The bankrupt Borders bookstore chain, the company that launched the big-box bookstore business, has announced plans to close all 399 of its remaining stores.
It seems slightly disloyal for booklovers to lament the disappearance of a chain bookseller, especially one that undercut the independent booksellers who were so supportive of writing that was truly wonderful rather than simply popular. Southwest Colorado hosts not a single Borders, so the decision has no effect on the local economy. But the fact that Borders can no longer survive has broader implications, both economic and sociological, The loss of 399 bookstores seems like a step in a direction thinking Americans may not want to go.
Businesses fail for many reasons, including poor management decisions, economic trends beyond anyones control, and consumers fickle tastes. If all of Borders customers had fled to Barnes & Noble, or even begun buying all their books through the mail, that would be an marketing issue only for Borders. If all of the market change could be attributed to demand for e-books, Borders could be blamed for failing to develop an e-reader quickly enough to compete with Amazons Kindle and B&Ns Nook.
Those factors definitely hurt Borders, but theres another that will spread the pain around: Borders customers, like nearly every other booksellers, just arent reading as much as they used to. As Baby Boomers advance out of the market, pushed by failing eyesight and limited funds, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are developing little loyalty to books.
Young people read, but many of them read far less than their parents do. They read in school, but educators are developing new methods that depend less on books. At home, they can choose cable television, Netflix, computer games, Facebook, cell phones and other forms of entertainment that demand less effort than reading a book.
The loss of readers corresponds to a loss of writers who still have a great deal to say but who cant make a living at it. In the same way, the gradual demise of newspapers and newsmagazines creates a shortage of newsgatherers. Hardly anyone sends handwritten letters any more, or even computer-printed letters through the mail. Too soon, fewer people may read because they may have little material to read.
How, then, will this generations grandchildren learn to think about the big ideas of the world? Will well-crafted narrative simply disappear from the culture? Twitter and text messaging hardly impose the same discipline.
Formal writing wont disappear instantly. Some local booksellers are doing just fine, Amazon seems to respond fairly nimbly to the rapid-fire changes of recent years, and e-readers are immensely popular. Libraries, of course, will continue to lend books in whatever form they take, although financial support for public libraries has waned significantly in recent years.
Still, theres no denying that demand for the well-written word is shrinking. The disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores changes the experience of browsing and buying, and the online facsimile of that experience is simply different. With fewer opportunities to heft and sniff and peruse, fewer readers will think of books as tangible possessions, objects of weight and worth. Owners of e-readers may realize they hold a wide and wondrous world in their hands, but they are likely to underestimate the thought and effort that went into arranging the words that describe that world.
If books go the way of bookstores, and then readership goes the way of books, and if society does not provide a substitute that honors the value of human thought, something very precious will be lost. Something, in fact, already has been, but even more is at risk.