I remember the words of an historian lamenting the progressive degradation of the society in which he was living in during the late Roman Empire: “In our schools the singers have taken the place of the masters of rhetoric. Libraries are shut forever, like tombs.”
The same thing seems to be happening in Hong Kong, with the sad demise of Dymocks IFC Mall, an Australian bookseller, which shut all operations in Hong Kong on January 25. But I suspect that the root cause of it lays not in the general degradation of the mores of our society and the barbarians pressing on the northerly border of the Empire. The root cause of such phenomenon is, in my opinion, the growing cost of the rent which has become simply unaffordable for any normal bookshops’ operations. In order to survive all booksellers have to transfer the price of the rent on the books they sell but the final result will be that their customers will order them online at a much reduced price. Online booksellers, like the Book Depository, which ship books by air without charging anything for the delivery cost, are having field days in Hong Kong.
A secondary reason may be the growing popularity of the eBooks, which are handy and cheap but they fulfil only one of the three key reasons why we feel so attracted by books: that is the utilitarian part only, not the aesthetic nor the often neglected part which we call ‘the long term investment’. We buy a book because we are curious about its content but also because we love it as an object and as an investment. If it is an hardback, first edition and signed by the author it may fetch a considerable amount of money in a matter of years. If you want, say a first edition of Casino Royale signed by Ian Fleming, you have to be ready to pay close to 50,000 USD dollars to get a good copy of it. If Fleming’s first novel was issued as a eBook, well, forget it! EBooks can offer to us just a few hours of fleeting entertainment but they are certainly not an investment and they do not embellish our library, transforming the hovels in which we live into a philosophers’ cave. EBooks do not give us all the tactile and aesthetically pleasing feeling which we get when holding real books made of fine paper into our hands.
When waking up early in the morning, because of some fleeting troubling thoughts which are visiting us during the sleep and we walk into our library, then we’ll feel suddenly content and serene because of the magic impression of earing our books whispering. Indeed books are a balm for our souls.