Although pains me to say this…books are becoming endangered in their natural habitat. Two friends of mine just forwarded me an article about this new “Bookless Library” in San Antonio, Texas. They’re calling it a “BiblioTech”. It appears that San Antonio is pioneering this concept, and book lovers like me brace for the inevitable moment that libraries across the globe become digital research laboratories, sans card catalogues, offering up software suites and lending out e-readers.
On the upside, you won’t find a booger smeared on the pages of an e-reader. And far from the type of comfy, overstuffed library where Hercule Poirot might gather murder suspects, students of tomorrow will do their research in streamlined, easily cleaned, bookless libraries.
But at the same time, we seem to appreciate books more as objects d’ art. We respect what they represent: their solid, intellectual aura of leisure. Hence the furniture ad cliché featuring a book on the nightstand with a pair of glasses resting on it. The image instantly conveys the notion that the nightstand is “good quality furniture” to be used by decent, smart people who drift off to sleep with a head full of profound ideas.
We admire the physical appearance of books, as we would any other knickknacks. Consequently, there are tables, Kleenex holders and lamps shaped to look like stacks of books, and chic people have no qualms admitting they scour flea markets for pretty books to match their decor, not to read. Maybe it’s all wrapped up in nostalgia for a bygone, more relaxed era when people had the free time to read books instead of just decorating with them.
And I’m starting to wonder if people no longer really think of bookstores as a place to buy books, but as a coffee shop that just happens to sell books. Because even though bookstores are teeming with coffee swillers and cookie noshers, paper book sales are down. Maybe hopeful singles who have seen too many romantic comedies are going to bookstores thinking it would be a picturesque place to meet a future husband; a sweeter story to tell the grandkids than a bleary-eyed happy hour hookup at Señor Frog’s. Or maybe they go for the same reason certain tourists go to museums–because you can feel smug afterwards. You’ve eaten your broccoli when everyone else has been chowing down on KFC. People carrying around their Barnes & Noble bags often have the same self-satisfied look as the ones sporting an “M” button from the Metropolitan Museum.
I suspect the real problem is that if books are primarily seen as knickknacks, buying too many of them uses up shelf space that could also be used for book shaped-photo frames and reproductions of Egyptian art from the Metropolitan Museum gift shop. As for me, I mostly have books on my bookshelves. Hundreds of them. But when people see the collection for the first time, they usually ask,
“Have you actually read all those books?”
The question is asked in the same suspicious way you’d ask any loon with an unusually large collection of items; such as shoes (“Do you actually wear all those?”) or souvenir thimbles (“Have you actually been to all those places?”) But just as they are about to lump me in with the other over-zealous collectors, they stop to consider that my book-laden bookshelves have created the highly coveted “wall” between the living and bedroom spaces in my studio apartment. Then they concede that books are indeed useful. Books, as it turns out, can be used as architecture.
“That’s much better than one of those flimsy divider screens,” they say. “Bet you never figured your books would come in so handy!”
“Too true” I say, followed by a story about my shithole kitchen, where the counter once sagged above the mini-fridge. I had been propping it up with David Foster Wallace’s mammoth book, “Infinite Jest” (which I admit I have not read.) And while Mr. Wallace’s book had been doing an admirable job of keeping the counter straight, I figured there was probably a more professional way to do it. But when I called in the Super to remedy the situation, he just said,
“What’s the problem? This book works great. What? You don’t have enough books? You gotta read this one too?”
In the end, I got my counter fixed. But I still haven’t read “Infinite Jest”.