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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 07/20/2011

The Borders are closing. We’re stuck here.


Noooooo! (Justin Sullivan - GETTY IMAGES)
The Borders are closing.

It’s an ominous phrase. Will we be able to make it out in time?

The Borders that will be closing may be megabookstores, but they are no less portals to other places than our actual borders, and they tend to abut fewer drug cartels.

I wish I could joke about this. “Doctors without Borders! That’s just all doctors!” "Closing the borders! That's why we voted for Obama!" “Ha, books are a thing of the past! Ha, hahahaha.”

I’m laughing hysterically, and I don’t think it’s a natural laugh.

Once a thing becomes impossible to explain to a thirteen-year-old, you may as well give up hope.

Books are difficult to explain.

"They are like screens, but not," we say. "They are like — you know when you're reading something online? And you want to print it out to read on the subway?”

“Why don’t you just read it on your iPhone?” they ask.

“Well, it’s — you want to be able to make notes on it.”

“So why don’t you just read it on your iPhone?”

“Er,” we say. “We will get back to you.” 

Physical books are illogical. Bookstores are, too. Buy a bunch of things we could get online for free, in a format that is hard to carry and can be ruined by spilling coffee on it? Where’s the sense to it? Get Grandma an eCard instead. These days, if it’s worth consuming, it’s worth consuming on a high-definition screen.

But lose the covers, and a book is simply a screen that is not living up to its potential.

Once a book was something you took with you to the bathroom to keep from getting bored during the process of elimination. We don’t even do that any more. Now you take your smartphone instead — as 39 percent of us admit.

So much for Fahrenheit 451. If we want to burn books, we’ll have to aggressively delete the files from our Kindles.

If I were Barnes and Noble, I would be skydiving right about now.

I don't know whose fault this is.

Bookstores, unlike strip clubs, are places you go without knowing what you want. And that’s so rare these days. We go online To Look For Things We Have In Mind.

This terrifies me, because I can glimpse from here someone saying, "I miss books."I will miss the racks and racks of books I have no desire to read. The smell. The strange, semi-homeless men who offered to read my auras.

The art of shopping for books is different than the art of shopping for shoes. Solitary shoe-shoppers feel somehow furtive. Solitary book-shopping is the whole point. It’s like strolling through a store to select the furniture for your mind. There was a reason we took pride in our libraries. Our shelves were ourselves.

And now we’re eliminating miles of them.

But reading is fine, everyone insists.

We read more than we ever have. The Internet is full of words. And we devour them by the thousands every day. If you laid end to end all the words we read in a given day, you could compose several novels in the course of a week. But 50,000 words does not a novel make.

Proust had this complaint about newspapers, decades ago.

Every day they call our attention to insignificant things, while three or four times in our lives, we read books that contain essential things. Once we feverishly tear the band of paper enclosing our newspapers, things should change and we should find — I do not know — the Pensées by Pascal!

Three or four books in our lives? That seems high. These days, we read book equivalents. We read more than we ever have, but less intensely. It’s how we do everything. We don’t have romances. We have hook-ups. We don’t enjoy multi-hour epics. We watch YouTube videos.

Distraction is the word of the day. I've called concentration the momentary delusion that what you're doing at any given time is more interesting than the Internet. Concentration is very much on the outs these days. Too much of it, and we worry you have some sort of disorder.

Social media is the future! And books are so antisocial. Forget book clubs. They say a classic is a book everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read. Book clubs are groups where everyone wants to have red wine and nobody wants to read.

Summer reading? Beach reading? Why? You can get YouTube at the beach.

Increasingly, to our chagrin, we seem to be finding that books are not the fascinating things we thought they were. Imagination? Please. That’s for the Little Match Girl. We don’t need to imagine things — we’ve got them right here, on our iPads.

We live our lives in the aquarium light of screens.

But screens have limits, too.

They cannot create serendipity. The best we can come up with is randomness. Bookstores represent a vanishing luxury: the luxury of things we don't already know we want, of shelves where Jody Picoult jostled next to Proust, each promising something different.

Closing the Borders is absolutely literally true. It's shutting the doors to a thousand undiscovered countries. They are like train stations.

They will charge you money to take you places. They imply that visiting such places is such a privilege worth paying money for. Books are both passports and souvenirs.

Without the train station, we might forget that such countries exist. It is hard to visit places you do not know of.

The borders are closing. Soon we’ll be stuck here.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 07/20/2011

Tags:  Borders, books, oy

 
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