Technology Of Books Has Changed, But Bookstores Are Hanging In There

Technology Of Books Has Changed, But Bookstores Are Hanging In There

12:59pm May 28, 2015
Capitol Hill Books owner Jim Toole runs the front register of his used bookstore several days a week. He has banned several words from his store, including "awesome," "perfect" and "Amazon."
Capitol Hill Books owner Jim Toole runs the front register of his used bookstore several days a week. He has banned several words from his store, including "awesome," "perfect" and "Amazon."
Ariel Zambelich / NPR

If the book is dead, nobody bothered to tell the folks at Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C. Books of every size, shape and genre occupy each square inch of the converted row house — including the bathroom — all arranged in an order discernible only to the mind of Jim Toole, the store's endearingly grouchy owner.

Visitors are greeted by a makeshift sign listing words that are banned in the store, including "awesome," "perfect" and, most of all, "Amazon." The online giant has crushed many an independent bookstore — but not Toole's. "Hanging in here with my fingernails," he says with a harrumph.

Those are mighty strong fingernails, it seems. While stores like Toole's continue to struggle, independent bookstores overall are enjoying a mini-revival, with their numbers swelling 25 percent since 2009, according to the American Booksellers Association. Sales are up, too.

Remarkably, it's a revival fueled, at least in part, by digital natives like 23-year-old Ross Destiche, who's hauling an armful of books to the register. "Nothing matches the feel and the smell of a book," he says. "There's something special about holding it in your hand and knowing that that's the same story every time, and you can rely on that story to be with you."

The book also has fans from other unexpected quarters. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, pioneered advances like "parallel computation," yet he admires the brilliant design of the codex. "It's an inspiration of the very first order. ... It's made to fit human hands and human eyes and human laps in the way that computers are not," he says, wondering aloud why some are in such a rush to discard a technology that has endured for centuries. "It's not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn't been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. ... [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better."

But is a digital book "better" than a printed one? The research is mixed. Some studies find we absorb less material digitally while others find no discernible difference. One thing that is clear: "We are not only what we read but how we read," says Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Wolf studies the cognitive process of reading, so she assumed she was immune to the pitfalls that she catalogs in others, but she was wrong. One evening, she picked up a favorite book, The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and found herself reading and rereading the same passage. Nothing was sinking in. "I could not immerse myself," she says. "It was the slowest ... experience of reading."

Frustrated, she thrust the book aside. It took her two full weeks to return to the sort of immersive reading she had once enjoyed. Her brain, she realized, had been altered — physically altered — by all of the scanning and flitting she had done during the day.

"For me the great lesson was that what we do during the day bleeds over into what we do during the night," she says. "The immersion online is always in some ways shadowed, if you will, by this constant reminder that we should be doing something else, too; that our email is just a click away; that there is this almost incessant feeling of 'Well, I should go faster,' instead of 'I should immerse myself.' "

Wolf is no Luddite: She fully embraces what she calls the "bi-literate brain," one equally at home in the digital and analog worlds, but warns that e-readers can deceive us. One study found that young students, digital natives, absorbed material better on paper than on screen, even though they were convinced the opposite was true. That's why she balks at a move toward hybrid reading devices, ones that are part digital and part paper. Better, she says, to retain the unique advantages of both technologies.

Publishers seem to agree. They've begun to embrace the "bookiness" of their products.

"The books just look better," says paper industry analyst Thad McIlroy. He notes that publishers are paying more attention to such tactile qualities as a book's cover and the quality of paper. "Those are the kind of things that are going to keep books with us for some time to come."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There are some 20,000 uses for paper - everything from tea bags to the bathroom - but perhaps none as celebrated or as threatened as the book. E-readers seem to be the printed book's Grim Reaper. Lately, though, the book is enjoying something of a revival. As part of our series we're calling the Paper Trail, here's author and former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner.

JIM TOOLE: Welcome.

ERIC WEINER, BYLINE: If the book is dead, nobody bothered to tell the folks at this store in Washington, D.C. Books of every size, shape and genre occupy each square inch of the converted row house, including the bathroom, all arranged in order discernible only to Jim Toole, the endearingly grouchy owner of Capitol Hill Books.

