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After Borders closes: still room for both e-books and the paper kind

As an occasional book reviewer, even before the Borders liquidation announcement, I’ve thought a lot about the future of books. The ideal book is more than a lump of text, whether you are talking e-books or the paper kind.

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As the Borders bookstore chain moves ahead with plans to go out of business, its demise has raised anew questions about long-term prospects for the traditional printed book. But the discussion need not resort back to the tired one that sets e-books against the paper kind.

In my occasional work as a book reviewer, even before the Borders announcement, I’ve become accustomed to thinking a lot about the future of books. On many nights, in fact, I sit under my reading lamp and open books that, in the strictest sense, don’t yet exist.

Publishers often send me advance reader copies of titles that won’t be finished and sent to bookstores until many weeks later. The idea is to give critics and other industry insiders a glimpse of what’s coming up, possibly creating some buzz before a book’s official release date.

Advance reader copies are almost uniformly utilitarian objects, often grimly so. Instead of the nice binding that holds together a typical book, reader copies are often bound in plain stock that has all the visual appeal of a brown paper bag. There is frequently no cover art, so the only things telling you hello are the title and author spelled out in dryly sensible type, like the opening lines of a master’s thesis.

What you get with an advance reader copy is the script for a book, but something clearly short of the book itself. Granted, the author’s words are there before you – and that would seem to be the most important ingredient in a work of literature.

Ideal book is more than a lump of text

But to live routinely with advance reader copies, as I do, is to be reminded that an ideal book is more than a mere lump of text. It’s also a sublime alchemy of language and art, craftsmanship, and physical substance.

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