A Resurgence of the Real?

I’VE BEEN thinking a lot lately about technological obsolescence. This isn’t because I’m a classroom teacher and professional writer—two occupations widely expected to meet the fate of John Henry. My musings have mainly been prompted by the hours I just spent weeding through my family’s extensive collection of cassette tapes. From 1992 to about 2005, my wife, Polly, and I made a sizeable investment in that doomed medium, mostly in the form of children’s audiobooks and home-school educational programs that our kids (now ages 14 to 21) have outgrown. We still have three functioning cassette players in our house, but then we still have a 22-year-old tube television, too. I don’t expect that anyone who has young children today would be willing to take on our collection of cassettes. Even Goodwill may refuse them.

Some things, like the cassette tape, deserve to become obsolete. They were always an inferior product. But, all the logic of the market economy to the contrary, newer is not always, or even usually, better.

That’s why it’s been heartening to witness, in the past year or so, the beginning of a small backlash against our forced march toward a future that is all-digital, all the time. The first sign of a revolt was the return of the vinyl record. Of course, I held on to my vinyl through all the transitions of the past 30 years, and we’ve always had a functioning turntable in the house. But now it is my 21-year-old son who actually buys vinyl. Of course, my son also has an iPod and does most of his listening through headphones, like the rest of his peers. But he and thousands of other young music buffs have learned that vinyl delivers a better sound than any of the digital formats currently on the consumer market.

On another front, a few years ago it was widely predicted that online education, and especially the widely hailed MOOCs (massive open online courses), would soon either replace or drastically disrupt traditional models of higher education. But the Inside Higher Ed website recently dubbed 2013 “the year of the backlash” against MOOCs. What’s the problem? Turns out online classes simply don’t work as well as traditional ones for most students, and especially not for the low-income and under-prepared students higher education most needs to reach. As one of the chief promoters of the MOOCs recently admitted, “We have a lousy product.”

Even more interesting and heartening on the backlash front is the widely reported resurgence of independent bookstores. According to a report on National Public Radio, the number of U.S. independent bookstores has grown by 20 percent in the past three years. Meanwhile, the rise of the e-book, the next big thing that was supposed to kill off the local bookstore, may have peaked. According to The Washington Post, e-book sales went up only 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013 after growing by 28 percent in the same quarter of 2012 and 159 percent in 2011.

The bottom line: People, in growing numbers, are choosing to go out and buy a product in person that they could just as easily order and receive without ever getting out of their pajamas. And, unlike the vinyl record or the in-person college class, the independent bookstores don’t have a superior product. I get the same book whether I buy it from Amazon or Poor Richard’s (our Frankfort indie). People are going to real bookstores because they provide a place to engage with art and ideas and with other people who care about those things. They value community more than cost or convenience. And in 21st century America, that is a rare piece of encouraging news. 

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.

Image: Ebook on books, merthuroglu / Shutterstock.com

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