I want to tell you I remember the first book I ever read. I don’t. What I do remember is my sister giving me an early start on reading by giving me a “Dick and Jane” book. I can still see Sally on her tricycle going “Oh! Oh! Oh!” It was like being given the Rosetta Stone, but with a key that explained everything. Letters put together made sounds and then words. I could pass into the adult kingdom now, the world of books.
I remember . . . the Oz book (The Lost Princess of Oz) that was in the basket of my bright orange Schwinn on Christmas Day. It’s rare to be able to ride a bike in Baltimore in December, but I could go upstairs with the book the day after Christmas and read all day. I remember Mr. Lippman giving me a collection of novels on the first holiday we ever celebrated. One of those books, THE NIGHT LISTENER, became my all-time favorite. I remember reading A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE on a Greyhound bus, riding 20-plus hours to my job interview in Waco, Texas. I remember being on another bus, then time en route to San Antonio, and opening up ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO BE STRANGERS and, upon reading the first line, thinking: I want to make someone feel the way I feel right now, happy and excited about the possibilities inherent in this book.
All of these memories would be possible with a digital reader. But, a simple plea: Can we still have books?
Lately, it has become fashionable to mock people who like physical books. I saw a drinking game proposed in which one tosses back a shot upon encountering the various cliches about books — heft, weight, smell, etc. I don’t get it. Why does the digital book’s future rely on the physical book’s death? Why is there so much vehemence?
I’m in an unusual position to comment on this. My current book is selling well enough to make the New York Times bestseller list, which counts only hardcover copies. It’s selling even better in digital format. I have been #9 on the Kindle list for the last two weeks. To me, this is like going to Baskin Robbins and having my favorite order — chocolate chip and orange sherbet. (I know, so weird, but that’s what I like.) I love books. I like my Kindle. It would never occur to me to denigrate someone who preferred the Kindle, or who even felt romantic about it, although the latter is harder for me to imagine. (I can get excited about a machine. Two years in, I love my washer/dryer so much it’s kind of pervy. But I don’t get giddy about my Kindle.)
Physical books, whatever one thinks of them, support a huge number of people right now. Booksellers, the people who make them, the people who ship them. And while anyone reading this right now has some sort of digital access, many people never will. At the soup kitchen where I volunteered until this summer — life has forced me on a hiatus from there — free books went as fast as anything we gave away.
Why would anyone pay $25 for a hardcover when the digital version is available for so much less? Well, why do people buy books at all when the library will buy them for you? Why do some people buy Seven for Mankind jeans when Wal-Mart will sell you essentially the same thing for a fraction of the cost? I would never buy an expensive car, but I will splurge on a bottle of wine. Last week, I went on national television in a pair of ridiculously expensive shoes paired with a dress bought at an outlet mall.
I also wore a bracelet, a large cuff of turquoise stones. I will always remember the day I purchased it. September ’08, IIRC. It was overcast. A good friend and I wheeled her baby down to the antiques fair where i had gotten free passes. (From a rare book dealer, actually. Yeah, I’m that good a customer. Talk about irrational! I sometimes buy books I can’t even read.) The woman who sold me the bracelet was reading a John Connolly novel. My friend had to persuade me to make the purchase, which seemed extravagant. I wear it all the time and every time I put it on, the memory is there.
Do books provide the same alchemy? Some do, for me. Can a digital book do that? Maybe. I won’t rule it out. But I sincerely hope we are not poised on the precipice of an either/or world. And I am baffled at those who seem to be rooting for it, given the jobs that will be lost if it were to happen.
Happy Labor Day. I’d love to hear reading memories, whatever the format.