If you could peel back the layers of skin and meat, delicately swing open the doors of my ribcage to peek inside, you’d find my heart is bound in battered old leather, origami ventricles formed of soft vellum, beating with the circulation of red-black ink.
I know books have become old fashioned, teetering on the verge of obsolescence. Within a few generations, it is said, no one will write at all. The printed page will be a strange, dusty-sounding tool your grandparents used, like shoehorns and gramophones. Soon, we will all evolve giant thumbs and meep at each other in one syllable txt spk. I hope to be dead before then.
My niece teases me for using too many “big words”.
“Why do we need more than one word for the same things?” she asks me plaintively.
“Nuance, baby,” I tell her.
I do admit I love the idea of being able to carry an entire library around in my pocket. I just haven’t been able to convert to reading on a screen. Books are an experience unto themselves, they are more than just a collection of words. They have a scent and a heft, the better made ones filled with tiny exquisite details, from the typeset to the binding to the cover design, creamy pages with softly deckled edges your fingertips will be drawn to again and again. Even the cheap drugstore paperbacks have their own certain shabby charm, boldly vying for your attention with over-saturated colors and urgent blurbs.
Growing up, I would read anything. Discarded newspapers and magazines from front to back. The content did not matter. Fashion, architecture, investing, gossip. I was starving for every word. The backs of packages, marveling at the complex chemical names, how the lists of ingredients seemed bigger than the foods themselves. My summers were filled with the boxes of books my mom would find at yardsales for a dollar. She would let me read anything, so when most kids were still collecting the Babysitters Club, I was immersed in the worlds of Dune, Poppy Z. Brite’s vampires, William Gibson blowing my mind with his future visions, Ray Bradbury making my soul ache with affinity. I read every increasingly bloated tome Stephen King produced.
My dad would save boxes of antique books that were going to be thrown out from an auction house his friend owned. New worlds opened up at my feet. Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit from the 1800’s. Tom Swift and his adventures through the 1950’s. Each book would feature his hijinks as he obtained some fantastic new object like a ship or a hot air balloon or, once, an elephant. There were many others, motor car girls and fast-talking children and the original Little Women, which featured letters to and from the author.
In high school, I found more radical, non-mainstream writers and thinkers. Feminist, queer, punk, disenfranchised, controversial shock-poets who smeared their guts on the page and dared you to look away. At the same time I was obsessed with the lyrical beauty of T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke, the complexity of Mark Danielewski, with Hemingway and his bloody bullfights, with every word Neil Gaiman would ever write. I may be the only kid who ever skipped school to go read. I was such a rebel.
Ironically, now I have more books than I could probably read in several lifetimes yet less time in which to read them. So I no longer will finish a book just because I started it. If it’s bad, it goes. But the good far outweigh those. Hefty scientific explorations, photography-rich coffee table books, works on religion and the occult from all parts of the world, history, dystopian futures, lush and darkly twisted fantasy– even my secret love, cozy mysteries. Shh. They’re like sugary gumdrops to my soul.
Books make me feel wealthy beyond imagining. I could happily live with very basic food and shelter as long as I had access to a library. I know my mind will never stop questioning and expanding, discovering some fascinating new fact or some new facet of humanity. It scares me a little that kids are being steered away from intellectual thought, from the pursuit of knowledge for the sheer love of learning.
Perhaps the kids will all revolt one day, leaving a discarded line of electronic husks in their wake, furtively passing handwritten letters to each other, clutching books to their chests, which will slowly be absorbed until their hearts, too, are leather-bound and paper-folded.