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Books still absorb, even if they're electronic

A few weeks ago, before vacation, I drove down to Wesley Chapel to pick up some books at Barnes & Noble, the only chain store I can say I'd love to see in Hernando.

Maybe you agree. When a previous columnist asked readers what kind of retail outlet they most wanted to open here, the easy winner was a major bookstore.

If these media supermarkets don't quite meet the county's definition of big-box stores, they're still big and boxy. They crush independent enterprise, are surrounded by expanses of asphalt and promote the dreaded "culture of sameness.'' I shouldn't approve.

But their coffee is hot and their chairs comfy. They're usually packed with people reading old-fashioned ink on paper — nice to see if you're in the business. The clerks don't mind when I sift through piles of glossy, overpriced magazines I have zero intention of buying — probably because most browsers drop plenty of cash before they leave.

On the visit this summer, I did. The total bill for the family was well over $100. My treat was a $20 (factoring in discount and tax) new release by acclaimed author Sebastian Junger: War.

A few pages in, I decided I didn't need to read an entire book to know Afghanistan is a brutal, frustrating mess. For me at least, War was a dud.

And now it's junk — paper, cardboard and cloth gathering dust in the discard pile of reading material by my bed and, soon, on bookshelves full of other half-read books in our den.

I bring this up because Amazon.com recently announced that it's selling more e-books than hardcovers.

My family gave me Barnes & Noble's e-reader, a "Nook," for Father's Day. You may remember I denounced the shallow materialism of giving gifts on this holiday. Forget it. This thing is great, especially if you live in a place with underfunded libraries and no full-service bookstore.

It helps that every book I've downloaded so far has been a winner: Neville Shute's classic post-apocalypse novel, On the Beach; Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne, about the final years of the Comanches; The Greatest Trade Ever, in which Gregory Zuckerman tells the story of a hedge fund manager who made billions betting against the housing market — tells it so well that even I'm starting to figure out credit default swaps.

In articles I read about surging e-book sales, experts debate if this will be the death or salvation of the publishing business. Newspapers face the same question: Can their intellectual product be delivered profitably without the traditional, resource-heavy delivery network — paper, presses, trucks, buildings?

If these two industries really are in it together, I find it reassuring that my book-buying has accelerated since I got my Nook; e-books are cheaper — $7 cheaper in the case of War and easier to access. I don't miss turning pages or any other aspect of what people are starting to call "physical books.'' I don't miss the bulk or weight of the stack of them I pack for vacations and certainly don't miss the bad ones piling up in our den.

I'd still like to see a Barnes & Noble in Hernando, or even the Books-a-Million that was once supposed to open on U.S. 19. I like coffee, comfortable chairs and well-read, tolerant clerks. But even a good bookstore comes in second to a good book.

Books still absorb, even if they're electronic 07/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 8:52pm]

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