While My Shelves Gently Weep
David G. Mitchell
I am a bit of an old softy when it comes to nostalgia. If something reminds me of childhood, I get all misty-eyed. The other night, for example, I turned on my television and heard the theme song to the 1970s detective classic The Rockford Files. That was a show that I watched every week with my Dad and to this day, James Garner (who starred in the show) reminds me of my Dad. Although Dad is still alive and kicking at eighty-three, the theme song to The Rockford Files always makes me anticipate the day when I get a very sad phone call from my Mom telling me that Dad has passed.
This past week, I was overcome with seemingly endless waves of nostalgia for books. Not for content or the written word, but for books made of paper, ink and binding, the things that you and I used to buy at small book stores or would find in libraries. I am starting to fear that books are kind of like my Dad, still with us, but not for all that long.
You may recall that BiblioBuffet’s publisher recently posted in her blog the thoughts of the columnists on reading e-galleys and writing reviews of them. I was somewhat blunt when I announced that I would not read an e-book unless there were no bound books left to read. Most of my colleagues felt the same way, to at least a degree. We are, after all, all bibliophiles and each of us has our own personal history with books that will always be a part of our composition.
As I read that blog post, however, I realized that alone I cannot control the availability of books. The market is going to decide whether traditional books will be available ten years from now, fifty years from now and a century from now. This is where my nostalgia kicks in. I know that it is unlikely that a century from now publishers will be publishing books made from paper. The printing press is reaching the end of its useful life. Indeed, in a century the concept of reading words may have passed into obsolescence as words are projected into the brain through some technology that has not even been imagined yet. But that, to my mind, is not reading. I don’t really know what we will call it, but it is certainly not reading.
This past week, Barnes and Noble announced that it is for sale. To me, that means that its current owners are looking to cash out before their business loses all of its value. It seems to be a sign of desperation. The articles I’ve read note two factors that have contributed to the demise of B&N: loss of market share to Amazon and an inability to compete with e-books. Had B&N gotten on the Internet bandwagon in the 1990s it might have preserved its dominant position in the market place but, alas, it did not. I know a lot of BiblioBuffet readers may disagree, but it does seem to me that as goes B&N so goes the future of books. Those of us who want to browse and to feel the paper and the binding will have a harder time doing that if B&N eventually fades from the landscape and, although smaller independent booksellers may replace B&N on some street corners, it is going to be a lot harder for them to compete with e-books or the selection that Amazon offers. I fear that they too will fade.
About twenty-five years ago, I had a “Save the LP” bumper sticker on my car. I tried to resist the digital evolution of music even though I was also an early adopter of compact disc technology. I still bought vinyl LPs into the 1990s. Eventually, after several moves, I realized that I could not justify keeping all of my LPs so I sold all four or five thousand of them. I miss them and I wish I had not parted with them, but I did. I’ve parted with a lot of books over the years as well, and I miss them even more, but until this week I always thought I could replace them some day. Now I wonder. E-books and the Internet are increasingly telling me that the day of the bound volume is done.
As I grew nostalgic for books this week, even as I anticipated the death of the book, my bookish memories percolated to the forefront of my consciousness. I wonder if my grandchildren will have memories such as these.
A Rainy Day. This was a Little Golden Book that my Dad read to me just about every night when I was about two years old. It began “A rainy day, a rainy day, but we have something new to play. We found a great big treasure trunk in our basement. See the junk.” I recall the next several lines from the book as well, even though I have not seen it in over forty years. If I could find one book that I once owned but now do not, it would be this one book. No book will ever mean more to me because of the connection that it gives me to my Dad, my early childhood and the early development of my love of books.
Encyclopedia Brown. The boy detective has been around for years. I read his stories voraciously in first grade and my own children read them when they were young, too. Encyclopedia Brown introduced me to the concept of humility, because even though I could usually figure out the solution to each mystery before it was disclosed I was not always able to do it.
The Five Find-Outers. American kids do not get to read a lot of Enid Blyton and her works became my battleground when I was in third grade. I will always remember Miss Maffeo, my school librarian who was steadfast in her assertion that Enid Blyton did not belong in school libraries any more than the Hardy Boys did. Fortunately, I had family in England who would send me Blyton’s books but I never succeeded in getting them into the library. Even so, it was in battling for Blyton’s legitimacy with my third grade librarian that I developed a keen sense that adults should be more focused on getting kids to read all the time than on getting them to read certain things.
The Hobbit. Tolkien remains the most influential writer of my lifetime. I’ve read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy no less than six times each. Miss McCarthy, my freshman English teacher in high school, turned us on to Tolkien and I was immediately in my element. For the next decade, I would read almost nothing but science fiction and fantasy. Asimov, LeGuin, Eddings, Asprin and so many other writers became a part of my regular trips to the bookstore. With no other way to find out what books had been published, I went to the bookstore at least once per week and read through all of the SF/F titles just to ensure that I got each new release as it hit the shelves. At the time I earned $3.50 per hour setting up function halls at 6:00 am on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and most of my money went to buying books and music.
The Sword of Shannara. I do not recall why I was reading this book but I do think that it was the first contemporary fantasy that I ever read. Written by Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara was a sensation when it came out in the 1970s and I think I read it immediately after reading The Hobbit. Although I know I read the sequel as well, The Sword of Shannara is memorable not because I remember the story but because one incident involving the book stands out to mark both the passion I have felt for books and, perhaps, the difficulty of being an adolescent male. I distinctly recall being in my French class, in the middle of the class, when my friend Mike picked up my copy of the book from my desk and threw it across the room when the teacher’s back was turned. Incensed, I stood up, retrieved my book and proceeded to punch my classmate while chastising him never to hurt a book again. The class then continued. To this day, I wonder why my teacher never said a word or disciplined me!
Walden. Growing up in the Boston, Massachusetts area, I had the good fortune of studying the Transcendentalists in their own backyard. I took my copy of Walden to Walden Pond on a Saturday during the spring of ’85 or ‘86 and read it while sitting near Thoreau’s cabin. That day at Walden I never saw another person, and while I do not remember much of what I read, I will always remember the experience of reading it.
I am nostalgic for each of these books because for the time that I was reading them, they were a part of me. Now I can pick up my copies of each book and remember those moments and places and emotions that remain locked within the pages just as much as the stories contained on the pages. I do not believe that an e-reader can hold memories the same way that the printed word on paper can. My books are not merely kept on my shelf so that I can show the world what I have read or to ensure that I can return to my favorites time and time again. They are on my shelf because each one contains a small part of me that I will lose if ever I part with them.
Today my wife told me that a local coffee shop is offering a free coffee for each used children’s book that is donated. But she also said that she does not want to part with the library of children’s books that we have amassed over the years because she wants to share them with our grandchildren someday. I can only hope that our grandchildren will have the patience to read from one of those books when that day comes.
Books mentioned in this column:
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.