August 27, 2008
Ten Reasons I Love Books
Everybody thinks it's just about reading but there's so much more to it:
1. I love the way books look on shelves: neat but not uniform; colorful but not blinding. I love the way you can line up the spines and run your fingers across them, and the different textures from fabrics to paper to slick Mylar. I love that I can arrange books by author, by subject, by format, by publisher, and by favorites. That's not a photo of my shelves, just so you know. But maybe if I wish hard enough...
2. I like the way each book opens. Some open to the frontispiece, some fall open to someone else's favored page, some to the place where a cruel human broke the spine. Some books resist being opened, some still need their pages cut. All of them are trying to tell me something when they are opened randomly. They are trying to share their own story, beyond the one on the printed page.
3. Books wear well. You can tear them, stain them, write in them, spill on them. Some you can bend or furl. You can break their spines; you can dog ear them; tuck them under a sweaty arm or shove them to the bottom of a trunk. You can bag them, box them, stack them, shelve them, throw them. And after all of that you still have a book to read. (You cannot burn them however. This is a crime against humanity.)
4. Books are patient and never fickle. You can lay one aside and pick up another and then another, and the first one will wait until you come back. They don't mind when, after months of struggling to the top of the TBR (To Be Read) heap, you turn away to the brand new book by a favored author. You can shove a book to the back of the shelf, having read and disliked it; it will wait for you to come back and discover the wisdom or laughter you overlooked at first reading. A book will stay with you through an all-night reading fest or will let you while away the minutes at the doctor's office. A book will wait forever, no matter its other virtues or lack of.
5. I like the way a book becomes a living thing when I am enjoying it, how the characters step away from the pages and breathe on their own. I like how the settings unfold and surround me, how I can cruise along the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles or watch the heat lightning along the Atchafalaya Basin while I eat boudin and drink sweet tea. I've ridden through Laurel Canyon in Elvis Cole's yellow Stingray and I've gone pubcrawling in Galway with Jack Taylor. I've suffered frostbite and starvation and betrayal in the Arctic with William Laird McKinley and feasted at Nero Wolfe's elegant table. I've picked locks with John Dortmunder (once I hid in a dishwasher with him; that was painful) and answered the phone while Parker was killing a man in his garage. Does it get any better than lounging in a wingback chair in 18th century Paris, sharing the fire with Alastair, Duke of Avon, unfurling a painted fan and plying it gently whilst scheming to destroy our old enemy, the Comte de St. Vire?
6. I like the way a book becomes a shared memory between people who've read and enjoyed it. Years after we've read the book, it will still conjure up laughter and conversation, some will bring back a sense of stabbing heartbreak for those characters who once were so close to us. And when two strangers discover a book in common, they are no longer strangers because suddenly they have that same shared memory. There is a very Jerry Garcia-looking man who works at the used bookstore sometimes, and how I smile whenever I get his seal of approval on my choices because I know we like the same kinds of books and I'll be certain to enjoy my purchases.
7. I like the way books are an adventure. I don't mean simply the ones that are about adventure, I mean how I feel I am taking a risk when I try out a new author or new subject matter. Am I being challenged? Is there a new idea in here? Is this story different or the same as what has come before? Is it going to entertain me or educate me? Both? Will it be worth my time or a waste of time? Will I be different at the end of this book or will I be unchanged? Before reading the first word beyond the title page, the book is a Great Unknown. Will I know it when I have finished reading it, or will this book remain a mystery to me? Will this book warm my heart or chill my bones? Save my soul or damn my eyes?
8. Books don't require anything but me and light (natural or artificial) in order to be of use. No batteries required, no electricity, no buttons, switches, or keyboards. No operating system, no software, no disks or drives. No engine, no gasoline, no oil (or no one would read). Just me, the book, and 'a star to steer by.'
9. Books are a great equalizer. A book doesn't require a degree, an interview, a placement test. A book won't say different things depending on your social class, race, religion, age, or sex; it says what it says. What you take away from the book is up to the individual though. The pages won't turn a different way for the rich than for the poor, no different for the old than for the young. Everyone can read all of the pages, some, or none. Your choice. No rule by majority, no vote-tampering. Just you and the book. You can read Oliver Twist in fifth grade (as I did) or you can read AA Milne's Now We Are Six at age 30 (as I did), and get enjoyment. No one can censor your reading material but you (no matter how parents try; but my view on censorship is for another day).
10. Books end. They are not endless soap operas rehashing hash. There is a sense of accomplishment upon completing a book. There is always a moment -- or many moments, days, weeks even -- of contemplation following the end of a book. There is resolution (perhaps), decision, analysis. Sometimes there is the delight of knowing you've found a new favorite author, and he or she has several other books already published. It's like finding a treasure trove. Or there can be the depressing realization that you've just finished the latest book by a favorite author and there won't be another new one for a year or more. Sometimes there's the comforting thought that, though you didn't care that much for the book, at least there's one less in the TBR stack now. And although you may never open that book again, it will be with you always. Is that value or what?