I had mixed feelings when Borders bookstore finally closed their outlet on the corner of L and 19th streets opposite my workplace a week ago. I had spent hours sitting in its café and between its shelves, browsing and reading from the huge collection.
But, in the four weeks before the closure, I visited the store every other day to take advantage of the fire sales with discounts of 20 percent that then rose to 40, 50, 60 and 80 percent in the last five days.
Longtime Washingtonians, however, said to shed no tears. They recalled that the arrival of Borders and Barnes & Noble, both giant American bookstore chains, on Washington’s streets one or two decades ago led to the closure of many independent bookstores.
Borders has become victim to the fierce book market it helped to shape. It filed for bankruptcy in February and plans on closing 200 of its 600 outlets in the US and abroad.
More Americans buy their books online, from Amazon.com and Borders and Barnes & Noble’s web sites. And, there is the growing migration to the digital world, with more people reading books on the Kindle, the iPad and other portable digital book readers.
One thing I learned since coming here early this year on a research program is that few people in the US pay full price for their books; only visitors or those who feel strongly about supporting their local independent bookstores do. For avid readers, there are many ways of getting your books aside from library loans.
For best-selling fiction and non-fiction, major department stores sell books at up to 60 percent off the cover price.
For more specialized or older books, check out Borders and Barnes & Noble. If you’re a loyal customer, membership confers large discounts and point awards that entitle you to more discounts in the future.
Online stores, and don’t forget the biggest one of all, Amazon, offer generous discounts like free shipping within the US and awards to build customer loyalty. Check out their used book section. I was amazed at the selection, including many out-of-print titles.
Most are reasonably priced as well. The listing indicates the book’s condition and where it will be shipped from. Put the book in a virtual shopping cart, enter your credit card number and it will be delivered in just a few days.
Most books I need for my research (on Indonesia) were bought this way. For example, I bought a good-as-new copy of Robert Hefner’s 2000 Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia online.
Check out the regular book sales at your local library. Early in April, the Arlington Public Library, down the corner from my rented apartment, had a sale that lasted three days. Secondhand books were going for 50 cents, US$1, $2 and $4 apiece. On the last day, they were half the marked prices.
These book sales, surprisingly, offer a wide selection. My wife and I bought over 30 titles, not so much because we needed them but more because they were too good to pass up.
At 50 cents or a dollar apiece, we see it as renting the books. We will donate most of them to the library before it holds its next sale. You’re not just recycling books; you’re recycling knowledge and the wisdom contained in those pages.
America is heaven for avid readers, writers and researchers. Not only does it have one of the widest selections, but books are accessible and affordable for most pockets through discount plans, used book sales and recycling arrangements.
It is no wonder the United States consistently ranks highest in the world in terms of the number of books published. The widespread usage of English globally helps its case and many of the books are exported as well as sold domestically.
The United States is strongly represented at the top of global university rankings. The Times Higher Education put four US universities in the top 5, and 13 in the top 20. The QS ranking puts two universities in the top 5, but 14 in the top 20.
What is puzzling, however, is the weak correlation between these achievements and the academic performance of American students globally. Survey after survey indicates that the US education system is rapidly falling behind many other countries.
A recent test of 15-year-olds worldwide conducted by the Program for International Students Association ranked Americans between 15th and 25th in science, reading and mathematics, hardly reflecting the US’s global preeminence.
Mindful of the long-term implications of this decline, President Obama made education the centerpiece of his state of the union speech in January.
He made a passionate plea to Congress to spare investment in education, along with spending on health care, from the axe as the nation struggles to cut its huge federal budget deficit.
Obama invoked the “Sputnik Moment” in calling for more investment in education and technological innovation to restore America’s supremacy, just as it did in beating the Soviet Union in the race to the moon.
Can the United States succeed in the future once again? It will take more than books to pull it off, but at least Americans, in this race, still have the easiest access to a wide range of great books compared with people in most other countries. Take it from this short-term visiting writer: It all starts with reading.
The writer is a fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. and a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.