so many books, so little time
So, the People with the Books, They Went and Stood Up on the Mountain to Get Away from the People with No Books
Between you and me, I wish I’d been born much earlier, even long enough ago I’d be turned to dust by now. Because I’d rather not have lived to see all that’s happening. Words can’t describe how much I hate what’s being lost. Call me old fashioned, or backward, or whatever you’d like. Honestly, I don’t care. What I dread is the day I have a grandchild who grows up without need of a bookcase, because all s/he needs is a pouch to hold an e-reader.
I was talking to my dad the other day about the publishing industry, print media, and the like. In response to his asking me if I had any interest in e-readers, I said that I only saw a couple possible advantages to them — they could be useful for voracious readers who have limited living space or those who travel frequently. Being able to download a book instantly is nice, but of course that’s only a convenience, not a necessity. I always have enough to read at any given time that I don’t need that temptation, and I’m philosophically inclined to appreciate the wait for a book to arrive in the mail, anticipation being the sweetest part of acquisition, after all. Until that day comes when certain titles simply aren’t made available in paper-and-glue format, I doubt I’ll ever see the need to own one.
The irresistible force of my bibliophilic appetite runs up against the immoveable object of my slacker ethos, though, so I do buy a lot of my books from library sales and individual sellers on Amazon or Barnes & Noble so as to avoid penury. Personally, I appreciate receiving online recommendations based on my purchases; I’ve found many books that way that I didn’t know existed. But these last couple days, I had business to tend to that brought me within shouting distance of my local B & N, so I stopped in for old time’s sake.
I guess it’s been a while since I last did some serious brick-and-mortar browsing because, let me tell you, I was overwhelmed by how many fascinating books I found that I had no knowledge of. I mean, I read a lot of literary blogs these days, and I thought I was staying fairly au courant with new releases. Not only was I wrong, but my recent abstinence helped throw something into sharp relief for me: there just isn’t any substitute for browsing in the store. I’m serious, I was almost jittery/giddy with emotion. Quot libros, quam breve tempus! I just wanted to gather armloads of them up and scurry off to a corner of the store, snarling at anyone who dared disturb me. Were you ever told those possibly-apocryphal stories about Soviet citizens who would break down in tears upon coming to the land of freedom and encountering their first supermarket, struggling to believe that anything so wonderful could actually exist? It was sort of like that, only weirder, because I’m around books all the time. I guess it was just some sort of harmonic convergence, where I happened to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to all the stimuli and have a transcendant experience.
What it was, actually, was a stark reminder that I’m one of those people for whom a “book” is a nexus of associations — the beauty of the cover design, the feel of the dust jacket, the thrill of an interesting topic, the smell of coffee, the sound of classical music. I stood there and gazed at the shelves and felt as profoundly moved as I ever have from viewing art. I glanced at a copy of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and laughed at the idea that this wasn’t a “religious” experience for being unstructured and private. I made a hastily-scribbled list of what turned out to be thirty-two books to add to my wish list, and I resolved to make this a ritual visit again.
E-readers are great for people who see a “book” as only a horse and buggy for transmitting information, to be unsentimentally phased out in favor of motor vehicles. Sacrificial offerings to the twin gods of speed and compact efficiency. I sympathize with Lisa, but there are too many things I appreciate about the Internet age to wish I weren’t part of it. I’ll settle for prolonging this unsteady balance as long as possible, for preserving some pocket, however diminished, where people like me can continue to indulge in books as something greater than that.
Oh, no, I haven’t finished all the ones from the last picture I took. These are just the ones I’ve added to the list since then.
I did finish Spook last night, though. It was well written and laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it ended up on that annoying note of supercilious evenhandedness so typical of people who write about religion and science as if reconciling them is the most important thing. Like this:
“I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly most things can—including the vast majority of what people ascribe to fate, ghosts, ESP, Jupiter rising—but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more—rather than in any existing something more (reincarnation, say, or dead folks who communicate through mediums). It’s not much, but it’s more than I believed a year ago… Perhaps I should believe in a hereafter, in a consciousness that zips through the air like a Simpsons rerun, simply because it’s more appealing—more fun and more hopeful—than not believing. The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.”
Not to mention that she approvingly cites “Maria’s shoe“, of all things, as being the closest thing to a “dazzle shot”; i.e., a case that would be extremely difficult to refute.
This is my current stack of unread books, a few of which have been hanging around for a year or so, other books constantly butting in front of them in line, but many of these only joined the fold in the last couple months as I traversed hill and dale, mountain and valley, metropolis and hamlet in search of books to buy and sell. Those are the ones that I took a shine to and kept for myself. Best of all, I hardly had to spend a farthing or a ha’penny on them; some of them were at most a couple dollars, some of them were free, free as a bird on the wind.
There must be a lot of people who, like this blogger, read more than one book at once. Perhaps there is one in the bathroom, one on the bedside table, one for the daily commute. There are books that are left unfinished but sit there as guilty reminders of failed endeavours; in my case a history of the Thirty Years War, which was so plodding and detailed that I gave up somewhere around the arrival of Gustavus Adolphus. There are difficult, stylised novels that one knows one should read but can only manage a few pages at a time; hardbacks that are interesting but too heavy to lug on the train; thrillers that are good page-turners but are saved for long plane trips.The pleasure of a Kindle is that many fat books can be contained within one slim device. But in this blogger’s case, it has made many things worse. The ease of ordering books on my e-reader means that I am tempted to buy more. Yet I am even less likely to complete any of them, given how easy the device makes it to switch from one book to another. When “Mao’s Great Famine” becomes too depressing, I’ve found it all too enticing to switch to George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” saga; when Mr Martin’s books get silly (all those dynasties and monsters), it is time to educate myself with Ian Morris’s magisterial “Why the West Rules—for Now” (reviewed by The Economist here). And my reluctance to carry a £110 device on the tube, where it might be dropped or stolen, means I use my Kindle mainly at home or on plane flights.So whereas in the old days I might have been tackling two or three books at a time, it is now six or seven. And the feeling of guilt only builds; will I ever finish any of them?