A bittersweet love letter to Barnes and Noble
Barnes & Noble isn't dying quite as quickly as it was before. The company released its quarterly report today, and while it still posted losses, it isn't hemorrhaging cash like it was last year. Now all the company needs to do is convince people that physical books are still worth purchasing to survive what many have considered its impending doom at the hands of Amazon and its Kindle.
That shouldn't be as hard as it sounds. Besides the romanticism of holding a physical book in your hands instead of clutching a piece of plastic with one claw-like appendage, there are many benefits to reading physical books instead of their digital counterparts, not least among them being a theory that people retain and process information better when reading a physical book.
The New Yorker's Maria Konnikova described one researcher's concerns about the effect digital reading is having on our minds in July, and how those concerns might be warranted:
Wolf’s concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the 'sophisticated comprehension processes,' as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. 'Reading is a bridge to thought,' she says. 'And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?'Now, a dedicated consumer can still purchase a physical book from Amazon, at least for now. (Who knows what will happen when the company manages to assert even more control over the publishing industry and people finally purchase a Kindle despite their previous misgivings.) But there's a benefit to visiting Barnes & Noble instead of shopping through Amazon: serendipity.
There's something wonderful about wandering through the aisles of a bookstore and finding a book by accident. I was walking through a Barnes & Noble near me the other day and I found two books -- one on the Boston Marathon bombing, the other on the future of warfare -- that I might never have known about if I hadn't decided to go spend some time in the store that day.
Amazon doesn't afford such serendipitous discoveries. From the moment you sign in to the site you're bombarded with recommendations from the company's algorithms, effectively creating a bubble of knowledge that you're expected to explore without leaving, similar to how Google and its algorithms affect the knowledge you can come across by selecting which websites to display.
Finding something new to read, something outside your comfort zone, is never a bad thing, and it's easier to do that in a physical store than a digital one. Barnes & Noble has the added benefit of hosting cafes and places for people to sit, allowing them to lounge while reading a book and deciding if it's something they might be interested in or if it should be placed back on the shelf.
The problem is that many people don't purchase the books they flip through in the store. It's not hard to understand why: some hardcovers can cost as much as $30 from Barnes & Noble, while their digital editions cost just $10 from the Kindle Store. Even though I love being able to browse through a store, I'm not willing to pay an extra $18, despite a physical book's benefits.
So I'm glad that Barnes & Noble will be around longer than many people might have thought. I appreciate the fact that it's still alive and allowing people to experience something that might disappear in a few years. (How long will it be until "I bought this from Barnes & Noble" sounds as ridiculous as "I rented this from Blockbuster?") It's still bleeding out, but at least it's slowed.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]