(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We all have aspects of the old normal that we miss. For me, it's bookstores.
Barnes and Noble will end the shutdown with fewer stores than before the pandemic, and the company will be implementing restrictions that are sure to discourage browsing. Other booksellers have no idea when they will be ready to welcome customers again. The New York Times reported recently that although the number of indies has increased by nearly 900 over the past decade, the current emergency “threatens to wipe out those gains.”
You might respond that bookstores don’t matter. If you want a book, you can order it online. You can download it to your Kindle. What difference does it make if physical stores are in trouble? Aren’t they an endangered species anyway?
Maybe so — but they’re the kind of endangered species we should be eager to preserve. Brick-and-mortar bookstores matter because browsing is important. Browsing is important not only because it is a pleasure, but also because it underscores the forgotten role of the physical book.
Browsing is a voyage of constant discovery. You run your fingers along the spines of the history section only to learn that the volume you’re looking for isn’t in stock. No matter. You find a fascinating book you’ve never heard of and know nothing about, a treasure upon which you happened only because you were looking for another. You pick it up, you leaf through it, you decide to buy. (Especially — no kidding! — if the smell of chocolate is in the air.) No matter how many screens you glance at online, you won’t duplicate the number and variety of volumes you can swiftly take in by spending even a few minutes in a bookstore aisle.
So much for all that. To begin with, a lot of people will understandably be uneasy about browsing because browsing means more time in the store, and they won't want to chance infection by another customer. So maybe it makes sense that Barnes and Noble plans to remove those comfy chairs and benches where people used to sit and read. But browsing is also tactile, testing a book's heft and weight even as you leaf through the pages. That's going to be harder than ever, given that the chain has also announced plans to quarantine for five days every volume a customer handles. With booksellers nowadays often displaying only a copy or two of all but the most popular titles, the book quarantine will have many buyers ordering on their phones instead.
One obvious question, then, is whether the five-day quarantine is necessary. I appreciate the need for the stores to limit potential liability, and to disinfect a physical book could ruin it. (Try to picture a volume that’s been treated with Lysol.) And, certainly, a business must plan around the fears consumers are experiencing.
But where books are concerned, maybe we should be less afraid. A few years ago, experts were assuring the public that books were highly unlikely transmitters of disease. Has Covid-19 changed the calculus? The evidence so far seems to be against the proposition that the coronavirus can survive on paper for more than a few hours. This would be consistent with what we learned from similar viruses in the past.(1)
We’ve been through a scare about books and germs before, during the smallpox epidemic of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and one result was a serious crippling of public libraries. The widespread belief that picking up a book could make a person sick was part of what Priscilla Wald of Duke University has labeled “a litany of hitherto unseen dangers.”
I’m not insisting that studies suggesting the possibility of a longer life on paper are wrong. But we should approach them with care. This recent article, cited for the proposition that the novel coronavirus might survive on paper for up to five days, is a review of existing literature. The article makes the five-day assertion for only one strain of SARS, known as CoV-P9, recovered from a single patient. The source of the assertion is this 2003 study, which was actually about ways to kill SARS, and in which the paper was infected with an unusually high concentration of virus (105 infective doses per millileter). For other strains, at similar doses, the review showed the SARS virus surviving on paper for 5 minutes to 3 hours, or, at an even higher doses, for just 24 hours.
And this is assuming the virus will remain on the surface of the page not just in the right concentration to infect us, but also in a sufficient amount. Certainly it’s possible — but is it really plausible? Even researchers who consider contaminated surfaces an important risk in viral transmission concede that the extant studies are difficult to evaluate.
None of this matters, however, unless physical books matter. A detailed argument on this could fill, well, a book, but here it is in brief: Books fill a vital niche in a democracy, presenting a different way of looking at both stories and arguments. They provide a reminder that there exist valuable and complex ideas that can’t be squeezed into a handful of words and fascinating tales that don’t fit on the screen. The solidity of the printed word is a symbol of permanence. And the book in any form, digital or physical, is an escape from the quotidian, a chance to lose yourself in history few people know much about, or to discover brilliantly transportive fiction you might have missed.
Browsing bookstores reminds us of this value, which is why we so enjoy it, particularly when we’re browsing used and antiquarian volumes in cramped venues with narrow stairways and bulging shelves and books heaped everywhere because there’s simply no more space — the sort of places where the dust motes seem to have seen more of life and literature than you ever will.
Which is perhaps another way of saying that if bookstores fall victim to the pandemic, we will lose remarkable treasures impossible to replace.
(1) Experts quoted in the press suggest that newspapers cannot spread the virus.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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