Being surrounded by books is a lot nicer than just seeing them displayed on a screen. There’s a physical feeling of being in the middle of thoughts and ideas that have emerged from obscurity and seen the light. And behind every book, there is a story – one that never gets out. The rows and rows of carefully catalogued pearls of wisdom – everything from learning Java to finding God and making millions or cooking a perfect paneer achari. It’s like going through a lifetime of conversations with people you never know. I mean – have you ever wondered what James Hadley Chase, PG Wodehouse or Robert Ludlum were like? You know their books, you can reel off their bestsellers and the plotlines but you never know what they themselves went through in life. It’s always the books they wrote that are interesting, not the authors themselves.
Airport bookstores are like abridged versions of the real thing – like pocket editions. The difference between a restaurant and the roadside kiosk. And the books there tend to be the ones on management and a few select bestselling names. The booksellers know what people are going to pick up. Travelers have a couple of hours to kill and depending on their frame of mind, they either pick up the latest management tome, bestseller or spiritual retreat. But I don’t see too many takers in the bookstores now. Most are glued to TV screens or laptops – imagining what words can conjure is probably a little too taxing.
E-books are on the cusp of mainstream adoption. And that probably means that we will have another screen that we turn to. The lure of brick and mortar bookstores is the variety of titles on show. The feel of stiff paper. The artfully designed cover. The smell of glue and the soft swish as you turn the pages. The book is an idea turned into an object you can touch and feel. But the virtual one is an idea that stays within the confines of the screen. The cover is not something you linger on. In a few decades from now, the physical book will probably go back to being produced only on request. Maybe that is a good thing because resources are not wasted and the printed book will indicate true value. We will print what we really treasure and want to keep returning to. And in a lifetime, there may be just a handful of those titles.