As much fun as I’m having discovering new tricks on the computer, when it comes to acquiring books, I’ll always head to the spaces of quiet focus that house books for loan or sale. Let me linger in the hushed environment of places with aisles layered with temptations to make my choices. I want to tilt each volume forward, slip it from the shelf and bring it into my hands. I’ll fold open the front cover, read the front flap and then read the first couple of sentences. Then let me open the book at random and read a bit more. I want to feel the weight of the book, the thickness of the pages and notice the typeface. If I find a picture and blurb about the author in the back it’s an added bonus. Exploring the anatomy of a book is part of the sensual pleasure of acquiring it. The total presentation is a measure of its worthiness. When the entire visceral process is complete and I have made my decisions, I get to stand in the checkout line with other contented people. We may not know each other but we share a commonality that borders on the spiritual.
Everybody’s doing it. Buying books on the Internet. Curious about just who besides the big “dot com's” like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Electric Library is out there selling in this way, I try a search. One search engine alone found 5000 matches. Granted this list needs to be honed down greatly, but am amazed to see a huge array of specialty sources besides the big name booksellers. There are sources that search for books on saints, avant-garde literature, gardening, maritime history and rare and out of print books. Come up with a category of interest and there is a source ready to serve your needs. Of my friends who are internet connected and these days that’s most of them, several use these services, mainly the big kids like Amazon, to order their books. So easy they say, so convenient. No need to get in the car and drive in traffic to a bookstore, a moment on the computer and their desired selections are delivered to their doors. Just another catalog shopping experience.
This evening I am feeling stressed out, pissed off and extremely tender. I’ve driven from one end of Austin to the other, exploring areas of my city I didn’t know existed. My entire day has consisted of one problematic interaction after another. There have been only three of these actually, one large item to return, some plumbing fixtures to pick up and a granite yard to visit, but because of their widespread geographical locations and the time taken at each point to resolve the issues involved, it is now day’s end. As I cruise southward toward home sagging at the wheel, I pass by one of my favorite bookstores and suddenly I am swinging into the parking lot.
I already have a collection of unread books at home that I can’t wait to dive into. I can’t even remember for sure what titles await me in that treasure pile. This stop is not a quest for a specific book. Passing through the large glass doors I am aware of an energy shift. As I amble between the long quiet rows stacked with books, I feel my hard, frustrated edge melting. My breathing alters. My body softens as muscles relax and I feel my face loosen and my lips heading toward a smile. Within these walls there exists a dense hush with subdued murmurs as background music. The air is delicately thick, in a pleasing comfortable way. It is almost imperceptibly scented with that unmistakable essence of paper, glue and ink. There is no jarring music or other intrusive stimuli, only the occasional waft of air as someone passes or the slight swishing sound of pages turning. I can feel the presence of others, but it’s a soft respectful presence. No loud voices carrying on conversations on cell phones. My companions are focused on the written word.
I lose track of time and wander from place to place opening books that attract my attention because of title or cover. What is it about that subjective call of presentation that lures me by juxtaposition of word, font or color to stop and pay attention, to touch? I stand and read snippets that draw me either to read on, seduced by the allure of word or thought, or to abandon one volume for another. I peruse the thematic displays, taking notice of who might be coming for a signing or who has just been. There is a seasonal arrangement and another of the publications of a local author. I am as a bee drawn instinctually from flower to flower gathering something needed and special from each stop.
When I happen to glance up in order to digest a particularly provoking phrase, I see through the large window that the light outside has changed. It is dark now, but I am light. I am rejuvenated, uplifted and back in my own body again. The harsh experiences of my day are over and I have released them and the tensions I carried into this serene space.
I worry sometimes about people’s current relationship to books and to libraries and bookstores. These are now and have always been my havens. My idea of the perfect vacation is to spend days lying around reading. I have never been able to pull this off, yet it remains my ideal fantasy. I am always hungry for more time to read. As a child the local library was my favorite indoor hangout. It was my home away from home. When I had read all the books on a certain subject, the kind and helpful librarian would assist me in ordering more from the state library. I waited in exquisite anticipation for those books to come. As I got older I was often “in trouble” for having my nose in a book all the time. My parents were certain I would become a social misfit.
It seems to me that while many children today are not social misfits, they never read. My nieces and nephews are all bright kids with extremely full lives, but they never seem to have their noses in a book. A friend, who always works at the Friends of the Library book sale, tells me that each year the juvenile section of the sale has greater percentages of leftovers, while in earlier years of her participation this was often one of the first sections to sell out.
I realize that the net is a greater source of immediate information than anything we’ve ever had in the past and I am grateful and excited about it’s current and future potential. But I am dismayed to see it taking over my beloved paper world of books. Besides giving us the ability to order books online, the Internet is causing the entire publishing industry to change. Books are now available in electronic format. One site listed 10,000 choices, some of which exist only on the net and have never been printed.
Oh my God, I am becoming a little old lady in tennis shoes decrying the wave of the future. But I ask you, does curling up with your lap top or even your palm top, feel remotely the same as snuggling up with a paper book? It’s hard to stick a bookmark in place on a computer screen as you doze off or mark your place while you gaze off into space and ponder the thought you just read or take a break to watch the sunset. The little Post-it tape flags I’m so addicted to using in paper books would be of no use in marking special passages to re read myself or share with a friend. And what about my shelves of what I call my inspirational books, those that have moved me so deeply they must be referred to repeatedly. Just seeing their spines all in a row can trigger fond memories and make me smile.
Always hungry for ritual, I cling fiercely to this one. It holds great importance in my life. I will never give this rewarding and joyful process up for convenience. So let the others point and click their way to book buying. While I admit to being somewhat technologically impaired, I am not a total Luddite. I will continue to explore the net and love the information and possibilities it offers. The more I learn about the potential of this arena, the more enticing it becomes, but when it comes to my life with books, those magical bound pages exploding with ideas, inspiration, respite and knowledge give me the hands on experience. In the future as I see it, the person in these tennis shoes will keep on dancing down those corridors of paper pleasures.