Books saved my life, are saving my life every single day. Not the words inside them, although that’s true as well and would be the subject of a much longer essay. I’m talking about the physical objects themselves, the paper and twine and glue, that are bought and sold as commodities in the real world. Without the buying and selling of physical books, I would be dead. I would not have been able to make a living, to feed and clothe both myself and my family, all these years. From my first job working at a Waldenbooks at the Fairmount Fair Mall in Syracuse, New York, and although I have held many, many other jobs throughout my life, books have always been the vital means by which I support myself. As a writer, I know how mind-numbingly hard it is to make one’s living from putting words on paper. But if it weren’t for all those writers who struggled and did just that, I wouldn’t be able to eat. Yes, there is a special relationship between writers and readers. But there is an equally special, and just as necessary, relationship between writers and booksellers. Of all the jobs I’ve held, the one I’m proudest of is bookseller. In fact, I’m still one today. I sell textbooks at a small liberal arts college in Maine. And although I’m frequently cast as the bad guy because I either rip off the students at the beginning of the semester by charging them too much for their books, or ripping them off at the end of the semester for not paying them enough to buy them back, I still take great pride in what I do. And sometimes, very rarely but sometimes, a graduating senior will tell me how helpful and kind I’ve been to them over the past four years. It’s a small consolation, but then I realize that the world of books is one of relationships, between writers and printers and binders and sellers and readers. All woven together.
Sadly, those relationships are frayed and in some cases altogether severed. With the Twitterfication of the world, humans today, especially young humans, seem much more interested in the message and not so much in the delivery mechanism. The whole idea of books as objects to be treasured, not just for the words they contain, but for their very existence, is increasingly being lost. Kids today just want to know how the story ends. Ebooks aren’t really books at all, just a license to read something for a set amount of time. They smell of fuel oil and burning silicon. In my opinion, the road to Hell will be paved with broken Kindles.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a lecture and book signing with one of my favorite writers, Allegra Goodman. After her talk, I asked her to sign the copy of Kaaterskill Falls I had brought along, a novel I treasure. She cheerfully complied and we chatted a bit about the Catskills and Olana, and swimming, and the water flow of the falls based on the rainfall and snowmelt that year. I have that copy with me now, as well as my signed copies of Satanic Verses, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Wonder Boys, and The Secret History. Each signature inside each of these books represent a definite time and place in my life, and ones that Jeff Bezos can’t take away. I’m eternally thankful to all the books out there that I’ve been able to read, to have signed, and to have sold. I feel lucky that books have lasted as long as they have, and that years ago I didn’t decide instead to become a Betamax salesman. But really. I was an English major. What else could I do? And how else could I have met the fierce, brilliant Christopher Hitchens, who signed the copy of Notes To A Young Contrarian you see above? Now, sadly, Hitch is nothing but scattered bones and dust. But his words, like his name scrawled in black Sharpie on the paper of this volume, a volume I will never part with, will never die. Our time together was brief, a few minutes at best, but by the mark of his own hand, he remains with me forever.
Try that with a Nook.