"It was a dark and stormy night..."
It was with breathless excitement that most of the national media reported on Tuesday that Amazon, for the first time, is selling more electronic books to Kindle e-readers than dead tree versions sent through snail mail to people like, well, like me.
This "tipping point" as the retailer inevitably called it is, according to CEO Jeff Bezos, "astonishing, when you consider that we've been selling hardcover books for 15 years and Kindle books for 33 months." Although the press release was really a thinly disguised way to promote that iPad sales have not hurt Amazon's Kindle (nor has the drop in price), it struck a sad note for me as a book saver and proud librarian.
I have been fortunate enough in my career to live at this stage in my life in a house with a family room that doubles as a library (so does the dining room, since it too is lined with bookshelves, and the guest room). There are thirty or so books in various piles in the bedroom separated in categories "to be read", "to resume reading," "to be moved to the family room library," and "to eternally gather dust because I can't remember why in hell I ever bought that one in the first place."
This in no way makes me some kind of voracious reader or pointy-headed intellectual. I actually am a pretty slow reader. I like to tell my kids that I read slowly because my lips "get tired," but such elevated humor is lost on them, and in return I just get the slowly shaking head as they inch away from me in the direction of the closest electronic device.
I had a Kindle for a short while but managed to read only one book before my wife, who had given it to me in the first place, borrowed it -- like your kids "borrow" $10. She has built a nice little electronic library, but if she wants one of the kids to read a book she liked, she has to give up the e book for the duration. When I want to recommend a book to one of my infrequently curious offspring, I grandly run my finger also the spines, pulling down title after title until their arms hurt from the load.
I quickly judge others by the character of their bookshelves and often spend cocktail-party-chat-time examining the host's choice of books. Are they window dressing like saved college texts or faded inherited-from-parents volumes? Are they coffee table books cracked only the hour they were unwrapped for Father's Day? Is there way too much Sidney Sheldon and way too little James A. Michener? Where are Leon Uris and Thomas Keneally? What's up with all that Tom Clancy? OMG -- who would buy Jacqueline Susann in hardback? WHAT? no Jim Crace, Walker Percy or even, for god's sake, Dan Jenkins? If there are not extensive runs of history and biography or books about serial killers the owner loses major points. Too many celebrity books -- as "authors" or subjects -- also move you down the rankings. Self-help titles might send me snooping in the master bedroom medicine cabinet. Seeing books that are in my own library significantly raises the homeowner's esteem.
Being a book buyer also solves the "socks or tie" dilemma relatives face on Xmas or my birthday. Credits to Amazon or a crisp new hardback are always welcome -- even, dare I say it, appreciated.
I don't trust people who don't read books. I mean real ones where we can all see the title and what page you are on, instead of some electronic tablet that shares no secrets. "What are you reading?" is just not the same conversation starter as, "I LOVED that book!" I feel like I have more in common with two guys that read the same books that I do than folks I have otherwise known all of my life. It is like we are in a secret club. All we need are decoder rings. And four-star general caps.
Real books can be a pain in the ass, especially if you have to travel and your current can't-put-it-down is +1000 pages. Only a coin toss can help you decide whether to pack the underwear -- or the book. Books are like cars -- the moment they leave the lot their commercial value diminishes. But never their ideas and stories. They are timeless.
Perhaps electronic books will remain more affordable than dead tree books, and will find new audiences especially for great texts that now can be found mostly in the stacks of crumbling old libraries. But doing an electronic search to find your library it simply not the same as taking a title off the shelf and flipping through musty-smelling pages that seem a step or two closer to the author's typewriter or longhand notes.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: "I cannot live without books." I think he meant the wisdom, concepts and ideas they convey. Me, I mean the books themselves.