Thursday, March 4, 2010

Choosing Books

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If there is any left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1535)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I spend a substantial portion of my life at Barnes and Noble Booksellers breathing in the heady smell of paper and ink and glue. (And drinking mochas. With whip cream and caramel drizzle. But that’s a totally different essay.) I also volunteer a few hours a week at our sons' elementary school library. But I don’t have to go to Barnes and Noble or a library to be surrounded by books. Plenty of books live in almost every room of my house.

This is our Library. It’s supposed to be a sitting room/parlor/living room, but in our house, it’s the Library. The two book shelves on the left are mine, and the ones on the right belong to George. I’d love it if this room were decorated with real wood furniture rather than laminated particle board, but we spend too much money on books to afford nice bookshelves.

Wow, looking at this picture gives me so many ideas for other essays. I hadn’t noticed how many cool knick-knacks with interesting stories there are on these shelves. In more ways than one, these books are the backdrop of our lives.

These are the shelves to the right of the television in our family room. Most of these are George’s books, and the “grown-up” DVDs are shelved here, too.

These are to the left of the television. Obviously, the kids’ DVDs and some games are here, but the bottom three shelves are mostly my books.

Here’s the bookshelf beside my bed. It’s mostly novels and essays and a few devotionals. The stack of hard covers beside the bookshelf consists mostly of Anne Perry mysteries (a few signed by Perry herself), with some random stuff on top. The set of red books is a 1920s children’s series called Book Trails I read as a child. I love them.

George has a matching bookshelf full of military stuff, spy novels, and triathlon magazines as well as four shelves in the family room (not pictured) of cooking magazines and cook books. I don’t use those except under dire circumstances. We have more bookshelves in the basement, and of course the boys have their own bookshelves in their rooms.

Books make me happy. Their physical presence is a comfort I can carry with me anywhere…to the pool, into the tub, on a plane, to a waiting room. They keep me company, don't fuss when dog-eared, and wait patiently for me to pick them up when the spirit moves me.

So why the heck would I want a Kindle?

At the YMCA pool recently, a woman sat on a folding chair six feet from splashing children reading (if you can call it that) something on a Kindle. She kept putting the Kindle down, like she was embarrassed, or maybe bored. Then, a few minutes later she picked it up and read a bit more. Then, she put it down again. I started wondering what sort of book would cause a person to keep putting it down. Was she reading something boring, or uncomfortable, or naughty? I was hoping for naughty.

And then I realized the most important question in this situation was “What sort of person takes a $300 electronic gadget to read by a pool? Full of splashing children?” She’s a mom (her kids went to the same preschool as mine), so presumably she knows that children, water, and electronic gadgets should never, ever be within a quarter mile of each other.

And then I realized that I was spending way too much time paying attention to what this woman was doing. It really was none of my business.

Given my Luddite tendencies, I think Kindles and Nooks and other strangely-named electronic books are signs of the coming apocalypse. They, along with television screens in grocery store checkouts and medical waiting rooms and minivans, are reinforcing our screen culture. My son is buying into this and it scares me. He daily attempts to negotiate (or sneak) extra time on the Wii and wants a portable DS so he can look at a screen all the time no matter where he goes.

When I was his age, I looked at books all the time. I would eagerly open them, read, turn the page, read some more, and always regret the need for putting them down. My imagination sparked, my brain engaged, my heart soared and plummeted with the hero’s fortunes. I couldn’t wait to turn the page to see what happened next, but I wanted to make each page last as long as possible because it was so fun. That tension created a frisson of pleasure at the turn of each page that held me captive just as it has held curious and literate people captive since the first story was captured in ink.

More hip and tech-savvy people might ask how my walking around with my nose in a book was any different from Nick wanting to walk around with his nose buried in a DS. Clearly, these people need to read more books.

I already know all the arguments for electronic books and even admit that for certain situations (traveling, heavy college textbooks, people who don’t have space for large libraries like ours) they make sense.

I do, however, wonder how this will change people’s relationship with books. In particular, how will people choose books to read? In my experience, friends recommend books, favorite authors publish new books, reviewers on NPR praise books, and I stumble across books in books stores. These things prompt me to buy. I’ve never gone trolling online for books. I always looked at brick-and-mortar stores first, and then went online.

To illustrate this point, I pulled three random books off my bedside table and thought about what made me buy each. One thing all three purchases had in common is that I stumbled across them on shelves while browsing at Barnes and Noble with a mocha in my hand.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This one grabbed me because I liked Kingsolver’s novel Pigs in Heaven and also her essay about the Rock Bottom Remainders (a charity band that included Kingsolver, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, and others). I’d also read around in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a book about where our food comes from), so the subject matter seemed interesting.

