Borders, Libraries and Books

So it turned out that my business, alone, was not enough to keep Borders solvent. I was a faithful customer of the Borders at 32nd and 2nd Avenue in NYC before our move, buying multiple books most months. I cut back on that somewhat after getting a Kindle, but there is still something very user friendly about a physical book that ebooks have not quite yet hit. And there is also something pleasant about the experience of browsing in stacks that I haven’t quite experienced with ebook buying yet either.

I was reminded of this when I applied for a library card today at the Gladwyne Free Library. It’s a relatively small library (especially after an unfortunate plumbing problem rendered the children’s room unusable). But there is still such an element of serendipity in perusing the books they happen to have in their collection. I even found a book I co-authored many years ago (The Healthy Guide to Unhealthy Living) that I believe has been remaindered. I wound up checking out a book I had heard of (The Beak of the Finch) but had not been sure enough I would like to go directly seek it out on Kindle (and since recommendations are based on past habits, it’s not clear it would have been recommended to me).

Libraries have the added benefit that they’re free to use. I’m still amazed at this. This is as good as it gets for entertainment! Over the years, I’ve taken as much advantage of this as possible. When I was applying to college, I checked out all of my local library’s books on what my essays and lists of activities should say. In college, I listened to many of the plays of Shakespeare while filing and copying for my work-study job, thanks to CDs borrowed from that municipal library. When I was an intern in Washington DC 10 years ago and living on $1200 a month, I read through most of the great novels of the 20th century courtesy my local library. But even bookstores where you have to pay for the literature (directly, and not just through taxes) are pretty cheap per hour. If it takes you 5 hours to read a $16 paperback, that’s just a bit over $3/hour — cheaper than a movie, a concert, an amusement park, etc.

Of course, what always makes me sad is the realization that I’m kind of in the minority on this one. According to statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts, only a little over half of us read a book, poem, or play for pleasure in the previous year. There are many reasons Borders didn’t make it, and I’d be the first to admit that the publishing industry has many problems. But you could spend a lifetime reading great works from the past and still never finish, even if every book published currently sucked (which I like to think they don’t). If the majority of people thought reading books was an awesome way to spend their leisure time, then libraries would be packed and Borders would be thriving. As it is, the American Time Use Survey found that while people over age 75 spent 1.1 hours per weekend day reading, people ages 15-19 spent only 6 minutes per weekend day reading.

It’s hard not to feel, sometimes, like I’m having a grand time making my living and sampling everyone else’s wonderful offerings on the deck of the Titanic, wondering what that ominous music is in the background…

3 thoughts on “Borders, Libraries and Books

  1. My kids and I are library addicts. Our library is a block and a half away. We average 50+ books at a time. The librarians always pique my interest by putting books on display near the checkout counter. As you mentioned, they are often books I wouldn’t choose myself.

    It is wonderful and comforting that the librarians know me and my children by name. We can request books on line and they are often on the counter when I arrive, as the librarians have seen my kids running up the ramp out front.

    We have special library baskets for their books and backpacks for them to put their returns in. As I am typing this, my older son asked ‘wheeen are we going to the library again?” He smiled as I told him that we were going this afternoon. (extra space also makes this possible)

    If I buy a book, it is almost a guarantee that I won’t read it, as it isn’t due at a particular time. People are surprised that I don’t own a digital book reader, since I read so much, but I just can’t do it. I don’t know how people spend money on books. I find it amazing too, that all of this is available to me, free of charge, not to mention movies, crafts etc.

    We always get our videos from the library and when my older son turned 4 he got a video for his birthday. He kept putting it in the library return bag and was shocked when I told him that he got to keep it. He had no concept! (on the other hand, we own lots of books too)

    1. @Denise – I have used my Kindle mostly for books that I want or need to read, but either need immediately, are somewhat obscure (so a bookstore or library would have to order it for me – can’t take the time) and don’t want to commit to shelf space long term. So when I was researching personal finance prior to writing this last book, I ordered a lot of the “classics” on my Kindle. I am never going to re-read Your Money or Your Life, but I could read it once, briskly. The one issue is that it’s hard to highlight quotes in a way that gets them all there for me. In physical books, I dog-ear pages and underline quotes that I may use in reviews or articles. Then I just flip through the book again when I’m writing. It’s the whole visibility thing (per the clutter post).

  2. As an adult, my library habit has been largely displaced by an independent book store habit, which averages about $6-7 a pop. Not bad (!), but this post reminds me of all the wonderful things the library permitted me to do growing up: mass exploration of a subject or theme (for me: gifted education, ghostwritten gymnasts’ autobiographies), SAT prep, and even genealogical research. Images from many of the hundreds of children’s books we borrowed are still etched in my memory. A terrific use of taxpayer dollars, if you ask me:-)

    I like Laura’s Titanic metaphor. For me, being an avid reader often feels like belonging to a exclusive club or society. You can’t understand what it’s like to explore possible worlds, the inner lives of others, etc., in this way until you’re actually on the “inside.” This club is only effectively exclusive, though–membership is open to all fortunate enough to have had access to a decent education and is free (if you use the library!). The majority just choose not to join.

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