mountains of undelivered letters. Pratchett believes words have power, and all those words piled up in his fictional building have a power so strong they become a force in the book, propelling their own liberation.

I don’t know why I’ve hesitated to acknowledge the reverence I feel when I open the door to a bookstore and step in. All those words. A few steps in and you’re surrounded.

ibooks_hero

Walking into Elliott Bay Book Company this week I stopped in front of a shelf that looked significant. In honor of its 40th anniversary this Saturday, the independent bookstore had asked staffers past and present to recommend their favorite books in four decades. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time and Anne McCafrrey’s Dragonsong and other titles beamed at me under a poster displaying staffers’ love letter to those works. Each book faced forward, a couple inches apart. It wasn’t a shelf. It was a monument.

The more I think about it, the more true it seems: Bookstores are not just exhibitors of merchandise. They are temples to human thought.

Before you think I’m leaving the ranks of the practical, let me be clear: I’m not about to toss my Kindle, buy books by the box or join the romantics who think we should save bookstores out of guilt or nostalgia. I don’t root for the defeat of ebooks or the victory of traditional publishing. Our society moves fast and prizes access. Digital books make sense.

But books speak with more than words. They speak with pictures and size and even smell. With sound, too — the whip flip of a page turn. You hold a book open and need a surface to handle a hardcover’s weight. A book has resistance. It makes demands. You have to carry it, put it away, give it a physical space in your physical life. What if that isn’t, as I’ve come to look at it, purely an inconvenience? What if it’s a sign of mutual respect?

After I finished the amazing “The City and the City” on my Kindle, I couldn’t remember the author’s last name. It didn’t stare at me every time I went to read the story. At Elliott Bay I saw the book, “China Miéville” printed big and bold on the front, and felt like I was in the presence of something new.

I never would have predicted this, back when I started reading so much on my Kindle, but I like going to bookstores now not just to discover books I haven’t read, but to make contact with the books I have read and to share a space with great stories.

The bookstore in my pocket is easy enough to use. But it’s not this easy to feel.

So yeah. I do hope bookstores stick around. But not out of a preference for bookstores or for printed books. I just think we need a place where, in our rush to condense and contain, our biggest ideas can be bigger than us.

Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Yes! We can have both. It doesn’t have to be either-or.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Part of what makes it feel like an either-or, I think, is economics. If you buy an ereader, for a good amount more than you’d buy a typical book, you’re supposed to be buying into the idea that your books will now come on that device, that you’ve made a choice about the medium you’ll use to consume those stories. It’s felt that way for me for some time. If I buy a print book, I’m selling myself short, I’m paying more than I have to as a Kindle user (which is often true).

      • Benjamin Lukoff

        So it would be different for you if e-books were more expensive or print books were cheaper (basically, if there weren’t much of a price differential)?

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          It’s less about the price than the product. An ebook requires two purchased products: the platform (your device) and the individual book. So once you purchase the relatively expensive platform, there’s a sense that you should then buy only books on that platform, since, well, that’s what you bought it for. Buying a printed book denies your e-reader its utility. So it feels like you’ve made a choice to go with digital books.

          • Benjamin Lukoff

            Hmm! In that case I wonder if it would make a difference if e-readers were a lot cheaper, or if tablets or smartphones could match the e-reader experience (since many people would have a tablet or smartphone anyway)…

            Thanks for this piece and the discussion!

      • http://sciencevsromance.net joshc

        I didn’t expect this, but I find the user experience of reading on a kindle superior to printed books.

        The price differentials are often surprising, though: for instance, in the case of A Dance With Dragons, the Kindle version is actually $3.99 more than the mass market paperback.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    Completely agree. Paper books will continue. They won’t have as much “mass” (as a mass medium) for certain uses as they did before the advent of the eBook, the app and the how-to website, as I wrote about here on GeekWire last year. But you’ve stated part of their appeal quite eloquently. It’s not all about just efficiently delivering “content.” It’s about quality of experience, too. And in some cases, that experience requires a paper book.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Thanks, Frank. Even if I don’t have the print book experience on a book by book basis, I want to be able to walk into a space and have those ideas — the mass of those collected words — surround me. It’s a powerful feeling, a humbling one. I hope we don’t lose it.

      • Benjamin Lukoff

        There is also the fact that once you own physical media, you own it (unless, of course, you have a fire or something similar). You aren’t depending on anyone or anything else. With digital media — especially digital media with DRM, like Kindle — you’re probably going to be fine, but you’re really relying on others to make sure your content is going to be there when you want it. It’s the difference between buying a piece of personal property and buying a license. The latter seems so ephemeral (even if, in reality, it’s not much more so than the former).

