Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Future of Books

All three Borders bookstores in New York City went out of business recently. For me the Borders store on Broadway and Wall Street was not just a shop to buy books, it was one of my favourite hang out places as well. Whenever I felt low or bored and had a few hours to spare, I just went to the city and submerged myself among the rows and rows of colourful books until I lost track of time. I would always look forward to the next Borders visit. The other two stores were much smaller, but I visited them too from time to time. I won’t be able to do that anymore.

From a very early age, books have been my best companions. My grandfather owned nothing short of a library. I grew up with ceiling-high bookshelves in our rooms. The books my grandfather owned were very old, but then my father started buying new and shiny hard bound books for me right from my first birthday. So I have been the owner of books like The Inventions That Changed the World and The Family Encyclopaedia of the Animal Kingdom even before I could read. The animal kingdom book was my all-time favourite and my father showed me the pictures and told me all about them when I was very small. As I grew up, books poured in as gifts from my parents, my grandfather and my maternal uncle. All that I am today – researcher, photographer, blogger – I am because of those books. How can I even begin to explain what effect books like The World’s Best Photographs (seen in the photo), Encyclopaedia of the World, Physics Can be Fun, the Tell Me Why series and The Giant All Color Dictionary had on me? Yes, call me crazy if you will, but I actually spent hours reading that dictionary (and The Charlie Brown Dictionary too) like a novel, just because it had such nice pictures.

Add to that the numerous books on birds, animals, history, geography, science and arts whose names I don’t even remember, tons of Bengali and English poetry and prose, and magazines like Anandamela, Shuktara, Readers’ Digest and National Geographic, and you will get an idea of how I grew up. No computers, no iPhones, no video games, no Internet, hardly any TV or movies – just books all around me. Was it good? It was more enjoyable than the Internet could ever aspire to be.

The closing down of Borders seems surprising to me because I have seen smaller bookstores with far less business go on for decades in Kolkata. Maybe it has something to do with the business model here that makes large companies turn turtle in an instant. Maybe it is because of online bookstores that sell the books cheaper that it is no longer profitable to run physical bookstores. I, as a matter of principle, never browsed a book at Borders and later bought it online at Amazon – it seemed unethical to me. Surely everyone wouldn’t think that way. But coming to think of it, there is nothing surprising about bookstores going out of business. I could have predicted it long ago.

My father’s company gave him a desktop computer at home in 1996. It was one of the earliest multimedia machines and there was a free CD with it. It was Microsoft Encarta 1994 – one of the first multimedia encyclopedias. It was like magic – while reading about any country you could listen to its national anthem, you could listen to Pt. Ravi Shankar play the sitar, you could hear the voice of Gandhi, Einstein and Neil Armstrong, you could hear the calls of animals and birds and spoken language samples, and you could see photos of any place you wanted – from the Nile flowing by a Sudanese village to a sunset in San Francisco. Want to know how a volcano is formed? Want to know how a lizard catches its prey? No problem! Encarta had animations and videos to explain everything. You could browse the content in a variety of ways, and click on links in one article to move to another.

And that was just one CD. Compare that to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you will see why bookstores are going out of business.
Books are a bulky, inconvenient and environmentally hazardous way of gaining knowledge or entertainment. Why, the Sony Reader that I bought for my sister can fit in a coat pocket, and yet can hold hundreds of books. You can move between books, save multiple bookmarks, look up meanings of words and annotate. Moreover, e-books are either free or much cheaper than their real-world counterparts which must be made by cutting down trees. No wonder paper books are becoming less popular with each passing day. When National Geographic Magazine gives me one year of subscription for $15, I know it means that the 125 year old magazine may not exist much longer in its familiar form.

Of course, the advent of e-book readers is not the only reason for books dying away. Our attention spans have been so severely shortened by the Internet and satellite TV that spending a few hours with the same reading material seems a waste of time. Why, I would be able to browse through a dozen blogs and hundreds of tweets in that time! Our brains no longer want to process a lot of information in the form of written words – everything must come with some audio/visual stimulus or we feel cheated. Everything that books gave us – knowledge, entertainment, pleasure – the Internet and TV give us better.

Everything, except for the limitless imagination that comes with slowly taking in the description of a place or an event word by word, line by line. That, and the smell of fresh printing ink or accumulated dust as you turn each page. Clicking on a “Next” button, even if on a touch screen, is just a poor substitute.

That is why the closing of Borders makes me sad. In spite of all the logic in favour of e-book readers, I love holding the real books in my hand, savouring every word, every picture as I turn each page. That is why, going against all logic, I ordered another year of National Geographic Magazine today. Borders was one place where I could browse through real books. Now I will have to look for other stores, like Barnes & Noble.

Until that closes down too. Eventually it will. I am sure of it.


  1. "..everything must come with some audio/visual stimulus or we feel cheated."

    Exactly. I would rather look at something 3D than holding a boring book.

    'Barnes & Nobel' gave me shelter during countless lonely weekends. I might actually cry when it dies. A very touching post Sugata.

  2. My sister is a PhD student at Ann Arbor and she was also very upset about Borders closing down. In fact I am upset as well, have spent a couple of afternoons with my sister there roaming the alleys and drinking coffee. I love book stores, love the smell, it's a pity that people don't understand their value.

  3. I think the process of evolution can not be predicted. The unpredictabilty makes living so challenging. You must be aware that so many languages are dying everyday. With that culture, civilisation , history everything dies. May be the store of BORDER will become a tourist spot, "here once...". We were very sad when Sanskrit went out of syllabus . Now the life cycle of languages are being predicted. I heard the other day that our own sweetest language also die. That may bring tears to our eays. But nothing can be done.