I have a friend - someone who is becoming a good friend, in spite of both of our hesitancy - that is an avid and voracious reader. No, not in the combination of pictures and words that I’m usually crooning over, but the other kind. With only words and chapters and stuff. She asked me to check out a book she’s working through, and since it’s planned to be on the small screen very soon, I thought it prudent of me to stay ahead of the curve.
I live next to one of the 658 Barnes & Noble stores left in the country; usually, I’m more inclined to shop at smaller bookstores, but since this was late and the staff was so helpful, I decided to purchase two books from them. Through friendly conversation that reached all the way to closing time though, something troubled me more and more: where were all the customers?
There is one idea that is rapidly approaching truth, if not already there: that either big or small, famous or infamous, bookstores are dying. Not just the physical plant, although there is something to say about how uncomfortable it is to be in a bookstore now, but the concept and the culture of the bookstore. We’re losing a hub of popular culture at an alarming rate, all the while happening under everyone’s radar.
There was a point in my life - let’s say from “learning how to read” to “didn’t find a date to senior prom” - that if my parents needed to find me, all they had to do was take a trip a few blocks to the comic book shop or search in the stacks at Borders or BN. I’ll admit that these are two explicitly different atmospheres, but the idea was the same: I’m here to discover, absorb, and interpret the written word, all the while hoping to find kindred spirits willing to talk with me about the exercise of it.
On one end of the spectrum, the local comic shop was nicer to me than any small business had any business of being. I would come in routinely, sweating from the hot walk over, my age still in single-digits and no chaperone in sight. I came up with my own barter system, justifying my presence as needed in the shop: I would straighten up shelves, place wayward comics in numbered and/or alphabetical order, and generally be the most adorable indentured servant that no one knew about. In turn, a silent pact was made with the owner and myself, and I would be able to read anything I wanted. This was undoubtedly one of the most magical times in my life: no terrorizing siblings, no parental arguments, no shame of my hobby and craft, and I distinctly remember cherishing every moment of it. This was peppered with the thrilling off-chance that one of the Big Kids would engage me in conversation; this will most likely be another post for another day.
On the other end, the stacks of the local large-chain bookstore was a self-imposed solitary experience. In truth, I wasn’t able to speak to half of my classmates; why would I want to reach out to strangers in here? But it was that same yearning, that same incredible sense of connection and exile that inevitably defined my teenage years. Even in some of the most lonely years of my adolescence, I was knee-deep in something that would greatly benefit me for the rest of my life.
Reading a book is exactly like the human condition: we all experience it singularly, and (if we’re immensely lucky) share what we’ve felt and learned with others. The part that most people don’t realize though, is that these two pieces can never be compartmentalized, meaning that if you’re taking part in one side of the coin, the other side will eventually fall as well. There is no absorption without understanding, and vice-versa. Something, something Circle of Life and all that.
What do we have in place of this now? If I want to speak with others about my opinions about the incredible work that Image is putting out, or if the Attack on Titan manga series is more palatable than the anime, all I have to do is log into a specific forum or jump onto my Reddit app. And while technology has been an incredible asset in our connections with other around the world, it has distanced us from others on a very personal and local plane. If I post in r/asoiaf about how I think The Winds of Winter will have at least twenty new characters that may not affect the narration, it will undoubtedly bring out the best and worst of people’s attitudes. Because anonymity lends to people being both beacons of humanity and colostomy bags every time.
When we’re in front of each other, having real and personal conversations, it lends to a cultural and intellectual narrative where we learn to express ourselves in a way that improves the human condition. And yes, I understand that for a few bucks cheaper we can receive it from Amazon in the next two days, but we cheapen the experience of the adventure: the search, the interaction, the trial and error. Because of technology, because our world is growing smaller and smaller, we are actively limiting our experiences by making the “safer” choice. The industry of storytelling will never die, I can definitely promise you that; but the industry of connecting with others and the discovery of new worlds is in danger. In our current world of cliff-notes, audio snippets, and books-to-movies, a sense of exploration and connection is slowly being lost. Will there be a replacement for these experiences if the concept of the bookstore ceases to be?