Will books survive? Yes... but not on your shelf

Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, analysts say, Borders is probably doomed.

The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?

Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches, and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).

The key word, of course, is the one in front of the word "word": "printed." We are reading more than ever. Just not in print.

According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.

The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.

Why does this matter? Quality. The Huffington Post, recently sold to America Online for $315 million, points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We're getting exactly what they pay for: crap.

If you think journalism is bad now, it's going to get even worse. The message is as loud and brassy as Arianna: real journalism doesn't pay. Inevitably the best and brightest are gravitating to other fields.

Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention. I recall significantly more of what I read in print than online; I've found the same to be true of my friends.

Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.

"The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions–clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads– take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone," argues Mangen. "One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way."

My personal experience convinces me that there is a difference. On the Kindle, everything looks and feels the same. When I read the Times on newsprint, part of what helps me remember a story is the ad that ran next to it and the photo underneath. Sure, Kindle readers remember much of what they read. But not as much as old-fashioned bookworms.

It is hard to quantify the value of a country's intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.

So what's the solution? European booksellers, publishers, and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.

In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to learn the lesson of Borders: middle of the road equals mediocre.

Beginning at least ten years ago Borders buyers began eschewing risks. Buying into the "blockbuster mentality" of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors–profitable, but not bestselling, titles. Browsers found fewer surprises at Borders. As for top-selling books, they're cheaper at Costco and on Amazon.

Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders. B&N's inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel "curated," the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity. If consumers want something obscure, odds are there's a copy or two in the back, spine out.

It's a frightening thought: America's intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.
Ted Rall's most recent book is "Wake Up, You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right" (Soft Skull Press).