It was lunchtime and my schedule was empty for a few hours.
I was passing Metrocenter Mall when a strange urge struck. I hung a right. A minute later, I found myself driving through a parking lot emptier than the brain of your average politician.
This was how I browsed a bookstore for the first time in years.
Inside Barnes & Noble, the 20-something behind the customer service counter greeted me with the kind of enthusiasm I imagine shipwreck survivors muster when rescuers finally land on the beach.
I veered toward magazines. The once-familiar glossy covers in rows felt odd, like revisiting your old hometown after years away.
Oddly, soft-core porn like Penthouse is still published in magazine form these days, wrapped in plastic and stashed behind the sports magazines. Given that it’s virtually impossible to avoid naked people on the Internet in 2020 – displayed free of charge – I can’t imagine who still buys them.
Barnes & Noble also still sells scores of novels in hardcover and paperback, which I imagine most people use as bookends, doorstops and gag gifts.
As an avid reader, a guy who goes through a hundred books annually, I don’t remember the last time I read a book in paper form.
For old time’s sake, I spent a few minutes searching for the Cliffsnotes versions of various works of literature I was assigned to read in high school, but skipped.
One day I may get around to Aldous Huxley and Zora Neale Hurston in full. But surely in digital form and not with sufficient clarity to write a five-page, double-spaced term paper.
It was comforting to find old favorites still on the shelves. Flipping through them, I tried to recall why I gave up paper texts.
The why: The majority of us have traded the superior heft of texts, the tactile joy of turning pages and the ability to scribble in a book’s margins for the simplicity of pointing, clicking, buying, downloading, reading.
Sure, some bookstores – Changing Hands, the Poisoned Pen – still make a go of it, but a thought occurred: When our children’s children’s children go to Old Western towns like Rawhide for kicks in 2120, will the faux scenery still be saloons, shooting galleries and the undertaker? Or will the place feature storefronts like Borders and The Gap?
Sheer guilt made me buy something: Another copy of The Great Gatsby, though I already own more than a few. I haven’t read it in a couple years, but that famous last line of Fitzgerald’s stuck with me as I turned back onto Dunlap Avenue.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”