The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Where Have All the Bookshelves Gone?

A sign at Capitol Hill Books in Washington, DC. Among the banned words: Amazon and Kindle. Image by J. Rachel Gustafson

Twenty thousand books call Capitol Hill Books in Washington, DC. home. The bookshelves they inhabit will remain their main residence until a book-loving individual adopts them and carries them home to expand their own personal library. The books at Capitol Hill Books are used. They are dog-eared, inscribed, and, sometimes, if you are lucky, filled with the previous readers’ literary reviews and personal reflections.

I feel at home in bookstores like this. Readers navigate the books stacked from floor to ceiling, and we enjoy the thrill of the scavenge, where a haphazard search finds accidental treasures. But according to Capitol Hill Books owner Jim Toole, people like me are a dying breed, idealistic dinosaurs and a bit on the romantic side. And as the electronic book, or e-book, business expands, some worry the physical book is in jeopardy. Is it possible the two can co-exist? And how does the digitization of the book world impact individuals’ personal bookshelves and in-home libraries?

NEA Literature Director Ira Silverberg, our own resident book aficionado, believes we’re at the very beginning of a major transition. “Nobody really knows what their personal bookshelf is going to look like as the digital revolution continues," he said. "The tactile thing that reading is, that a book is, if you’ve grown up with it, is hard to think of any other way. It’s an interesting point in the transition. There is a lot that is going to change in how books get sold and are formatted over the next five years.”

Toole agrees, but fears the e-book has already taken the front seat. “We haven’t crossed the divide yet, but at some point in time, this next generation, if not this generation, will say, ‘All I do is look at monitors. I could just look at my Kindle, so what good are [books] for?’" he said. "Unfortunately, we are on a downhill slide. Buggies used to be very nice but then automobiles came and ran them out.”

And perhaps this is just bookonomics. New, hardback books are not cheap, and the ease and affordability of e-books are tempting to the avid book consumer. Silverberg predicts publishers will consider the visual richness of new books in order to set the physical book apart from the digital book. “The objectification of the book will become increasingly important because publishers are battling against an inexpensive, ethereal thing. So the more you can imbue an object with meaning, whether that meaning is between the covers or because of the cover, I think you win people over.”

Digitization also allows book publishers to push the envelope regarding the authors they publish. Silverberg explains, “More and more publishers who apply for NEA funding are using digital technology to get out new work, to keep old work available, and to find new ways to stay in touch with their audience through the web.”

Questions about the future of the book industry will likely tell us a good deal about the future of literacy in America. Reports from Amazon in 2011 show that for every 100 paperbacks sold, 114 e-books are purchased. Whether readers prefer e-books or physical books, it seems that the business of reading itself is thriving. As technophiles continue to stock their screens with digital titles, hopefully independent bookstores like Capitol Hill Books will allow dinosaurs like myself to keep filling their empty bookshelves.

So long live the book. Long live the bookshelf. And most importantly, long live the readers.



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