Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Sense of Place

There was a nice slideshow on Salon yesterday, naming some of the most beautiful and distinctive bookstores in the world, which, the author said, would “make you rethink your Kindle.”

I don’t think the average Kindle owner thought about it in the first place. I get the impression that the e-book reader phenomenon is driven primarily by an unmitigated and all but universal fervor for technology. If it’s identified as new and innovative, it seems as though people will stand in line to get one, even if they never considered whether they wanted it or needed it.

But the higher tech option is not always the best option, and I wish I could push American society to the breaking point of realizing that fact once and for all. Sometimes the traditional alternative provides an appeal that is different from the appeal of modernity, but one that is still distinct and meaningful. The Salon piece suggests one such appeal that should be obvious, but that I think is often overlooked even by the defenders of analog: the beauty of actually buying something from a physical space.

I’m not at all a shopper, but when I do wish to acquire something, nothing pleases me more than holding it in my hands before it is really mine to possess. I love to flip through copious stacks of records and find the ones that most appeal to me, and I love to leaf through physically real books, to be able to pick things up at random and hold them side-by-side.

If there’s one thing that technology cannot satisfyingly replace, I would say that thing may be the thrill of discovery. I honestly can't understand why this doesn’t occur to other people. Convenience is not always an improvement. There is a point at which convenience steals away the features that made an activity what it was. And in the case of books, tactile sensation and dog-earing pages and marginalia all aside, part of the experience of literature – indeed, of virtually anything – is its physicality, the sense that there is a place where the literate gather, a shared visual representation of the enormity of what the intellectually curious are vainly striving to grasp.

Sometimes, as the Salon slideshow points out to us, that physical space may be a repurposed cathedral or theater, a site standing as a lovely monument in some distant place, or hidden somewhere inside the daily experiences of our landscape. Sometimes, bookstores are really beautiful. And to my mind, losing bookstores, or record stores, or any of the other places that lend a sense of community, sacrifice, and engagement to our acts of acquisition is bad enough if those places are banal. It is worse when the experience that’s lost is not only meaningful and affective, but powerfully unique.

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