TOOLE: Fiction upstairs, nonfiction this level.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

TOOLE: Many, many exceptions to that statement.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: Visitors are greeted by a makeshift sign announcing words that are banned in the store, such as awesome and totally, and most of all, Amazon. The online giant has crushed many an independent bookstore, but not Jim Toole's; not yet.

TOOLE: Hanging in here with my fingernails.

WEINER: Mighty strong fingernails, it turns out. Lately, independent bookstores like this one are enjoying a mini-revival; their numbers swelling 25 percent in the past few years. It's a revival fueled, at least in part, by digital natives, like 19-year-old Lindsay, who prefers paper books to e-readers, like the Amazon Kindle.

LINDSAY: I don't have a Kindle. Kindles kind of freak me out.

WEINER: Or 23-year-old Ross Destiche, who I find hauling an armful of books to the register.

ROSS DESTICHE: Nothing matches the feel and the smell of a book. There's something special about holding it in your hand and knowing that that's the same story every time, and you can rely on that story to be with you.

DAVID GELERNTER: Then there's a perfect design. It's made to fit human hands and humanize in human laps in the way that computers are not.

WEINER: That's David Gelernter. He is, in some ways, the last person you'd expect to defend the old-fashioned book. A computer scientist, he helped pioneer advances like parallel computation and nearly paid with his life. In 1993, a package addressed to him exploded. It was sent by Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, who was targeting people with the forefront of technological change. But David Gelernter admires the classic book known as "The Codex" and wonders why we're in such a hurry to discard it.

GELERNTER: It's not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn't been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass, and we never sit down and say, are we sure that we want to abolish handwriting and stuff like that? There are no such debates. People don't ask themselves these questions. By and large, they take it for granted that if the technology is new, it must be better.

WEINER: So is a digital book better than a printed one? The research results are mixed. Some studies find we absorb less material digitally while others find no discernible difference. One thing that is clear is...

MARYANNE WOLF: That we are not only what we read but how we read.

WEINER: That's Maryanne Wolf. She's a professor at Tufts University and author of a book on the reading brain. It's a subject she studies full time, so she assumes she was immune to the cognitive pitfalls that she catalogs in others. She was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And in the course of our long tradition...

WEINER: One evening, she picked up a favorite book, "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse. The words didn't register. She found herself reading and re-reading the same paragraph, the same sentence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It is no longer even possible to determine their original name. It is, you know, no longer even possible to determine their original name.

WOLF: It was like a slug fest.

WEINER: Nothing was sinking in.

WOLF: I could not immerse myself. It was the slowest, almost, sorghum - I can liken it only to molasses and sorghed (ph) experience of reading. I didn't like the book, I didn't want to experience it anymore, and I thrust it aside.

WEINER: It took her two full weeks to return to the sort of immersive reading she had once been capable of. Her brain, she realized, had been altered - physically altered - by all of the scanning and flitting she had done during the day.

WOLF: For me, the great lesson was that what we do during the day bleeds over into what we do during the night. The immersion online is always, in some ways, shadowed, if you will, by this constant reminder that we should be doing something else, too. That our email is just a click away, that there is this almost incessant feeling of, well, I should go faster.

WEINER: Wolf is no Luddite and fully embraces what she calls the bi-literate brain, one equally at home in the digital and analog worlds, but warns that e-readers can deceive us. One study found that young students, digital natives, absorb material better on paper than on screen, even though they were convinced the opposite was true.

WOLF: I think there's much we do not understand still about the advantages of this 2,000-year-old medium, and I am loathe to make it resemble this other entity. Rather, I would like to have both available.

WEINER: Publishers seem to agree.

THAD MCILROY: The books just look better. They just look better.

WEINER: That's Thad McIlroy, a paper industry analyst. Rather than trying to out-digital the digital revolution, he says, publishing houses are turning to the natural strengths of paper. In other words, they're embracing their bookiness.

MCILROY: Companies are saying we're going to spend more on covers. We're going to spend more on deckle paper, you know, all of that sort of thing. And, you know, those are the kind of things that are going to keep books with us for some time to come.

WEINER: Just maybe, he says, for another 2,000 years. For NPR News, I'm Eric Weiner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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