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?