Bye Bye, Borders

Even after all the media brouhaha about Borders, it was when a friend posted this that I really got thinking. I have some disconnected (and highly disorganised) thoughts about bookstores dying out, and about the printed word becoming obsolete.

It’s the small, neighbourhood bookstore that preceded the large bookstore chain, which preceded the internet-ordering Amazon. One day, people will say this about Amazon preceding a closely-linked derivative taking advantage of a then ubiquitous medium.

I expect our ancestors felt the same way when leaves gave way to papyrus, then to parchment and then paper as we know it today. There will have been people who romanticised the time when all learning and folklore was passed on by word-of-mouth, and lamented the writing down of knowledge. Some of our descendants will feel the same way when the last press prints its last book. Or whatever will be the equivalent then.

I remember I scoffed (loudly) when Amazon’s first Kindle came out, thinking who on earth would spend on something as silly as that when all you needed was a laptop. Look at how much egg I have on my face now! I can never travel on the tube without seeing at least one person using some e-reader. (As for me, I still wouldn’t buy a Kindle, but bring on the tablets, baby!)

What about the libraries? My first exposure to one was the library at school, and it definitely left much to be desired. The second one was the lending library my father drove me to every two weeks, in my neighbourhood. Woefully inadequate but sheer brilliance for a lonely book lover. When I moved cities, I discovered the wondrous British Library, and I was in awe, and I pleaded with my family to fork over what seemed an expensive fee but was really an investment (well, it’s true). I then came to London and was humbled by the ubiquity of the public library, and the value the government and the people place on its upkeep.

I really, really like the public library system. Believe it or not, it doesn’t exist the same way everywhere. My only experience with a similar thing in India was a brief saunter into the Connemara library in Chennai, and that I assure you is a grand and exotic thing not many I know have entered. I hope the model of an extensive public library network spreads till every person in every country has easy access to every book published in the world (if at least through their library’s internet services). I don’t think they will disappear for a very long time to come, whatever form they exist in. Someday they really will go, but only when there will be something better to replace them.

An accessible public library isn’t the case in so many places, so the small, private library or small bookstore in those neighbourhoods will continue to set up and survive. Until, of course, the free public library (or some equivalent) comes along. Frankly, these little stores have a strong chance of outlasting the big bookstore chains, simply through local reach (they exist where Amazon finds it infeasible to tread, so far).

What am I really trying to say in this disorganised mess? It’s okay to cry, but we should also remember that evolution works in all spheres of life. With the loss of an old, trusted system comes a new and greater system. We in the next 100 years may still bemoan the loss of the trusted bookstore, but are we capable of understanding what people 1000 years away may say about us? Today we may consider those who still believe in the oral traditions troglodytes, but never doubt for a minute that future generations will say that about those of us who loved the smell and feel of really new, or really old, printed books.

Goodbye, Borders; hello, new world.



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