Borders RIP: One more stage in the evolution of the brave new illiterate society.
Grieving the loss of Borders Books & Music, likely to die an ugly death on Monday, is akin to mourning the destruction of the Soviet Union by space aliens, circa 1970. Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not, in fact your friend, but a bigger, scarier enemy.
Why would I call Borders, the nice chain bookstore, an enemy? Because back in the 1980s, along with its friendly rival Barnes & Noble, it did everything in its power — forcing secret discounts from publishers, for example — to drive independent bookstores out of business.
The crimes of the bookstore chains were eventually documented in suits brought by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA prevailed, and the chain stores were slapped with fines. But the damage had already been done. Thousands of independent stores were by then gone, never to return.
So a part of me — a big part, truth be known — itches to dance on Borders’ grave. This is a company that deserves to die — but readers do not deserve to be robbed of the remaining bookstores in their communities. But die Borders will unless someone comes forward with a new bid to buy the chain and keep it open.
And really, what entrepreneur, with the smarts and the resources (somewhere north of $200 million), is going do that? It would take a bout of temporary insanity. At least at the track you get to look at the pretty horses as your cash dwindles away.
In the absence of a “white knight” bidder, the company will go to a liquidator, who will dismember it limb from limb and sell off the parts. For the numbers and all that stuff I don’t have the heart to go into today, here’s a business story, and here’s another business story.
Borders, of course, is going under because it has failed to keep up with the digital revolution. It’s been swamped by Amazon, the online book retailer (which, ha-ha, practices a lot of the same ruthless strategies the chain stores did in their glory days, and with the same lack of cultural responsibility).
And unlike Barnes & Noble, which developed the Nook e-reader to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, Borders made no attempt to keep up.
“Here’s the lesson: There has been a transformation in the book business,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York. “Digital reading and online sales are dominating the business. People don’t want to read (traditional) books. End of story.”
That’s one of the most depressing observations I’ve read in my entire life — but the truth is much worse. What we are really witnessing here is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, development. Electronic books are going to replace printed books only for a brief transition.
Transition to what? The end of all bookstores — Barnes & Noble first, then, one by one, the remaining independents — followed by the libraries. Literary culture will wither, becoming the realm of a few hobbyists, like people who make and play zithers. Most people will become functionally illiterate.
Davidowitz’s summation is fairly quickly going to turn from “people don’t want to read traditional books” to “people don’t want to read.” As I said here a few months ago, how long do you think people will continuing reading even, say, airport books on their Kindles if they can watch “Glee” on their iPhones, or iPads or whatever iAbomination comes next?
And the amazing fact is, they won’t miss books or literature at all. Our grandchildren will be perfectly capable of functioning and prospering in the digital world. Doubt me? Then take a look at this NPR story, about the sudden dominant indispensability of the smartphone. The really scary stuff isn’t in the NPR piece, it’s lower, in the excerpt from Brian Chen’s book, Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In.
Here’s the calculus of the future, folks: 1) All you need to make your way in the brave new world is a smartphone, which replaces books, newspapers, magazines, television and movie theaters. 2) Handheld devices grow smaller and smaller until they can be implanted in the human body, making us functionally telepathic.
3) Always connected to each other from the inside out via the Internet, we will experience a rapid, profound erosion of individuality as the hive mind, ceasing to be a metaphor, imposes itself. 4) Voila! The human species will cease to exist, having become instead something that might be called (pardon my pidgen Latin) Homo sapiens cyborgus.
I tried to avoid writing about this. While I’m absolutely certain my prophecy is accurate and correct, who wants to be Cassandra, accosting people in the streets with warnings of imminent destruction? I bet that lady didn’t get invited to many parties in the 10 years it looked like Troy was secure from the Greeks.
I like parties.
Besides, the knowledge that someday I will die does not prevent me from enjoying my breakfast, or the sight of roller bladers on Fort Lauderdale Beach, with the placid blue of the summer Gulf Stream rising behind them to the horizon. Neither am I’m going to ruin my digestion with laments about the coming illiteracy.
Now where was that book I was reading? Ah! Here it is. Or as the last Neanderthal said as the Cro magnon came over the hill, “They ain’t here yet. Pass me that mammoth bone.”