This year, for my birthday, I got an unexpected surprise: my friend Walter sent me an Amazon gift certificate. In the amount of a Kindle. Get yourself one, he said. Or, if you'd rather, spend it on books instead.
I love physical books. Can't imagine life without them. Can't imagine me without them. And yet I find e-readers fascinating. Hundreds of books at one's fingertips? The ability to travel without half my luggage weighted down with paper? (Because of course I can't take just one novel. There are the two or three I'm currently reading. Plus an old favorite, in case I need a comfort read. Plus the one I always buy in the airport bookstore, because no matter how resolved I am not to buy a new book, invariably one will beckon from the shelves, cooing, "See how shiny I am. How intriguing. Come to me, and discover in my pages a new world of depths and delights," and it's not my fault that Powell's Books has an outpost in the Portland Airport, and yes I suppose I could just not go in, but then this blog would be written by a completely different person in an alternate universe and that seems, I dunno. Unlikely.)
So back to what I was saying. Fascinated. And yet torn. Because of course when you get a Kindle, you need to download books onto it. E-books. From Amazon.com. Now, I don't dislike Amazon. In fact, I harbor a kind of distant fond admiration for it, the way you do something that's all gee-whizzy and technical and really, really good at what it does, and yet is essentially soulless. (Like Avatar. But that's a whole different post.)
...every e-book I might buy would be one less actual book bought from a real, live, independent bookstore. And I love indie bookstores. I adore the hand-written shelf cards telling me which books are staff favorites. I look forward to seeing the same people every time I go in, and getting to know them, and picking their brains for book recommendations. I love the sense of timelessness that envelops me as soon as I walk in the door. The feeling that all cares and worries belong to another world, and here, in this small place, the only important things are the stories. Best of all, though, is noticing a cover, or a title, and I've never heard of the book before or the author, but something about it catches my eye so I lift it down. Turn it over. Scan the blurbs and the back copy. Open it and read the first sentence. Sometimes I think "meh" and I move on. But sometimes that first sentence flicks over me like a noose and cinches tight and I'm thinking yes yes yes I must find out everything now please and I buy the book and take it home and immerse myself in its world and then go out and rave about it to everyone I know.
How would I have found A Suitable Boy on Amazon.com? Or Babe in Paradise? Or An Instance of the Fingerpost, or A Northern Light, or Wives and Daughters, or The Man in My Basement, or The Once and Future King? How do you stumble across a gem that's not in the top 50 in sales rankings and not by an author you've previously read and not the latest book club fad? When you don't know a book exists, how can you type its name into a search box?
You can't. Which is why you go to your local bookstore and wander the stacks to discover the next unknown book you're going to love. Which means that the bookstore has to be there, and the only way it can be there is if people keep going and buying books.
Back and forth. Up and down. And finally Walter was like, what are you doing, and I'm like, I dunno, dude, and I realized I just had to decide. So I did.
When the Kindle arrived, it happened that I was re-reading one of my favorites, a 1946 edition of Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck. I'd bought it used from an indie bookstore a few years ago. The dust jacket is long gone. Some previous owner had amused herself by penciling over parts of the cover illustration. Its edges are worn and dented in places. It feels handled and much, much read, and its pages have that sweet, dusty, woody scent of old book paper. (Old book is like puppy breath--one of the great, immortal aromas of life. Whatever happened to it? I miss it.)
The Kindle isn't flashy; like the book, it doesn't draw attention to itself. I charge it, turn it on, and navigate to the Kindle store. There on the home page, practically the first thing I see: Margaret Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood.
IwantIwantIwant. I click. Less than a minute later, the book is here in my hand. I won't lie to you: that is beyond cool. I start the first chapter, but it's hard to lose myself in the flow; I'm too aware of what I'm reading it on. But after a while, the words catch me and I go under, immersed in Margaret's world, and it's not until I finish the second chapter that I realize: the Kindle has disappeared. The same way a physical book disappears, when the story takes hold and we slip into the dream the author has created.
So here I am: a lifelong book lover, with overflowing bookcases and teetering stacks all over my house, eleven novels on my nightstand right now, a passionate believer in bookstores...and a Kindle owner. The Atwood novel is the only one I've bought. All the others I've downloaded are free. They're works in the public domain--classics--that I've already owned or already read.
If we vote with our dollars, I've decided that mine will continue to vote for bookstores.
I'm still reading two to three books at a time, but now, one of them is on the Kindle. (Current pick: Tess of the D'Ubervilles.) Every time I turn it on, the idea of reading 19th century literature on a 21st century device makes me smile. But then the words appear, everything in the real world vanishes--including the device that brings me those words--and I'm in England, on a summer evening, slipping into the dairy with Tess.
P.S...Many thanks, Walter, for the shove into the future!