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The Last Books?

I got a Kindle for Father’s Day; a gift from my wife.

Never an early adapter of new technology, I’m also not resistant to it. I’m as cyber-reliant as anyone. My televisions have given way to flat screens, my car added a GPS unit, and I picked up an I-phone (though I’m still one “G” short of state-of-the-art). I was curious about the Kindle and must have said it aloud at some point.

Unaware of my wife’s gift, my daughter recognized the same holiday with a gift card to Barnes & Noble.

And therein lay the conundrum. Barnes & Noble has its own e-reader – The Nook. So, even though I had a new toy, if I wanted to use this particular gift card, I would have to buy actual books.

This was still pretty exciting. Bookstores are among my favorite places. Years ago, a colleague of mine left our company to preside over the rollout of Barnes & Noble’s superstore concept. At that time, she called them “the new suburban libraries” and she was not wrong. Though I’ve never entered my town’s public library, I’m a regular at B&N. I’m there when my home office starts to close in on me. I take meetings there. I drink tea, browse books, and avail myself of the public Wi-Fi to remain connected and productive. When I travel, I often find myself in an unfamiliar, but no less comforting, B&N outpost. I frequently write there as well; perhaps believing that proximity to great works will somehow influence my finished product.

One day in late June – gift card in hand – I entered the store as a consumer planning to emerge with $50 worth of literature. I began to feel an odd obligation to choose wisely. As a newly-minted Kindle guy, the thought occurred to me these could be my “last books”. After all, I’d thrown away my typewriter and roadmaps and I’d even abandoned a residential landline phone. Shouldn’t this Kindle make my books obsolete?

Despite this added burden to perform, the first selection was easy. Sarah Vowell – one of the smartest, funniest people anywhere – was on the talk show circuit after releasing her latest work; a quirky look at American Imperialism called Unfamiliar Fishes. Then I caught a break. Another title high on my list – Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III – was on a display table offering an additional discount on top of whatever dollars off I receive as a member of B&N’s loyalty program. That money saved would just about translate in to a paperback and I picked up Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young and Handsome, a novel I never got around to reading when it was released in 2008.

The selection of each book was accompanied by a series of familiar protocols. I glanced at the cover, flipped the book over and read the back in its entirety. Cracking the book open without breaking the spine, I scanned the inside blurb and learned “About the Author”. Then I gently fanned the pages. In each case, I stopped randomly and read a paragraph or two.

Like squeezing an avocado at Shop Rite before deciding if it’s ready to become guacamole, this is how I’ve always gotten comfortable with a book before deciding it would become my book. On this day, I would only touch those three and they all made the grade.

For the last several decades, I’ve done the bulk of my reading on airplanes. However, I no longer live on the road and I had no upcoming flights to start the ball rolling. Instead, one Monday afternoon, I sat in a big soft chair I inherited from my mother, positioned myself to take advantage of the natural light, and put on a pair of $8.99 reading glasses from CVS. For the next few weeks I alternated free time between that chair, the Long Island Rail Road and a late night spot on a couch with overhead incandescent light. And I read books. My selections did not disappoint. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine how I could have chosen any better.

Though far from her best effort (see Assassination Vacation or The Partly Cloudy Patriot) Fishes is still marked by what makes Vowell – equal parts historian and humorist – unique in the marketplace. It left me smarter, provided new perspective and somehow made me laugh and become angry at the same time. Years ago, I picked up the habit of dog-earing a page that contained an amazing fact or a particularly well-written passage that I suspected I would like to reference later on.

When I finished her exhaustive examination of the annexation of Hawaii (A “Very Brady brutalism” according to Vowell), those dog-ears left the book a quarter-inch thicker than when I began.

Enger’s story was great summer reading; a masterfully written and fast paced adventure. Like Vowell’s book, it is not the author’s best work – his Peace Like A River is a classic – but it reminded me why I always prefer great writing to a great story.

And, then there was Townie.

