Recently, I heard that a friend of mine is dying. Let me clarify: this friend is not a person, but instead an institution.
If you’ve been reading the papers or following the Yahoo news feeds you will be aware that Borders is beginning a liquidation process. The once great bookstore is selling everything at a discounted rate, and stores across America are closing. This means no more Sunday trips to wander the store sipping on a Seattle’s Best coffee, no more comfy chair reading the first chapters of books before they are bought, no more running to the store at night to buy a book for school, no more last-second gift buying, and no more community of readers wandering the aisles as if in a secular cathedral. Welcome to the new America, and welcome the illiterate generation.
How in the world could we reach the point where bookstores are now shutting their doors and trying to sell anything for a chance to make a buck? In fact, Borders is so desperate for money, according to news reports, that Gordon Brothers Group, part of a group of liquidators leading the sales, claims that more than $700 million of the company’s inventory, including books, stationery, music and movies, will be sold. And on a sadder note, store fixtures, furnishings and equipment, including shelving and cafe equipment, will also be sold off. It’s the fire sale of the century, and we are all responsible.
The first reason for this devastating news has to do with an ever changing culture. We really do not value imagination anymore. No one is setting out to write the great American novel. Where are our Steinbecks, Fitzgeralds and Hemingways? They have been replaced by YouTube filmmakers, World Wide Web bloggers and Twittering twits.
William A. Henry III’s book In Defense of Elitism explained the idea that when everyone has a valid opinion, then no one really has a valid opinion at all. He wrote, “We have foolishly embraced the unexamined notions that everyone is pretty much alike (and worse, should be), that self-fulfillment is more important than objective achievement, that the common man is always right, that a good and just society should be far more concerned with succoring its losers than with honoring and encouraging our winners.” Since we’ve evolved into a society that sees everyone’s ideas as equal, why read when we have the answers within ourselves? But the difference between Steinbeck’s novels and your neighbor’s blog is that Steinbeck yearned to understand and explain the human condition through beautiful prose, whereas your neighbor just wants to get all his friends to “like” his silly comment concerning his recent trip to the supermarket.
Another reason for this tragedy is our school systems’ emphasis on self-esteem and not on literacy. Our children are being made more aware of global warming than reading the old stories of Narnia. We have traded in Shakespeare and Dickens for Jersey Shore and stressful reality television. Our pastimes involve finding new applications for smart phones instead of just becoming smarter. The proof is in the pudding as South Korea tops the rankings list of literacy among all countries, and we sit at number 33 behind Brazil and Luxembourg. Of course, American students rank number one in self esteem, according to a 2007 study on education. So at least we are happy about our ignorance.
America is falling behind, and the first great casualty is my old friend Borders. Of course, I am rather biased since I worked there in my last years of college, and I still roam the local stores whenever I have the free time. To say this wound is more personal would be an understatement. Then there are the 10,000-plus employees losing their jobs as well. The carnage just runs too deep.
Sadly, during this time, our country is also shutting down NASA, Kodak is putting an eternal lens cap on herself, and America’s Chrysler experiment cost taxpayers $1.3 billion. The culture is changing. What were once our flagships have been sent to the dock.
I would suggest to those who are suffering that they grab a good book and escape a while, but unfortunately there is nowhere to send them.
Editor’s note: Though the local Borders locations closed months ago, Borders around the country are in some state of being shutdown currently.