Building a Case for Books

There seems to be a post-book movement afoot these days. People are proud to have renounced reading books and to “consume” everything online or on their ereaders. These renouncers are proud to have decluttered, to have thrown off the shackles of books. Their houses are full of shelves empty, but for a few iPads. Their bedside tables are free of the usual piles of books, magazines and the litter of New Yorker subscription cards.

Heard recently:

“Why do you still have books when you can look up everything online? I mean, are you really going to pick up a book to search for some obscure philosophy quote that’s in your head?”

“Those old books from your grandparents’ library? We got rid of them all — who reads books anymore, anyway?”

Answers: “Yes” and “I do.”

I have a question for these book renouncers:

Have you ever come downstairs in the early-morning quiet of the living room to discover one of your children standing there reading titles on the bookshelves, wondering what they mean, what the stories are about and when they will be old enough to read them? Animal Farm, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, The Call of the Wild? Or those books that have titles which a child can’t possibly understand and will inevitably ponder for days afterward: The Job of Sex, or, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I doing in the Pits? [Full disclosure: these were books on the shelves of my 1970’s living room]

To bring us into the present, the other morning at breakfast, I looked up from reading my newspaper when I heard my nine year old son ask: “Who’s Fitzgerald?” He was turned around in his chair and gazing at the stacks of books on the dining room floor. “Fitzgerald?” I replied quizzically. “Oh, you mean F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

I put down my newspaper and spread the four F. Scott Fitzgerald books I have out on the table. I figured I would start him out on The Great Gatsby and gave him a synopsis of the story, highlighting some important images, like the light blinking at the end of Daisy’s dock and the roadside sign with the eyeglasses, but not [spoiler alert] Gatsby floating dead in the pool. I went on to talk about the book’s themes of the American Dream, the decadence of the 1920’s, the stock market crash, and the rise and fall of family fortunes.

Previous to this impromptu, literary tutorial, I had been feeling embarrassed about all the books stacked on the floor, thinking that things were looking rather slovenly around here. But afterwards, I realized that without those books sitting right there for my son to see, we would never have had this conversation.

I find that just looking at a book’s cover can awaken a feeling from a story read years ago:

A Child in Time: the narrator speeding in his car on the motorway, coming upon a car accident and unable to stop in time, narrowly makes it through the space between the crashed car and a truck by accelerating rather than braking. [Exhilarating!]

Moby Dick: the details of the day aboard the Pequod when the crew stripped away the skin and blubber of the whale, extracted the oil, and jumped up and down in enormous vats of spermaceti. [Disturbing!]

This is how memory works — we never remember an entire day or book in detail, just a moment, or two, that were unforgettable. Not only does a physical book holds the memory of the story, but also the memory of what was happening in your life at the time you read it and how it changed your perspective, and possibly your life. If I allow myself to gaze at the books on my shelves, this is what happens in my mind:

To The Lighthouse:

I remember the Virginia Woolf seminar I took in college. How during the course, my friend and I left notes outside each others’ dorm rooms in the style of Woolf, with the real meaning tucked inside parentheses and the rest a series of non sequitur observations of the natural world. And how Woolf’s books fostered a fascination with the writers and artists in the Bloomsbury Group, which lead me to visit London, England. In the original British Library reading room, I sat transfixed under the rotunda where Virginia Woolf thought and wrote, and possibly sat at the very desk where I was sitting. Later, I applied for my own reading ticket for the new British Library to do research for a historical novel I was writing based on a portrait I came upon one afternoon wandering around the National Portrait Gallery.

On closer examination, I notice that I have two copies of the book, which would seem both redundant and extravagant, except for the fact that one copy belonged to my mother and her notes are scribbled along the margins, as mine are in my copy. My mother’s interpretations were based largely on experience, as she read this copy of the book later in life, particularly about what a mother symbolizes to the world at large and for her children. I remember her talking about the idea of the “angel in the house.” Like a warning, the book, and my mother’s comments, remind me how having “a room of one’s own” REALLY DOES MATTER, particularly for a writer. I didn’t know it when I was 20, but I know it now.