I write better than most – often well enough to get paid for my efforts. But I would never call myself a “writer” if it implied comparison to writers like Dubus. He is among that rare breed (including his father Andre Dubus) of men and women who write with their souls and provide the reader their essence as much as their thoughts. When I write something good, I am buoyed by the result. I imagine that better writers like Vowell and Enger experience reactions similar to mine. But I am certain that Dubus is depleted by his work. He goes far beyond providing a window in to his mind; he fills his pages by robbing from his own being.

That trait – on brilliant display in his novels like The House of Sand and Fog – is painfully exponential in this format. In Dubus’ hands, a memoir – intended to reveal its author under any circumstances – results in a work that straddles the line between disquieting and engrossing.

I finished all three titles and was grateful for my good fortune – there’s not a lot that frustrates me more than a bad read. But that gift card taught me something else. I always told people that I loved books, but what I really meant was that I love reading and I love literature. While reading the "last three", I began to realize that I do, in fact, love books.

Sitting on my reading couch, I have a clear view of my bookshelf. I have led a disorderly life and my possessions are no exception. Yet my bookshelf is an oasis in that desert of disarray. It is neat and I am vigilant in keeping it clear of anything except my books. It’s hardly a comprehensive collection of what I’ve read, or even what I like to read. I’ve passed along far more books than I’ve saved. But our books define us at least as much as the art on our walls or the cars in our driveways. The more I sat on that couch, the more I saw myself in those shelves. I also noted I was more likely to examine friends’ bookshelves than I would be to notice the type of housekeeper or decorator they were.

Upstairs, from the big, soft chair, I can almost stretch my legs to the cocktail table and its books are in plain sight. If our literature reveals who we really are, cocktail table books tend to reveal how we see ourselves. That living room table provides as much aspiration as my bookshelves provide definition.

And mine are not the only books in the house. One day during my reading jag, my wife and nine-year-old daughter spilled in to the hallway behind a pile of picture books; the byproduct of a summer bedroom cleanup. As I watched them decide which books to keep and which to donate, it was clear they were choosing between childhood memories and bedtime moments they had shared. In many ways, my daughter was identifying which books still helped define her.

I came to recognize that my relationship with books approaches reverence. That may be why I am an avowed hardcover reader. While I read many, many books in paperback, I regard a hardcover almost the way an art lover distinguishes between an original painting and a print. They are the same basic product but provide the beholder a vastly different experience. I know the comparison is not apt. An artist literally puts his/her DNA – in the form of blood, sweat and tears – in to an original. The same is true only of an author’s manuscript. But the weighty feel of the hardcover volume, the rich texture of the paper, and the effort necessary to separate and flip the more substantive pages provide enough of a difference to make me seek that larger reward.

Looking over the top of my final gift-card-enabled book, I could also see the Kindle; undisturbed in its box. I began to wonder, as we do with much new technology, if I was looking at something good or something evil. Anyone reading the business pages knows that the bookstore is an endangered species. Just as Borders and Barnes & Noble once squeezed the local bookstore in to virtual extinction, Amazon has long threatened to do the same to these superstores.

The advent of the e-reader upped the ante and recently claimed Borders as its first victim. While many analysts feel the e-reader offers an accessibility that will be a boon for writers and publishers, I can’t help but wonder what it means to books.

What happens to the picture book? What happens to the cocktail table book? What happens to the bookstore experience and the ritual of selecting and reading a book? Most of all, what happens to the hardcovers I revere?

Tomorrow I will open the box. My next “book” will come to me on a Kindle. I am a realist. I will adapt even as I hope against hope that books are here to stay. I expect to be glad I have an e-reader. After all, I do love to read. I will take advantage of the immediacy it offers and the convenience it promises. I will begin to consume literature through my Kindle.

But I also know now that the three gift card books were not my last. While I’m tempted to go out with a bang – like Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente who used their final at bats respectively to hit a home run and stroke a historic 3,000th hit – I will be back to the bookstore for more than tea and Wi-Fi.

I really have no choice. I still love books.


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