My nephews are both avid readers, a happy coincidence that brings their book aunties much joy. Their house in Burlington is rich in bookcases. They spend summers at the lake, where more bookcases sport ragged, well-loved mysteries and fantasies, Mythbusters and Star Wars books, copies of comics collections like The Order of the Stick, Calvin and Hobbes, all of the Harry Potters. You know, summer staples. When their friends come over, books are readily shared and shown off, shelves pored over, volumes handed between kids like candy bars. Recently, I was lounging on the dock near my nephew Jake and his friend Riley, who were both reading ARCs I’d brought (Super Diaper Baby 2 and Squish). Utterly lost in the companionable habit of reading, they finished their books at exactly the same time and, without a word between them, exchanged books and started reading once again. It was a classic moment and one that made me think, yet again, about the way the reading experience changes with Kindles and Nooks and iPads.
Children, both experienced bookavores and those just learning to read, are SO PROUD of their libraries. “Want to see my books?” they exclaim, leading you by the hand over to the shelves to marvel, especially proud of the sheer number of volumes they have read. There’s something about the physical mounting up of books, the scale of stacks, that cannot be replicated with a gadget. And the thickness of books! Everyone who knows kids knows how Extremely Important a book’s length is, how proud kids are of having waded successfully through all the pages of Inkheart or Harry Potter V. Waving around a Kindle saying, “Look at all the books I’ve … downloaded!” just doesn’t have the same impact as twelve feet of worn spines and pages softened by lingering fingers.
The same is true for adults. When new romances are blooming, bookavores spend a lot of time surreptitiously checking out their dates’ bookcases (and, let’s face it, assessing at least their literary compatibility). At dinner parties among new acquaintances, conversations are often sparked by titles—intriguing or familiar—spotted on nearby shelves. It’s the best kind of snooping, poking around other people’s libraries. Our book choices are intimate, revealing, our discoveries meaningful and serendipitous.
Looking over someone’s Kindle contents tells me something, but not much. Was this title even read? Has it been re-read, loved, slept with? Read in the bath and therefore slightly waterlogged? Where are the dog-eared pages, the satisfying kinesthetic memory inherent in heft, shape, size? And don’t forget about bookmarks: those tell their own stories. In my own books, I re-discover bookmarks from long-defunct bookshops I loved, receipts and restaurant napkins I used to mark my place that now serve as travel diary entries, photos and other random flat paper items I grabbed to use as placeholders and then left there, giving me sudden bright glimpses of my own forgotten past. And there are items in the pages of books that were left there by other readers, little messages in bottles from across mysterious seas. My sister gave me a beautiful old King James Bible, an ornate leather-bound version from the 1800s, with illustration plates protected by onion skin. Pressed into the heart of the book, between onion skin and paper, was a four-leaf clover. I love this so much I can hardly stand it. A person of faith, perhaps, who owned this book before me, hedged his or her bets with a little piece of pagan luck! Show me an e-reader that can provide that kind of wacky archaeology.
The convenience of e-readers is handy, but libraries are treasure troves. I have so many friends and acquaintances who have shifted the bulk of their book buying to e-readers that I am starting to think about more than the usual anxiety about the future of publishing and bookselling. Book fanatics will always be here, and our libraries will survive. But I am starting to wonder whether the casual personal library is in danger.
This idea of the empty library haunted me enough that I asked phenom New Yorker cartoonist and children’s book illustrator (and Vermont neighbor) Harry Bliss if he’d like to draw it up. This is what I sent him:
“A guy leading a tour of his home to guests in a room full of emptied built-in bookshelves. On the tabletop of one of the bookcases is a stand with a Kindle on it. Guy is gesturing proudly toward Kindle. Caption: And THIS is my library.
Sad. True. Sob.”
Here’s what he sent back (with a note saying, “The Kindle or ipad, I thought was too difficult to read, so I made it a laptop….“)
And that vision, people, is my nightmare.
By the way, how amazingly, unutterably COOL is it to have talented artist pals who can actually take an idea and DRAW it up?! For those of us without the art gene, pretty darned cool. And, um, Harry BLISS. Whee! (Public service announcement: If you don’t already subscribe to his daily cartoons, which are hilarious, you can do so on his website.)
So, what do you think? Is the casual personal library doomed? And what impact will that have on kids, not to mention our ability to judge potential mates? Inquiring minds (don’t) want to know….