        I still think of the book my father got as a prize for perfect attendance at Hebrew school 80 years ago. I have it today. Would my son, in 80 years, feel anything when he takes a look at one of the few ebooks I own? Maybe! Maybe not.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          Ah, yes. An ebook loaded on a screen doesn’t have the stamp of ownership and legacy that a print book does that’s been yellowing on a shelf for years. For the sake of portability and convenience, a presence is stripped away.

  • Ricardo Kucera Sulzbach

    I hope too! Books are much more “funny” than ebooks

  • Celest

    Love your article! Especially your comment “Bookstores are not just exhibitors of merchandise. They are temples to human thought.” I hope we always have bookstores.

  • http://www.peterkretzman.com Peter Kretzman

    I liked this piece. My perspective as an owner of ~3,000 physical books: I am sad to see their demise, but I have to accede to a world where practicality (i.e., portability) matters. Having moved numerous times in the last 10 years, I now see that the book collection is, well, KILLING ME. :) I now try to buy ebooks only, so I don’t keep adding to the mass of physical books that are paper-weighting me to the planet. We’ve lost a meaningful part of the experience through that replacement, yes, and I’ll miss it. Books will never fully go away (like vinyl — the analogies are plentiful, actually), but they’re bound to get rarer, and probably more expensive as a result.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Thanks, Peter. I hadn’t thought about them getting more expensive. That’s an interesting point. Maybe in some not too distant future the idea of printing a book with an interesting, well designed cover and crisp pages will seem excessive enough to not be done very often, or be done only with certain books…

  • http://sciencevsromance.net joshc

    Can you comment on why libraries do or don’t fill this need for you?

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Hm. Good question. I wouldn’t say they DON’T fill this need. But I don’t think they fill it as well. Maybe it’s about ownership. In bookstores books themselves can be yours to keep and write on and treasure. Also, books in bookstores are fresh and new. The lighting is bright and focused. Curation is usually more precise. Books as treasured objects seem to me to be placed on a higher pedestal there than at most libraries. But then again, the access of books in libraries has its own beauty.

      • http://sciencevsromance.net joshc

        I guess that “temples to human thought” doesn’t feel like something that we should outsource to retail establishments.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          But doesn’t it feel like something we could take home and make our own? Don’t mistake my write-up on bookstores for a dismissal of libraries. They’re essential in deeper ways.

          • http://sciencevsromance.net joshc

            I also have a fondness for bookstores, but the way that they’re treated as a special class of retail with a mission of public service (or a duty to allow people to bask in knowledge without spending) always strikes me as cognitively dissonant.

            Then again, maybe there are people that feel that way about greenhouses, grocery stores, or fashion boutiques.

          • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

            Where you see passionate support for bookstores drop off is when you talk about the big chains. Not too long ago, they were the business-killing bad guys. But it’s not just the hometown indie vibe that drives a lot of the love; the most successful community bookstores are community spaces as much or more than they are retailers. At least, it feels that way. I don’t think it’s an accident that shops like Elliott Bay and Third Place are so loved by local readers. They host events and readings, book clubs, storytime, and – a key thing, I think – offer coffee shop spaces so people can stay a while. Their business does not just includes public service, it relies on it.

  • JRT

    I’m confused as to why there is no discussion of using the Kobo. Yes, it is still an e-reader, but you can then buy ebooks from the bookstore that you hope to keep in existence. I think in terms of hoping that bookstores survive it’s about putting your money where your mouth is. Amazon is the Walmart of books, there are other options, I implore people to do the research.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I know about the Kobo. It’s not mentioned here because it’s not the focus of this column. (I mentioned it in an earlier column in The Seattle Times that was narratively a kind of prequel to this one: http://blogs.seattletimes.com/monica-guzman/2013/05/04/smart-shopping-or-petty-theft-caught-in-the-act-of-showrooming/.) It’s a really cool idea – buy digital books and support your favorite local bookstore in the process. I wish someone had thought of it earlier. Kindle came first, and once you buy it, you feel economically committed to it as a platform.

  • margaretbartley

    I like to stop in at the Seattle Metaphysical Library, in Ballard, which is filled with older books. One of my concerns is that the books that are published for digital readers will not be available 50 or 100 years from now.

    Most of the new books are fiction, and not worth keeping, but some have something important to say. Certainly we don’t want a world where none or very few books have a lifetime longer than the technology for which they were created.

    An anthropology student gave the research paper he wrote about the creation myths of the Pacific Northwest Indians, based on his interviews with a lineage carrier very knowledgeable about the subject – it wasn’t that long ago that white people first came here.

    That paper was given to me on a diskette formatted for the Apple Lisa. I interviewed the same man, and made my notes on a Wang word processor, and the data is stored on 5 1/4 inch floppies.

    Both of those formats are very difficult and expensive to get to these days, although times awastin’ – I have to do it soon, or loose it forever.

    I wonder how many of the books published today on digital will still be accessible fifty years from now?