Barnes & Noble announced earlier this week that they will close 20 stores each year for the next decade, which reduces the number of locations selling books by about one-third. A visit to our local store gave me some pretty clear evidence about why. Even though, according to the staff, the location I visited is not slated to close, the huge store was unusually quiet for a cold winter afternoon.
There were more people getting coffee in the cafe and camped out on laptops in the magazine section than anywhere else. Still, bookstores aren’t going out of business, they’re just changing how and where they sell books. As I roamed the departments and passed the help desk I heard the same remarks from various staff. “We don’t have that in stock here, but I can get it for you online.” or “You need it today? Do you have an e-reader?”
It seems like it’s been a long time coming, but the Barnes & Noble announcement tells us it’s here: we aren’t just changing how we buy books, we’re changing the way we read. Some schools are already replacing textbooks with iPads, but what about how we read at home? Has a tablet replaced your daily newspaper? Do you still haul a bag of books to the beach?
Our college daughter wants all of her books – textbooks and personal reading – on paper. Our middle school son won’t read anything that’s not on a screen. They are five years apart and my daughter insists that the difference between them is that her youngest years consisted mostly of paper books. As she says, “I read Harry Potter, he watched it.” Gender and sibling issues aside, what I have noticed is that our son wants – no, expects – access to the definitions and back story of everything he reads while he reads it – the dictionary function of an e-book is tailor-made to his learning style. Our daughter buries herself in a paper book – she becomes physically attached to it, reads it more than once, and then she places it on her carefully organized bookshelf. Along with her laptop, she carted a large box of her favorite books to college as a 75-pound security blanket.
When e-books first emerged, I recall a heated discussion at a neighborhood party about whether reading a e-book counted as reading. You don’t hear those conversations anymore; the tables have turned and now our friends are asking which paper books are worth buying. There isn’t a right answer to that question; everyone will answer it a little differently. But should we insist that our children read in both formats? Do we care? What do you think?
So far the only concern about e-books is one that applies to all screens: they can keep you awake. A recent study suggests that the light from the screen can upset circadian rhythm and interfere with sleep patterns. Researchers at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute noted that sustained light from screens – or any strong light source – in the two hours before bedtime can suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that helps induce sleep.
But then again, some might say an e-book is just a book under the covers with a built-in flashlight.