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The Billionaire and the Book Lover

People involved with the Nook’s development say Riggio threw himself into the process, and now he sees digital bookselling as the continuation of a lifelong theme. “The thing that excites me most about the digital revolution,” Riggio told me, “is the possibility of further democratization of the worlds of knowledge and literature.” Yet for all his newfound enthusiasm, he still can’t imagine a world in which the bookstore—or what he likes to call the “cultural piazza”—is replicated by a piece of plastic.

“We believe bookstores will exist all during and after this revolution,” he said. “We’re just absolutely convinced, both as citizens and as businesspeople, that bookstores are going to be important to the American culture.” But for all the brave talk, Riggio also sounded genuinely run-down. “You know, I’m going through a thing—the record shows how old I am,” he said. “I’m going through, you know, like, ‘Oh my God, do I need this? At this period in time, to be as busy as I am?’ ” Partly, he complained, this was due to the difficulty of “coaching” a new generation. “I have to tell you, William himself has caused me to be even busier.” But it can’t be easy, either, fighting a two-front struggle, facing on the one side an antagonist who looks all-too- familiar, and on the other, a force he still can’t quite get his mind around.

“If this was a Nook,” Riggio said as he flipped through the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, “I just look at is as, well, here are the pages, and we magically erase the pages and another book appears.” As a business strategy, he was wagering that this convenience would inspire readers to spend more. But personally, Riggio remains unswayed. He doesn’t use his own Nook. “I like to hold the book instead of the device,” he said. “I would rather own multiple books than a single book that carries everything.” For most of his long career, Riggio has been the innovator, the opportunistic instrument of creative destruction. Now, as he nears the final chapter, he is discovering what it means to be old-fashioned.

Additional reporting by Elien Becque.