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Borders RIP: One more stage in the evolution of the brave new illiterate society.

July 15, 2011

This is Butters, not Borders. He does not want us to be sad.

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.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2011 1:29 pm

    I’m sticking my head in the oven — and bringing my book wth me !!
    Alas! what you speak is: truth!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2011 4:54 pm

      Let me suggest sticking your head in the sand instead of the oven. I’ve come to think awareness is overrated, especially in those cases when there is nothing to be done about the calamity bearing down on the human species like the proverbial Dixie Limited.

      So I say, let’s vintage humans enjoy our analogue pleasures in these fading years before childhood finally ends, and the borgs rise to supplant us.

  2. Bob Lyons permalink
    July 15, 2011 3:20 pm

    I’m ready for my ‘eye’ phone now…

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 15, 2011 4:55 pm

    Aye, Capn!

  4. dave2 permalink
    July 16, 2011 1:04 am

    I believe you are completely wrong on this. What is changing is the delivery system, not people’s reading habits. At work in the break room, I see the same people that used to read ‘books’ now reading the same type of books on a Kindle, Nook or IPad.
    Do you have numbers that say the number of books being bought online and for e-readers is significantly less than the number of bound books sold in the past ? Maybe it is less, I don’t know, but it seems like I see alot of people reading.
    I actually read more with a Nook. I love bookstores but alot of times I can’t find the book I am looking for and don’t feel like ordering and waiting. Libraries, forget it. They are nice to sit in but try finding something. With the Nook I have available multiple books whenever I feel like reading. I can take it anywhere. Plus I can find just about anything that I want to read.
    One guy at work has a library of about 3000 books in storage. His goal is to get all of them onto an e-reader so he can stop paying storage fees and make them easier to access. In a way that is depressing but only because it is a change. The paper will be gone but he still will have the stories.
    My dad ran a small town drugstore. It was a pretty cool place. But it and others like it are gone. Move on.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 16, 2011 1:28 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      Alas, I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s as unconvincing now as it was then. You are overlooking a simple fact: The delivery system matters. As McLuhan foresaw at the very dawn of the modern information age, “the medium is the message.” Content is far less important than the delivery system. Plus, evolutionary science has shown us that people make tools, then the tools make us. Thus it’s been since the invention of the hand axe, and it will be so with the new digital media. A few years of getting our information primarily from the Internet and most of us will lose the capacity for immersive reading – the kind of relaxed concentration necessary to get through a book.

      Yes, I’ll acknowledge there has been a flurry of reading since the advent of the e-book, but that’s more the result of our insatiable appetite for gadgets, especially new gadgets. You say you yourself read more now with the Nook. I assure you, this will pass. Either you’ll tire of the new device,like a child sated with his presents by New Years, or you’ll be mesmerized by some shiny new device. Within only a few years the tablet computer will supplant the e-reader entirely. Reading electronically will be replaced by video. Almost no one will read after that. And that’s about the time digital technology and nano technology converge, after which your phone will be implanted in your head. After that, we’re no longer human, we’re cyborgs. And this will all happen in the life spans of people living today.

      I hope you are right and I am wrong. But I doubt it.

      And I don’t have to move on if I don’t want to.

  5. July 16, 2011 9:47 pm

    Chauncey, you bring up a lot of good points, although you could argue that the cyborg era has already begun. I read an article recently in the Boston Globe how many young teenagers are sleeping with their cellphones so they can be alerted instantly if they’re texted during the night. You can in effect say they’ve already been wired!

    This probably will be the last generation that reads. As you accurately stated, the next generation of ereaders will be more like the iPad–tablet computers where the temptation to watch movies, videos, play games, etc., will be enough to draw people away from reading. And you’re very right that you don’t reach the same immersive level reading from a Kindle or Nook as you do from a printed book. I’ve noticed that myself, both in reading and editing–I’ve found editing on a Kindle is far more effective because you don’t go into that deeper state as you do with paper. I’ve seen other authors make similar notes–talking about how shorter books are needed for the kindle since “padding” is more noticeable on these devices–again, you’re not as deeply immersed.

    While I agree with what you’re saying, the advent of ebooks are having a far more significant effect on books. In the past, if a reader went to a bookstore they’d mostly find professionally written and edited books. Writers had to pass a form of a gauntlet before they’d be published. I’m not saying publishers were perfect in what they accepted–there was always a bias towards formulaic and playing it safe, but still, it forced 1000s of current writers like myself to spend years studying our craft. We’d read 100s of books, take classes and workshops, submit and revise, and those of us with talent would eventually break through. Yes, people could always self publish, but the cost to get these self-published books into stores was prohibitive. Now anyone with minimal cost can self-publish ebooks to the Kindle or Nook stores with the books being virtually indistinguishable from professionally published books. And most of these books are being self-published by writers who’ve spent no time working on their craft and also have very little skill. But what’s also happening in this new dawn of digital books is that the writers most skilled at social networking are the ones becoming bestsellers at Amazon. Look at John Locke. He’s sold a million Kindle books, about the same as Michael Connelly, and this was not because of word of mouth, but due to a combination of very aggressive networking on his part and Amazon being driven purely by heuristics (once an ebook starts selling on Amazon, the Amazon machine takes over and generates an endless stream of additional sales through their very powerful direct marking). Anyone thinking this democratization of publishing is a good thing needs to sample one of Locke’s books to see where it has lead us. Skill and craftsmanship no longer matters in this new ebook age, it’s all about who can social network the most effectively and shamelessly with Amazon little more than a gaming system to break.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 16, 2011 11:12 pm

    Dave, You are 100 percent correct. I’ve said much the same thing in his space over the past two years, but I don’t know if I’ve said it quite so clearly and concisely. Thanks.

  7. Francis Shigley permalink
    July 18, 2011 4:05 pm

    I’m with ya Chauncey. I had the pleasure of being able to turn my phone off (or nearly so) for an entire week and lo and behold! I not only survived- I found myself dreading having to lug it around again. I’ve taken a few steps in a positive direction, i.e., turning off my data plan/email capability; forcing me to use my phone for good old-fashioned verbal communication. Ok, ok, AND text.

    Six billion and counting, I like to think of the (tens of thousands? millions? of) humans so stubborn and anti-establishment – like all those people who bought an Apple Macintosh in the nineties – at times wisely, sometimes unknowingly, keep an ember glowing just enough to start another fire.

    After all, in another life I was convinced that the television was certain to send the picture shows the way of the dodo; yet this summer’s box office only proves that more and more dodos are going the way of the picture shows.

  8. July 18, 2011 7:09 pm

    What Dave Zeltserman said, we are generally on the same page. I enjoy my Kindle, but some of the initial fascination has worn off. It offers a new market for my novels, but at a terrible price. My daughter loves books, but her generation is already half in cyberspace. Times have changed, and not necessarily for the better. That also likely means I’ve gotten old. Can remember Marshall McLulhan calling TV the vast wasteland and all the predictions of the death of American culture. Of course, sadly, they kind of came true…

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