When Borders announced it is closing its remaining stores earlier this week, part of me died. My first Borders experience was with the original Ann Arbor store after moving to Michigan to be with my (then) fiancée. Since then my wife and I have spent many happy weekend hours browsing at Borders. The sensory, indeed, nearly hedonistic pleasure of being among books in a casual, friendly environment where ideas seemed to roam as freely as the bison on the plains before the Louisiana Purchase, is, sadly, about to end. Barnes and Noble never attained that balance nor has it ever aspired to it. I once met Jeff Bazos, the founder of Amazon, and he is a very nice guy. But when I buy books from his store, I never leave my living room. One of the intellectual’s guilty pleasures has been eradicated.
I grew up in a town with no bookstore beyond the local Christian supply shop. When a mall was built nearby and a Waldenbooks came in, I thought I was in heaven. Even the town where I attended college had no bookstores beyond the campus supplier. Borders represented the intelligent side of book buying, without appealing to the lowest common denominator. I can hear the nails being driven in from the pillow in my coffin. Our society is a post-literate one. As a person who has had many an unrepentant love affair with words, it feels like civilization itself has received a mortal blow. As I tell my students: the mark of true civilization is writing. Ever since the Sumerians invented it, it has been a means of release from reinventing the wheel with each generation. Our hearts, however, have gone after technology and gadgets and left bookstores in the dust.
Please allow me my eulogy here—I realize that reading will continue, but its context has morphed almost beyond recognition. I have watched while every employment for which I am suitable has silently gone extinct: higher education, libraries, museums, publishers—the pillars of culture itself. Gone is the day when a kid receiving his summer paycheck would beg his mother to drive the forty miles to the nearest bookstore where he would come out with not a cent in his pockets but his arms full of books. We can read about such idiotic behavior online. A border has been crossed, but some of us will linger on the other side hoping that the civilization we knew might somehow survive.