Monday, March 18, 2013

Of Horses, Books, Radios, Tablets, and Other Ancient Relics

My grandfather was killed when he tried to separate two horses fighting in his barn. This happened before my mother was born, so it had to be very early in 1917.

By 1917 we humans had been using horses as beasts of burden for somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 years. My father, who was born in Virginia in 1913, remembered the first time a car went through  his little town when he was a young boy. He talked about how, before 1930, where he grew up, most people of any means whatsoever often smelled like horses.

Horses were our constant companions before the 20th century. They were our saviors, friends, laborers, family. They did the work of engines in almost all conceivable situations. Horses were loved by us, yet were used so hard by us they often died from their efforts. They were among our biggest investments. We would occasionally risk life and limb, as did my mother's father, to protect our horses from harm. Stealing one could land you in prison or worse. If you fell asleep while driving, you simply ended up at home. When cars came along, they were not only easier, eventually, to work with, and sheltered us from the elements in comfort and style, they freed these beautiful creatures we had shared our lives with for thousands of years.

The act of physically writing our thoughts and feelings and experiences onto physical surfaces began a long time before books, perhaps not as long ago as when our reliance on horses began, but a very long time. We've been reading with our eyes from things we hold in our hands, bookmarking, making indecipherable notes in the margins, putting our index fingers on the lines we are trying to concentrate on, forgetting where we were and rereading again and again, for thousands of years.

The way we write has certainly changed for many of us. Now we "type" into ephemeral media that could be extinguished in a flash in its entirety. We proofread from backlit screens that degrade our eyes and which do not, of themselves, connote a sense of progress or heft or essence.

When we write our deepest feelings we can separate ourselves from them in ways we could not before. My drafts of this piece are deleted as I go, backspaced out of existence, never saved in notebooks, no evidence of my labor. My mother had stacks of legal pads and journals all over the house filled with her beautiful longhand drafts of novels she was working on, gave up on, or published. My son, another writer, says he still prefers writing with a pencil on paper before doing the final digital draft.

Another story my father, a librarian both professionally and spiritually, told me was that when radio became the huge thing in the 1930s, librarians and booksellers everywhere were convinced the end was in sight for books. This fear was soon brought back by television, VCRs, books on tape, PCs, and video games. The latter, video games, were my generations' parental bogey. My children and their friends spent so many hours on them that were once spent reading, there was a real fear they would not grow up as readers of books.  Yet  my children, now adults, do read lots of books, and belong to the generation that, when polled recently, would rather read real books than any alternative, by a large margin.

Music and music stores often show up in articles about the downfall of bookstores, as they have been for longer than it took for music stores to succumb to digital music. Music and the experience of music are much closer to being the same thing than are writing and reading. When we listen to a piece of music on a car radio or through our ear buds or on an LP or a CD, the experience is almost the same. It will never beat listening to a live performance, but all those other ways to listen are not as much a part of the experience as books are the experience of writing by readers. When technology came to music it was a fairly short period of time before the music stores, with the wonderful exception of used record stores, were almost all gone. I agree that there are some connections, ones which booksellers have learned to handle, but when the doomsayers proclaim the end of the bookstore by holding up the passing of music stores as a model, they are missing much.

Whatever is thought to be replacing books at whatever the current time, be it radios or TVs or VCRs or e-readers or tablet computers, it never really seems to have all the necessary ingredients to do the job. What these things do is add to our enjoyment of reading and, sooner or later, bring us back to books. Books are not something we are uncomfortable with. They are not ugly or poorly equipped to do what we require of them. They are not creatures toiling  under the yoke of necessity. They do not make our experience of reading worse or less comfortable or more difficult. They add to the enjoyment of reading in a way nothing else matches. We love our books. We want them in our lives. This is a feeling that does not emanate from electronics quite so much.

I see more people reading e-books on their electronics every time I travel. It used to be about every 10th person on a plane or train would be reading a mass market or trade paperback. Now it seems just about everybody is reading something, which is one aspect of e-books I love, yet it is still about every 10th person reading a real book. I know the electronics have a big fan base. They love those things, propped up on the little cool looking holders on their seat back trays. Does it beat a book in the hand? Let me know after you spill a drink on it. I can definitely see the advantages of most of the other newer technologies that have replaced older ones, just not this one.

My uneducated guess: If you took the number of people reading physical books now and compared it to the number of people reading physical books just before the Wall Street driven "superstore" boom of the 1990s, it would now represent a larger and growing percentage of the population. E-books are adding readers, not subtracted them. Many of those new readers will start reading more real books as time goes by, and they will continue to shop in bookstores.

Books, after having been with us for thousands of years, have yet to be improved upon.


  1. Now, if we could just convince those bookstores to carry more books by Indie Authors and even figure out a way to sell eBooks directly to Readers, I believe that fewer of them would close, because their market would increase rather than shrink. I am an all-inclusive Reader, Author and Publisher (former bookseller and sales rep, too!) and I believe there is an opportunity out there to satisfy all sales (and library lending) of all formats of books in brick and mortar stores. Had the music stores all gone online to sell singles at the time iTunes led the way, they might still be around now, too. Why not a "display" of books with kiosks throughout a store for downloading eBook versions - and then sales of those print books as well? I believe there are many more possibilities that few are choosing to explore.

    Susan Toy

    1. You make a lot of good points. I did not mention the amazing amount of great original works being written for e-books only, including much by self published authors. This is another big area where e-books have been a positive phenomenon.

      Where you really hit home for me is your stand as an all-inclusive reader recommending that booksellers be all inclusive booksellers. I think this is where they're headed and many are already there. I have customers who sell e-readers and the books their customers read on them. Some of these have instant printing facilities in their bookstores so that if they don't have what their paper-book-buying-customer wants, and if they have the rights, they can print it on the spot. These are the same folks who sell used, new, remainders, and reprints as well. Believe it or not, that was once considered an extremely alternative way of doing business. I still run into booksellers who refuse to do anything but new real books, but I think they'll come around.

      I would like to see more of the books now available only as e-books printed on paper. How do we get there?

    2. I know some stores are coming around, but I do hear of many booksellers who refuse to admit the business has been changing considerably and still think they can just carry on the way they've been operating all along. The most successful independent booksellers I know have specialized in some way or another -- by becoming experts in what interests them personally, and being the go-to store for everything in that particular genre or type of book.

      Just imagine what a store could do if it carried only mysteries, but sold new as well as used print, eBooks, audio, and related merchandise, and also had a comprehensive website offering eCommerce. That would be my dream bookstore.

      The other models I'm very interested in pursuing at the moment are mobile and pop-up bookstores - take the store to the readers rather than remain stationary and expect the readers to come to you. I love the idea of The Book Barge in England, for example.

      There are indeed some exciting ideas and opportunities out there! We just need to lean to think differently.

      As for how to get to more eBooks being made available in print, I can only give you my own example. I published in eBook first then canvassed my friends for pre-orders of a print edition. When I thought I had enough interest, I went to print. Authors should wait though until they know there is enough of a market for the print version. You can't imagine the number who have come to me for help with their promotion, because they need to move the "several thousand" copies taking up space in their basements.

      Susan Toy