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. There’s a deliberate typographical error on the happy orange cover that immediately grabbed my attention. (Well, I was a professional proofreader.) Then there’s the subtitle: “How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average.” Could you resist exploring that one? But never, ever judge a book by its interesting cover. I’ve done that before and been wrong about the writing. (For instance, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. It takes dull prose to a whole new level.) I’d never heard of Hallinan before, so I picked up the book and read the introduction. Not only was the quality of the writing good, but his ideas were fascinating.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. I grew up watching M*A*S*H, and after checking to make sure Alda could, indeed, write readable prose, I bought this one for a laugh and got much more. I reread it recently (the reason it was on my bedside table). This second reading was sparked by seeing the spine of the book on the bookshelf near my bed: a bit of serendipity that gives me joy.

Perhaps the process of downloading books to Kindles and Nooks and such will be as pleasurable as roaming shelves of a bookstore or library, but I doubt it. I do hope that people read more with the electronic book’s combination of screen appeal, compactness, and ease of book purchase. If people like looking at screens so much, perhaps it would be better to read a book than to play a mindless game. But will people make that choice? The lady at the YMCA pool sure seemed to be having a hard time getting into her book.

Certainly iPods have made it easier for people to listen to music, buy music, and carry music around with them. But I worry that too many books will languish unread in the memory chips of Kindles, which will break, get dropped, get wet, get stolen, and eventually grow obsolete.

I think I’d have a depressive breakdown if I lost all of Jane Austin in a freak pool accident. As it is now, if Pride and Prejudice gets soaked in my bubble bath, I’ll just run to Barnes and Noble, get a mocha, and search for another copy.

Who says you can’t buy happiness?


  1. hi susan,
    must say i totally agree with you about books on a computer screen. sometimes i think it's just cuz i'm old. if that's the case, then i rather like being old!! i heard garrison keillor recently talking about a museum with "old fashioned items" such as a filmstrip projector, a metal icecube tray with that handle you had to wrestle over to crack the cubes out, a mimeograph machine!!!! (i taught jr high science in my first life, and lived at the mimeograph machine. even found some dittos that printed in red or green or blue!!) ok, so i am totally dating myself. that's ok.
    a book in hand feels like a good friend, like something tangible that reflects the time and effort the author spent writing the book.
    thanks for the good thoughts.
    marty ferraro

    is that an old fashioned typewriter on the coffee table in the study?
    sorry you didn't like The Madman and the Professor. i thought it was an amazing story.

  2. Yes, Marty, it's an old-fashioned typewriter. I bought it a few years ago to remind me to write!

    The STORY of The Madman and the Professor was wonderful, and I'm glad you liked the book! The writing, however, wasn't my cup of tea. I've tried to read another book by Winchester and my eyes kept glazing over. I thought it was just me, but George had the same response.

    And I had to use a mimeograph machine when I was a graduate teaching assistant. I remember that my grandmother had the metal ice trays when I was little and lived with her. I also got to run the filmstrip projector in fifth grade and felt like big stuff!

  3. Oh Susan, What a chord this entry struck in me. Books are more important than ANYTHING! No electronic doodad will ever give me the comfort and satisfaction of curling up in a corner of the sofa in winter, or lounging on my deck in summer, or snuggling with one of my kids, or grandies and flipping the pages back and forth. Reading, and many times re-reading, a favorite passage til I am immersed in the storyline or timeline--it is a great escape at times, and others, a fascinating window into another realm beyond my own imagining.
    Our home has no TV, which amazes and bewilders many when they learn that we gave it up over 7 years ago and do not miss it! "What do you DO???" and "How do you keep up with the rest of the world?" are the recurring questions. I read. Plain and simple. For many years there were very few books that I owned-the library in town was my haven. Then along the way, I have developed specific interests that demanded that I had to have MY own copy, and slowly am building my own retreat filled with paper, ink and glue to replace many of the paperbacks I used to afford in the lean years (although they are becoming the lean years again, I'm afraid). Often there is more than one book being read at any given time, and am finally getting DH to crack open one that I have just finished to find his own pleasure in reading again.
    This completely reaffirms my need to give the electronic world over to the ones who want it; for me, I'll keep my nose in a book, and who cares if my fingers (or my nose) get smudged with ink. Thanks for a great essay.

