A TV commercial I saw recently sums up a lot of what is wrong with modern life. In it, a lovely young woman tells a man of her own age that she's going to a bookstore to pick up a copy of some sensational new bestseller. She asks the young man if he'd like to come along to the bookstore with her. The man turns down her offer saying, in effect, "No thanks. I've got a Kindle [or perhaps it was a Nook]. I can download the book right now and begin reading it in seconds."
The ad aims to show how this e-reader can improve your life, but this guy looks like he's losing out. If I were a single man in my twenties and a hot young woman asked me to accompany her to a bookstore, I'd leap at the opportunity, even if I had no desire to purchase a book. Bookstores are generally acknowledged as enjoyable places to hang out. That's why the characters in romantic comedies ("You've Got Mail," "Dan In Real Life," "Notting Hill," etc.) are often seen together in bookstores. And so, as the commercial ended, I fumed to my wife about the manifold evils of a society that encourages people to use electronic devices in order to avoid such things as intercourse with other human beings who are actively seeking one's companionship. And yet, there was an element of hypocrisy in my ranting and raving.
I buy several hundred books a year, but most of them are purchased from Amazon.com. There are at least a half dozen bookstores in my city (Sacramento) that I visit regularly. But while browsing a shop, I'll usually compile a list of all the titles that interest me so I can go home and order cheap used copies of said books from Amazon.com (or, more accurately, third-party sellers who hawk their used books via Amazon's website). Unlike the young man in the commercial, I enjoy getting out of the house and perusing bookshelves in the company of my fellow book-lovers. But, in most cases, I ultimately purchase the book online; so the money leaves my bank account and travels across the country where it does no good for the Sacramento economy. I am a 53-year-old man who complains about how e-books are making the world a less social place, and yet, when it comes time to purchase an actual book, I do pretty much what the young man in the commercial did -- I order it from a distant site via an electronic device that provides me with no personal interaction with the seller.
I defend my hypocritical behavior by citing my poverty. I am among the most impoverished of freelance writers and I also have an insatiable literary jones, which causes me to purchase books even when I can barely afford groceries. If I didn't shop at Amazon, my annual book expenses would probably be double what they are now. Amazon usually sells new books at 20 to 40 percent below the publisher's retail price. Used books are an even bigger bargain. I can often find used books selling at Amazon for a mere 10 or 20 percent of their original price. And if I save these items in my shopping cart until the total cost of my purchases is $25 or more, I typically won't have to pay for shipping, either.
And so I turn my nose up at people reading their e-readers. I think to myself how sad it is that they'll never know the thrill of coming across a photograph or bookmark or airplane ticket tucked away in the pages of some used book. But I really shouldn't condemn them for eliminating the bookstore from their reading experience. Although I still visit these brick-and-mortar shops, I don't support those establishments with my money any more than the e-reader user does. In the end, we both end up ordering books by clicking a virtual button with the word "purchase" printed on it. Our money disappears from the local economy, and those valiant booksellers who still maintain a physical presence in our communities despite the dwindling returns of such operations are once again penalized for their commitment to the personal touch. The only difference between me and the pathetic young man in the e-reader commercial is that I would never -- ever -- turn down an offer to accompany an attractive young woman to a bookstore (although, at my age, the woman would likely be one of my granddaughters).