Anna Karenina:

Pulling the book off the shelf, I find a Muni pass from December 1996 stuck inside, which I must have used as a bookmark. It makes me remember the job I had at the publishing company in San Francisco, on the third floor of a house in Dolores Heights. I had to take the 33 Ashbury bus from the Richmond district, and as it wound its way through the neighborhoods, making wide, swooping turns at intersections, the sharp sound of the brakes releasing and the bus swooshing forward once it had picked up passengers, I read the entire book. It was the longest book I had ever read. Sitting on a plastic seat, leaning against the window, I closed my eyes after reading the last lines. She threw herself under a train! At least, that was the end of the book for me.

The Forsyte Saga:

Living in Walthamstow, London, traveling on the tube to central London, this book helped me survive the claustrophobic press of other passengers, the heat, the bad odors, the interminable delays. I was appalled and angered by the abominable Soames, and then amazed that Irene, at last having escaped him, still “dressed for dinner even when dining alone.” I escaped into a highly-mannered world where class and its signals dominated everything in society, a time when a woman’s worth was based solely on her marriageability. The book transported me in a time-capsule underneath the streets of London. When I emerged, blinking in the daylight from my journey, it was as if I could now see through the city’s modern layers, its old foundations exposed and still very relevant.

The image that remains with me more than any other in this book, and that I recall often, is of the old, dying man resting in a chair beneath a tree, with a book in his hand and a dog by his side, looking out over a rolling, English landscape as a beautiful young woman walks towards him through the grass. This is his last view — literature, companionship, nature, beauty. Does one need anything else?

The Catcher in The Rye:

Snow blanketing Central Park. The city quiet, cold, and empty. Holden, I wanted you to go home to warm up and eat dinner, but I could also relate to your need to run away, to be free of the expectations of grownups and the sense that you were a disappointment. And the record you bought for your little sister Phoebe — the one person you thought wasn’t a phony — how it broke on your way to see her. I was so sad for you! I understood your search for something authentic, Holden, your cutting through the veneer of happiness associated with privilege. It reminds me of a snowy night on Beacon Hill, in Boston, walking from my boyfriend’s house to his car and coming upon a high school classmate (newly transferred from another private school) trying to park her BMW on the street. She asked my boyfriend if he could park her car for her, because she was too drunk to do it herself. “But what if you got stopped by the police on your way home?” I couldn’t help asking. She ran her fingers through her long, wavy brown hair allowing it to cascade down one side of her face with its high cheekbones and Brooks Shields-style eyebrows, then showed me how she would slide her plaid kilt up her tan, toned-by-field hockey legs to show the officer. I was shocked, but more envious of her beauty, her freedom to be so reckless, and, of course, her ability to get away with it. She was 17, rich, beautiful, dating men in their 20’s, and quoting André Gide. Holden, I wanted you to know that you had your whole life ahead of you, that you could make your way in this world on your own terms, without sabotaging your future by getting expelled from school after school.

Middlemarch:

At age 48, I still have only made it halfway through this book. My mother used to say to me “Just wait. You’ll be able to read it when you’re older. Then, you’ll really enjoy it.” How old do I need to be? Will I ever actually enjoy it? My mother had an ability to read everything quickly and easily pull out its salient points. She was always reading several books at once. I always felt like I was playing catch-up. That no matter how old I was, I’d never actually make it to doing the New York Times crossword in pen, to whipping up a dinner of Cornish game hens stuffed with grapes and wild rice, to reading (and enjoying) Middlemarch. So, looking at Middlemarch on my bookshelf engenders regret and definitely a drop in self-confidence. Maybe it shouldn’t be on my shelf anymore if it only makes me feel bad about myself. Or, maybe it stands for the possibility of pleasures later in life, of things that can only be enjoyed and comprehended with the advantage of time and experience.

It also reminds me of watching a BBC production of George Eliot’s, The Mill on the Floss, with my mother. Whenever things looked like they were turning bad, I would cover my eyes with my hands and say, “Oh nooo!” My mother would turn to me and say, “Now remember, Jamen, this isn’t Jane Austin. This is George Eliot.” She was saying that everything wouldn’t turn out okay, but that it would certainly be interesting. That I should keep watching. Like life. I’m holding on to my copy of Middlemarch.

Dear Book Renouncers,

All the books you have read are the paving stones on your mind’s unique path to enlightenment. To throw away all your books would be to destroy the road that you traveled on to get to who you are now. You may be able to find another way back to understanding your journey, but it won’t be as easy, or as scenic.

All my best,

Jamen