Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Decline of Bookstores and Books?

"Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis"

"Life is a struggle with old forms giving way to new forms. And human society is part of this struggle" -- George Yeo

I was somewhat unpleasantly surprised and sad when I read in today's Straits Times that following the closure of Borders, Page One at Vivocity may also be closing down if it fails to renew its lease at a lower price ("Exit: Page One?", Straits Times, 15 Oct 2011). According to the article, bookstores such as Page One have been facing increased pressure not only from rising rental costs but also from increased competition from the advent of online book sellers, for example: Amazon, and electronic books (ebooks).

On a personal level, the possible closure of Page One saddens me because it is perhaps one of my favourite haunts whenever I happen to be at Vivocity. Its large variety of books appeals to the bibliophile/bookworm in me and its reading benches, from which one can look out across to Sentosa, must be one of the few places in Singapore where one can read in air-conditioned comfort and also enjoy a beautiful view.

However, this goes beyond me and other frequent visitors to Page One losing a favourite haunt of ours. To me, the fact that bookstores such as Page One are facing the threat of having to close down is perhaps an apt indicator of how the advent of new technology sweeps away the old. Evidently, in this case, the new technology that is threatening the survival of bookstores, if not books themselves, will particularly be the emergence of ebook readers such as the Kindle and the iPad.

This threat posed by new technology does not affect only books but also other printed materials such as newspapers and magazines (see here for a video of how, to a baby girl, a magazine is a non-working iPad). In fact, it appears that even the pornography industry is also affected by the advent of new technology.

The plus points of electronic readers are evident: they are less bulky and easier to carry around than real physical books/magazines/newspapers, one can carry around an entire collection of reading materials in a single electronic reader, one can zoom in or increase the font size for easier reading, they will never become yellow with age and et cetera. Yet, call me a traditionalist but I think nothing can replace the experience of reading from a physical book/newspaper/magazine held in one' hands. As Ms Ashley Siew (cited in the Straits Times article) puts it, "I really love going to bookstores, the feeling of browsing different titles, stumbling upon new books and the feel of a book in my hands. It's an experience hard to replace".

However, that said, I am keenly aware of how printed books were also once a technological innovation. Firstly, handwritten/hand-copied books (or codices) replaced rolled-up scrolls and later, the invention of the printing press then allowed printed books to replace handwritten/hand-copied books. In fact, I suppose if we are to look further back in history, we will see that the "technology" of writing also replaced the oral tradition of spreading knowledge and information through the spoken word.

So perhaps the lamenting about the decline of bookstores and books by me and others like me is inconsequential when seen in the context of how technological change and innovation are perhaps inevitable; that such changes and innovations have taken place in the past and will continue to occur in the future. Today, electronic readers may be replacing physical books/newspapers/magazines but in the future, some other technology may emerge to replace electronic readers. And with change, there will always be winners and losers; those who can best adapt to change will survive and prosper while those who cannot adapt will become obsolete and be swept away.

The transition will of course not be easy or painless. And while I can rationally appreciate the fact that change is inevitable, I still cannot help but feel a sense of loss and sadness that the epoch of the printed book may be replaced by the epoch of the electronic reader. While we may welcome the new, we must not forget the old.

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