AS FAR BACK as I can remember, I have had a deep love affair with books. Years before I became a writer, I was a devoted reader, devouring any text that I could get my hands on. As a lonely child, my books were my babysitter, brother and best friend. Books allowed me to see a world bigger than my neighborhood, city or even my imagination.
Books still play a huge role in my life. Today, I read four per week and purchase 50 a month. I still rely on a good book to pick up my spirits, cure my boredom or satisfy my curiosity.
Sadly, it seems that the next generation won’t have the same relationship with books. Not because they’re less worthy of a lifelong connection to books, but because books matter less and less in our society.
The best piece of evidence for this claim is the rapid closing of bookstores around the region. In the last year, Borders, one of the nation’s biggest book vendors, as well as countless independent bookstores have gone out of business and stripped the city of a huge cultural resource.
In the era of online book vendors and electronic book readers, brick-and-mortar booksellers around the country are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
But there’s more at stake than the books themselves. Unlike other antiquated institutions, like Fotomat or Blockbuster Video, bookstores have never been just about the products they peddled. They always have served a greater social, cultural and political purpose.
For years, places like Robin’s Bookstore, in Center City, Hakim’s Bookstore, in West Philly, and the Borders in Chestnut Hill were places where people met, studied, organized, debated and shared ideas. They were where we transferred the love of reading to our children. They allowed people from all walks of life to view the beautiful diversity of the city. Although books were the main attraction, bookstores were special because of everything else they had to offer.
Of course, the extracurricular dimensions of bookstores are precisely why they’re dying. Stores wallow in the red because people do everything inside of them – from surfing the web to sipping lattes to stealing summer air conditioning – except buy books.
I must confess that I am part of the problem.
Although I still spend countless hours hanging out at bookstores, the bulk of my purchases take place online. I must begrudgingly concede that the traditional bookstore model has become economically unsustainable. Its death, while tragic, is unavoidable.
For many, the death of bookstores signifies a dangerous decline in our nation’s commitment to literacy. These cultural pessimists proclaim that the literate American mind is becoming increasingly rare and a signpost of failure to compete in the global economy.
While compelling, these claims are nothing more than hyperbole. Stories about the death of literacy are greatly exaggerated. Research shows that Americans are reading more now than ever before. The problem isn’t the death of reading, it’s the death of books. And book culture.
Of course, this type of shift occurs at every turn of human civilization. Nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates bemoaned the birth of writing as a sign of social decline. Because of a new piece of technology known as the “book,” he argued that society would lose the art of skillful speaking, quality social interaction and strong memorization. Despite Socrates’ concerns, the whole book thing turned out to be a pretty big success for Western civilization.
And I don’t doubt that the new post-book world will also turn out just fine.