Recently I found myself outside the walls of my favourite bookstore without a source of income. What did I do? Went online and bought books, naturally.
Armed with the right information, I reasoned, I would be able to draft an intelligent plan for my future. Of course, this is complete nonsense – no worthwhile life decision was ever made in such a fashion. Still, it’s hard to shake the faith of an Eng. Lit. grad.
What books did I buy?
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown: So what if I’m not perfect? That’s good!
- Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck: If the mind can’t figure it out, maybe my New Age-y intuition-y side will do better.
- The Essays of Montaigne – I want to read the new bio, so I should read the original first. And maybe I’ll pick up a little wisdom. He’s smart, right?
- WordPress for Dummies – Might as well start a blog. It’s not like I don’t have the time.
For over ten years I had access to virtually any new book that came out, through a generous discount and lending policy. When this came to an abrupt end, I was reacquainted with a library card. Thrilling! I was taken back in time to those first visits to the local library, just down the street from my house. It was a Carnegie library, built in 1907. You went down the stairs to the children’s section, where you lovingly turned the pages of Madeline, Curious George, or some such treasure, then walked home with your books under your arm through the crunching leaves, the pleasure of anticipation adding a tang to the crisp autumn air. Now I live in a new subdivision near the edge of town, and I visit what is dubbed the “Northwest Interim Site” which is a temporary building with the architectural charm of a Nazi bunker. There aren’t many actual books in the Northwest Interim Site, so what happens is I go online and place my request, they ship my book to the bunker and, voila, I pick it up.
A library doesn’t have many copies of new books. So, say I want to read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, I might have to wait because there are 17 other people who want to read it too. Since I’m not great at the deferred gratification thing, I borrow one of his older books, The Men Who Stare at Goats, partly because I enjoy Ronson’s sly humour and partly because it might be about goats.
If you’re really, really impatient though, there is another way you can get books: electronically. It’s practically instantaneous and sometimes they’re free – suh-weet!
My first experience with an ebook was earlier this spring. I had just finished rereading Villette by Charlotte Bronte and someone recommended The Professor. We didn’t have a copy in the store, but because the book is in the public domain, it was very easy to find online, and within minutes I was reading it on my ipod! This was fantastic!
The future of my career flashed before me. Because once you provide that convenience, is there a place for physical books? Or bookstores for that matter? Suddenly things that I thought were assets to my career – my passion for books and the pleasure I took in sharing that passion with others – seemed quaint.
“But,” I hear some say, “It’s the weight of the book in my hand, the smell of the paper”, etc. etc. (Seriously, if I saw someone sniffing pages as he read on the subway I would move down the car, far away.) But even these pleasures have less to do with the object itself than the associations we have with it, like that souvenir shot glass you picked up in Niagara Falls.
If what you want is information, a digital book does nicely. Ebooks are the perfect application for reference materials like newspapers and textbooks. Most of us have already become very comfortable using digital forms of information gathering – blogs, Wikipedia, and every imaginable online resource.
But can you get a sense of connection from a digital file? Well, the other two books I downloaded were the Brene Brown and the Montaigne. I read both on my ipod. In fact, I read The Gifts of Imperfection twice. “You’re ok”, the author seemed to be saying to me. “It will be alright. You have what you need.“ I wasn’t comforted any less because it wasn’t on paper.
We can share ideas in any format. But physical books are talismans too. Like fossils, shells, bones, and your shot glass, they’re proof that memories are real. Yet even a talisman is a symbol of the thing itself. And for books that thing is the conversation between the writer and you. It’s why we read.
Maybe you’re like me and you will keep some books on the shelf, next to your starfish and pearled nautilus, because you like to touch the past sometimes, and listen to the sound of your footsteps shushing through the leaves. But the connection you made with the writer is still with you one way or the other.
And that’s more real than the thing you hold in your hand.