  4. Hi Susan,
    Your pictures remind me of my growing up. We,too, had book cases in every room.
    I come from a family of readers, and remember looking in the library for the 'thickest' book, as I always hated for them to end. I have no discipline when reading...and there lies the rub. No housework, no cooking, no sleeping gets done once I get into the heart of the story. And I have found of late that I don't bounce back as well after an all night reading have to choose carefully when to start my next book. My daughter has an electronic reader and loves it. But I am with you, I would miss the 'companionship' of the paper and binding...
    Thank you for sharing your words with us.
    Lu C

  5. I envy you all those book cases. Books are so comforting and in stressful times rereading a favorite book is more calming than anything else I know. Gladys Tabor gets me through the winter and The Secret Garden is an especial favorite.

  6. I have to slightly disagree with you, my dear friend. I love books--you know this. But, I have a Kindle and I love that, too. Now that every wall in my living room, bedroom, hallway and dining room is covered with books, I purchase quite a few for my Kindle. Mostly novels that aren't classics. I wouldn't buy Pride and Prejudice for Kindle, because I already have a nicely bound copy, but the latest mindcandy from Ann Coulter, I definitely don't mind reading electronically. I would venture to say that wet-Kindle lady would have a hard time reading a regular book, too. I don't think electronic books will replace paper ones, but they do have their place.

  7. What fun to see another person's library! I must admit it probably holds more books than many public libraries. Also VERY fun to hear what you read. I think the love of books is like the love of gardening and the love of writing...a gene we either have or we don't. My children who love books are great writers. And so are their children. One of them has a passion for gardening, and the other two think gardening is for hired hands.

    More than anything, it's the scent of a library, and the feel of the books, that soothes my soul because the potential for escape is so varied and so enormous. A Kindle would be another dad-blamed gadget I'd want to skewer with a tire iron because the screen would go blank right in the middle of the crucial part of the story and I would be without a battery because all the other gadgets we own need new batteries every time I buy another batch of 48, which is waaaaaayyyyy too often.

    I gave away my trusty old Underwood after I got my first computer in 1979. What a mistake that was! I had no idea how computers would complicate the simple act of typing a recipe on a card or an address on an envelope, or a page of columns for a newsletter. You were so smart to keep yours!

    Thanks for the fun, Susan.putbsio

  8. If you wonder what the "putsbio" is on my last post, that's the Word Verification utility thumbing its nose at me puts me on a short leash more often than not, and makes me wonder why I can't write faster so I won't annoy it.

  9. Hi Susan --
    Nothing like an eyeful of bookshelves to get me going in the morning! One big selling point for us when we bought our house is a section of the basement which had been turned into a playroom of sorts. We have no children, but we do have BOOKS. Lots of them. And that playroom has an entire wall of shelves and drawers just the right size for our archives. So what if they're painted red, with soccer ball accents? :) Ikea bookshelves dot the rest of the house, holding all the books we need to have at hand in case of reading emergencies.
    That said, I do use and love my Kindle! It's a joy to read, super-convenient (each charge lasts for at least 2 weeks, and it charges very quickly), and it's a money-saver for those moments when I need a book RIGHT NOW, but the library has a wait list and the hardcover is ridiculously expensive. Plus, there are lots of free books, too.
    Very Important Books will always be a big part of my life (and decor), but alternatives are good, too.
    Oh, and if it's any consolation, I own not one but two manual typewriters:)
    Here's to books!

  10. Oh, I just love all the responses to this post! I'm happy for those of you enjoying your Kindles. Like I said in the essay, they do have their uses. I just don't need one yet!

    Happy reading, everyone!

  11. Hi Susan,

    I would love to hear more of your book recommendations. I love your cards and think, for some reason, I would love your books too.

    I bought my husband a Kindle for his birthday and he has shared a few books with me that way. An unanticipated benefit: easy one-handed reading.

    BTW, I used to be a proofreader too.


  12. I love books. I go into a trance upon entering a book store and might just move into one some day. I've not bought into the Kindle phenom yet, though I've considered it due to my lack of space. I think I have as many books as you do, but I live in a 2 BR condo. Nuf said.

    I might have to get a few of your "found on the shelf in passing" books. Thanks for expanding my collection. ;-)

  13. I'm with you----while I think the various electronic versions of books are a great way to get reading into the hands and minds of the masses I don't think I'll ever leave my old school preference of a book. My husband and I also share a book fetish. Though it may someday put us in the poorhouse :) I think a book purchase is always money well spent.

  14. As a retired librarian who worked in a public library and a book lover, I totally agree with you - I can't imagine curling up on the couch on a winter afternoon or in my favourite lawn chair in the back yard on a summer afternoon with a Kindle. Give me a real book anyday. Thank goodness, that (as of when I retired last year) the real book was alive and well and flourishing in the library!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!