Back in the day when paper books ruled, New York City used to be known as the publishing capital of the country. Even though many publishers still call New York home, a depressing lack of interest pervades the city that never sleeps (sounds like it could use a good book). Although I’m no fan of Barnes and Noble, it is just about the last presence left of the brick-and-mortar-style bookstore. When news arrived this week that one of the large New York branches of B&N was closing, a sense of despair settled in. I love my indie bookshops. I literally went into mourning when Borders shut down, even now the sight of a vacant Borders can make me weep. A walk though any trendy mall will reveal no books to be found, and I go home perhaps fashionably dressed and smelling vaguely of perfume but sad nonetheless. Perhaps it is because the book is/was the culmination of one of the most important technologies of all time: writing.
Technology, as we think of it today, is largely electronic. Circuit-boards, nano-chips, embedded in sealed cases constructed in sterile rooms where the humans are more protectively suited than a surgeon. Isaac Newton once famously noted that if he’d seen further than others it was because he’d stood on the shoulders of giants. One of those unnamed giants invented writing. Dragging a stick through clay would probably be considered decidedly low tech these days, but the person who realized that a crude scribble of an ox-head with dots next to it might indicate how many cattle you were selling was a giant. We have no idea who the scribes were who wrote down the first narrative stories of gods and heroes, but the process resulted in a still largely anonymous Bible that is used to decide public policy even today.
There’s no doubt that books take up space that electronic gizmos don’t. Storage has been an issue for libraries constructed before publishing became a major, competitive industry. But electronic books have their problems too. With the ease of self-publishing, you never know who is really an expert without researching the author. Often on Amazon I find an intriguing title only to see that it has been produced by any number of self-publishing software platforms that indicate only the author’s own word for his or her expertise. I wonder what happens when people who don’t know to assess information in that way take anecdote for fact. Where are the shoulders of giants? Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but the world without bookstores looks a lot like the stone age to me.