Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sidenote: Books in a 21st-century world

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an interesting piece, "In Bookstore's End, No Joy for Sidewalk Seller". It's a short article, and worth reading. The subject of the article, Charles Mysak. Mr. Mysak is a street vendor in New York City, selling used books on the sidewalk. His entire inventory fits in his car. Down the street, a Barnes and Noble is going out of business; his sidewalk business with the tiny inventory will have outlasted the major bookstore chain. Mr. Mysak laments the fact that in today's modern world, even Barnes and Noble (pretty cosmopolitan, as far as bookstores go) can't survive. Instead, people flock to the Apple store, and wander by his little stand with their ear buds in and their iPods turned up high, oblivious to everything else.

Given the recent successes of things like the Kindle, the Nook, and other digital book readers, it almost seems like bookstores, large and small, are doomed to a slow death. Actually, given the amount of money that people seem to be willing to spend on movies, music, DVDs, high-tech TVs, cutting edge gaming consoles, etc., and given the constant influx of information available to anyone with an internet connection, you kind of have to wonder if the act of reading-for-understanding is becoming obsolete. Why bother reading something when it's easier to see it in a movie or watch it on television? When you read news on the internet, on most popular news sites like, the articles are short, to the point, and lacking in much detail or analysis. More traditional publications (such as the New York Times) still seem to cling to the belief that their readers should learn something from their articles; newspapers like the NYT are keeping the vital art of investigative journalism alive.

Despite the prevalence of technology and technology-related-entertainment, I don't think I'll ever let go of my preference for books. To me, an important part of the reading experience is having the book itself in my hands. I like the feel of the paper and the act of turning the page; I like the smell of books both old and new; I like seeing how font styles change over time. No matter how advanced the technology in the screens of the e-readers becomes, it won't ever be able to replicate the experience of reading a real book.

In regards to reading vs watching it on a screen, half the fun of reading a story is forming an image of it in your mind. If you're depending on a movie studio to supply every part of the story for you, from the set to the character's faces, a lot of the creative process for the reader is lost. Even reading a book first, and seeing a movie later, involves a fair amount of tainting. No matter how many times I reread Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, I'm always going to have Chris Columbus' vision of Hogwarts and Peter Jackson's vision of Hobbiton in my head. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I sort of miss having a fluid minds-eye vision of my own in my head. Besides, the art of showing the reader a setting or a character through words is a pretty subtle, nuanced art; a lot of that is lost in the translation from page to film. With regards to non-fiction works, detail is everything, and you'll always be able to cram more into the pages of the book or newspaper then you will into a news segment on TV or a documentary. Again, the act of reading for personal enrichment also adds a lot to the reading side of the argument.

The irony of my choice of medium for this blog entry is not lost on me. I'm not trying to condemn progress, or insist that everyone read and never watch television. I just think that people's lives would be just a little bit better if everyone just read a little more, even if it's only a page or two of a novel every night before bed.

The New York Times article ends with a quote from Mr. Mysak. I like the quote so much that I think I'll end with it here:

“It is apparent that we have a real serious issue, that the life of the mind has been in decline for some time now” ... “Ignorance and indolence is the primary problem. If you take care of the mind, everything else follows.”


  1. Good post! I totally agree.

    I do not see myself using an eReader, mostly for the reason that I like owning books and I despise the eBook business model. (can't share, they can remove the books, proprietary, changing standards... barf!)

    I think our access to all kinds of books would be severely compromised if everyone used Nooks and Kindles.

  2. I will say that the thought of a Nook/Kindle is tempting if only for the pure convenience. If I'm on a long plane trip, one book won't tide me over and books are bulky.

    But not enough of a temptation for me to buy one.


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