Kindles make it harder to show people how smart you think you are


Came across an interesting statistic the other day: Digital books are outselling hardcovers these days.

This is one of those statistics that’s supposed to say something Important and Significant about the state of the world, like the claim that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, which is usually cited to illustrate the growing influence of Latinos on the U.S. economy but could as easily mean that nobody doesn’t like salsa.

The economy’s still kind of wobbly, digital books are cheaper than hardcover books, so, of course, they’re going to outsell hardcovers.

This doesn’t bother me. I’m basically a glass-half-full* kind of guy. I’m just glad people are reading. I’m especially glad people are still willing to pay money to read.
What’s more, digital books make it easier to buy books you ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead with. I can’t imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a bestseller if the women buying it couldn’t buy it online, anonymously.
However, there is a downside to the shift toward digital books: With a Kindle, it’s harder to show people how smart you think you are.
For a serious reader, a book is like a trophy case. The books you choose to display tell people what you’ve read, what you’re thinking about, how you look at the world.
When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is a bookshelf, or, absent that, a book. If you have books, there’s a good chance we’ll become good friends, especially if it turns out you’ve read a lot of the same books I have, especially if you have some literary or obscure book I love that most people haven’t heard of.
You can’t do that with a Kindle.
Your e-reader could be loaded with great books, but no one’s ever going to know it. You could open the bookshelf on your Kindle and leave it lying conspicuously on the coffee table when you go answer the door, but the screen will probably go dark before anyone notices.
Likewise, when you visit someone’s house, you can’t really start thumbing through someone’s Kindle. That would be like flipping through someone’s diary. It would be rude, and there’s a chance you’ll see things you can’t unsee (such as those Fifty Shades of Grey sequels).
Without a bookcase to help you, your only option is feeling the other person out, which can be tricky. If you walk into someone’s house, and there’s a bookshelf, you tend to pick up on the titles you recognize or like (Love in the Time of Cholera, for example) and ignore the titles you don’t (such as Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, which is a real book and not something I just made up).
If you ask someone, “Read any good books lately?” you’re putting the other person on the spot. They’re under pressure now to come up with a book they think you might like. If they say Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, and you’re a dog person, or they try to play it safe and say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy, I don’t really have time to read,” well, what might have been a beautiful friendship may be dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean Kindles are a bad thing. I think they’re really useful. I love hearing about a book then having a copy seconds later. I love being able to download public-domain titles such as Walden or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn free of charge. Plus, unlike paper books, Kindles let you play Angry Birds and stream Netflix. (There is a hack for this, of course: Simply draw a little cartoon on the bottom corner of every page then flip the pages to see it move.)
I’m just saying new technologies bring new challenges, new challenges that, sooner or later, someone will write a digital book about.
*Technically, I’m a glass-is-completely-full kind of guy. The bottom half of the glass is full of water. The top half of the glass is full of air. So there.

Something I miss: Checkout cards

Photo by Chris Blakely via Flickr

Thing 1 (the 11-year-old) brought home a library book the other day, and in the front was something I hadn’t seen in a while: a library checkout card.

These days, you check out books by scanning them, but until a few years ago, you checked out a book by signing a card. It was in a pocket glued inside the front of the book. The librarian, in turn, gave you a card stamped with the return date.

There was no encryption, no effort to protect the privacy of the people who’d borrowed a given book, because every name was listed on the card, in the borrower’s own handwriting. You could also see whether a book was popular by how many times it had been checked out.

It was kind of nice picking up a book and seeing that someone you knew, maybe someone in your family, had read it before, sometimes years before.

The checkout card in Thing 1’s book hadn’t been used in several years. When the library went digital, they’d simply left the card in the book.

I don’t think libraries should go back to using checkout cards, and, if you think about it, knowing that anyone can find out whether you’ve read a book is kind of creepy, but, at the same time, I do wish Thing 1 could have the experience of knowing a little about a book’s history before she reads it.

You can’t judge a bookstore by its sign

Words n’ Stuff is a great little bookstore.

It’s in a place called Van Lear, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, near where I grew up.

Words n’ Stuff isn’t big, and it isn’t fancy. It doesn’t have a Starbucks, but if you’d ask, I’ll bet they’d give you a cup of coffee.

Words n’ Stuff is for people who love books. It has everything from local history to world religions, literary fiction to romance novels, new hard covers to used paperbacks.

If you go there, you’ll buy something. You can’t help it. You will.

We went there when we were visiting my folks last weekend, and we left with a memoir of Amelia Earhart’s first solo flight across the Atlantic, an Edmund Morris biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen and some children’s books.

We might have bought more, but Thing 2 got restless. There’s a good children’s section at Words n’ Stuff, but no train tables.

What impresses me most about Words n’ Stuff, though, is that it’s in Van Lear. Van Lear isn’t the place where you’d expect to find a great little bookstore.

Van Lear was built by the Consolidation Coal Co. in 1909 and named for a company director, Van Lear Black.

(If the name of the place sounds familar, it’s probably because Loretta Lynn mentions the Van Lear mines in her song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and in the title song of her album, Van Lear Rose, which won a Grammy in a few years ago. Dwight Yoakum mentions the mines in the song, “Miner’s Prayer,” which was on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.)

Van Lear is unincorporated. There isn’t a downtown. Words n’ Stuff is one of Van Lear’s only retail businesses. People who live in Van Lear tend to shop and work someplace else.

I can’t find 2010 Census data for Van Lear, but in 2000, about 2,100 people lived in the bookstore’s ZIP code. Only 10% of them had bachelor’s degrees (the national average was 24%), while the median household income was $26,600 (compared with the national average of $42,000).

If you were Barnes & Noble’s or Borders, who wouldn’t give Van Lear a second look.

I think that’s worked to Van Lear’s advantage.