I saw a TV commercial last night that sums up a lot of what is wrong with modern life. In it, a lovely young woman tells a man of her own age that she is going to a bookstore to pick up a copy of some sensational new bestseller. She asks the young man if he’d like to come along to the bookstore with her. The man turns down her offer saying, in effect, “No thanks. I’ve got a Kindle [or perhaps a Nook; I can’t remember which product was being advertised]. I can download the book right now and begin reading it in seconds.”
The commercial’s intent was to demonstrate how a Kook (a generic term I just invented for all Kindle/Nook-like devices) can improve your life. But is the young man’s life really improved by the fact that he owns an electronic reader? In my opinion, no. If I were a single man in my twenties and a hot young woman asked me to accompany her to a bookstore, I’d leap at the opportunity, even if I had no desire to purchase a book [which, I grant you, would be unprecedented for me]. A bookstore is generally acknowledged (even by people who don’t much care for books) to be a very enjoyable place to hang out. That’s why the characters in romantic comedies (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Dan In Real Life,” “Notting Hill,” etc.) are often seen together in bookstores. Nowadays, many bookstores sell not only books, but also gourmet coffee drinks, cupcakes and other goodies, cds, dvds, magazines, and much more. Almost anyone who isn’t a complete idiot can probably find something he likes at a bookstore. What’s more, any heterosexual single man ought to be able to enjoy himself in the company of an attractive and friendly young woman even in a venue far less appealing than a bookstore (a museum exhibiting 16th Century Serbian art, let us say). As much as I love Anthony Trollope, I’d toss aside my copy of “Framely Parsonage” in a heartbeat if a beautiful young woman asked me to accompany her to a bookstore (alas, at my age, if I did get such an offer from a beautiful young woman, she would likely be one of my granddaughters). And so, as the commercial ended, I fumed and fulminated to my wife about the manifold evils of a society that encourages people to use electronic devices in order to avoid such things as intercourse with other human beings who are actively seeking one’s companionship. Alas, there was an element of hypocrisy in my ranting and raving.
I buy several hundred books a year, but most of them are purchased from Amazon.com. There are at least a half dozen bookstores in my city (Sacramento) that I visit regularly (i.e., at least once a month), but usually, while browsing in a bookstore, I’ll compile a list of all the titles that interest me and then I’ll go home and order cheap used copies of said books from Amazon.com (or, more accurately, third-party sellers who hawk their used books via Amazon’s website). Unlike the young man in the commercial, I enjoy getting out of the house and perusing bookshelves in the company of my fellow booklovers. But, in most cases, I ultimately purchase the book online, so that the money leaves my bank and travels across the country where it does no good for the Sacramento economy. I am an old (53) man who complains about how eBooks are making the world a less social place, and yet, when it comes time to purchase a book, I do pretty much what the young man in the commercial did – I order the book from a distant unseen site via an electronic device that provides me with no personal interaction with the seller I’m purchasing from.
I defend my hypocritical behavior by citing my poverty. I used to describe myself as “an impoverished freelance writer,” but eventually I learned that, like “fake fortune-teller,” the term “impoverished freelance writer” is redundant. Just about all freelance writers are impoverished. Nonetheless, I am among the most impoverished of freelance writers and I also have an insatiable literary jones, which causes me to purchase books even when I can barely afford groceries. If I didn’t shop at Amazon, my annual book expenses would probably be double what they are now. Even when I buy a brand-new book from Amazon, I always pay far less for it than I would at a local bookstore. At Amazon, I don’t have to pay the 8.75-percent sales tax that I’d be required to pay at a Sacramento bookstore (a new California law which makes Amazon purchases subject to California sales tax is about to eliminate this particular benefit of online shopping). Amazon also discounts its new books. Most new books at Amazon sell for anywhere from 20- to 40-percent below the publisher’s retail price. Used books are an even bigger bargain at Amazon. I can often find used books selling at Amazon for a mere 10- or 20-percent of their original price. And if I save these items in my shopping cart until the total cost of my purchases is $25 or more, I won’t have to pay for shipping either (provided that the seller is a participant in Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon program).
Another argument to be made in defense of my online book shopping concerns availability. Quite often the book I want simply can’t be found at a local bookstore. Among my recent purchases are such titles as “Style” by F. L. Lucas, “Pippin’s Journal” by Rohan O’Grady, “The Prince of Stars in the Cavern of Time” by Ian Dennis, “The Loud Halo” by Lillian Beckwith, “For the Blood is the Life” by F. Marion Crawford, “The Arabian Nights Companion” by Robert Irwin, “Period Piece” by Gwen Raverat, and “The Best Western Stories of Steve Frazee.” Could you find all of those at your local bookstore?
I turn up my nose when I see people reading eBooks on their Kooks. I think to myself how sad it is that they’ll never know the thrill of coming across a photograph or bookmark or airplane ticket tucked away in the pages of some used book. The eBook reader will never find unusual inscriptions in the front pages of an eBook, or thoughtful marginalia scribbled by some stranger alongside a passage in a book. There are a lot of reasons (pretexts?) I can use to justify my sense of superiority over users of Kooks. But it is simply hypocritical of me to condemn them for eliminating the visit to the bookstore from the overall reading experience. Although I still visit brick-and-mortar bookstores frequently, for all intents and purposes, I do not support those establishments with my money any more than the Kook-user does. In the end, both I and the Kook-user end up ordering books by clicking a virtual button with the word “purchase” printed on it. Our money disappears from the local economy and those valiant booksellers who still maintain a physical presence in our communities despite the dwindling returns of such operations are once again penalized for their commitment to the personal touch. The only difference between me and the pathetic young man in the Kook commercial is that I would never – ever – turn down an offer to accompany an attractive young woman to a bookstore. If you are young, attractive, female, and you live in the Sacramento area, feel free to call me any time you want a ride to Borders, or Barnes and Noble, or the Avid Reader, or the Book Collector, or Time-Tested Books, or…