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…