Why Books Matter

On Mother's Day several years ago, Rick gave me a Nook e-reader. Before that, I was a “real book” snob. “But the feel of turning the pages!” I said. “The smell of the paper and the binding!” I said. I eschewed e-readers like any self-respecting purist should.

But that summer, my new Nook in its lovely green case delivered voracious reading to me at a furious and satisfying pace. From its glowing screen, I read All the Light We Cannot See, the House on Mango Street, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Just Mercy, several New Yorker articles, and other things I can’t remember. As long as I charged that magic device every night, I had the world at my fingertips. I discovered the joy of carrying an entire library around in one slim volume. When my kids were small, one of our favorite bedtime stories was a book called (aptly) “Always Room for One More.” The title echoed in my brain: there is always room for one more way to read!

Years have gone by since that summer, and my relationship with my Nook has seen fewer peaks and more valleys. I can go months without even knowing where it is. I wish I could say this is because physical books and I got hot and heavy, but it’s more honest to say that my iPhone and I have been caught in a co-dependent spiral, spending far too much time together, both of us getting some kind of sick benefit from the countless wasted hours.

And so, in an effort to re-kindle (pun intended) my love of reading, I recently charged up the Nook and re-read Just Mercy. Even the second time around, it was definitely a can’t-put-it-down experience. I quickly tumbled into one of those delicious, all-consuming reads that take up residence in your mind and command all your attention. And along the way, I figured out the price we pay for reading on e-readers instead of with books in our hands.  

While I was devouring this book as if it were manna from heaven, like it was oxygen, water, life itself, no one in my family could tell what I was reading. No one could see it. I realized this when Bryan Stevenson’s name came up by chance with one of my daughters (probably prompted by NPR), and I jumped at the opportunity to talk about Just Mercy with her.  

She returned my enthusiasm with a blank stare, having no idea what I was talking about. I had to stop and explain that I was reading Mr. Stevenson’s book, and that it was amazing, and that she should read it. It was incredulous to me that she wasn’t familiar with the book that had been looming so large in my world. Here I was, reading a book that felt life-changing and urgent and essential, but because I was using an e-reader, my family was utterly clueless. Sure, they could tell that I was reading, but no one could tell what I was reading.  

If I were reading the physical edition of Just Mercy, they would know. The book would be living beside us, taking up space. It would sprawl on the couch next to a throw blanket, linger on my bedside table, sit patiently on the kitchen counter while I cooked. It would be visible. The title, the cover, the promo blurbs–all of those would seep into my children's brains. That’s what we lose when an entire library exists in one slim volume. If all the books stored in my nook were instead on my shelves, my kids would know more authors’ names and see more book titles around them. They would be surrounded by more possibilities for how to spend their time, each book peppering their consciousness with so many seeds.  

It’s not that my kids have not grown up around books; they have. My youngest takes pride in the fact that every year in school, when her English teachers assign new books, we rarely have to buy them. We usually already own them. But when it comes to Just Mercy, I was saddened that that book, in particular, was not on our shelves, helping me raise my children just by being there. It felt like a loss. 

The Red Pony. The Accidental Tourist. Amityville Horror. The Cracker Factory. Where the Red Fern Grows. James Joyce. William Butler Yeats. Erma Bombeck. Charles Dickens. Agatha Christie. Those are just some of the books and authors who raised me from their perches on bookshelves and coffee tables. Their presence signaled to me that the words they contained were valuable because my parents valued them. And now, they are part of the fabric of my childhood, part of my memories and my own family narrative.

So bring me real books please, and lots of them! Because as much as I love the convenience of my e-reader, taking up physical space matters. Real books actually live in our homes. They talk to us in conversations that begin before we ever crack their bindings and echo for decades. They help us raise our children and stay with us for our entire lives. Therein lies the difference: E-readers are fabulous for individual, solitary reading, while the books we hold in our hands shape the living, breathing communities we live in. 

I guess I’m still a “real book” snob after all. I do enjoy my Nook, but my physical books are family.


Anonymous said…
This is sort of parallel to the "no one can tell what you're doing on your phone/laptop" issue with family: are you working? goofing off? reading email? reading news? Nobody knows, and it's a socializing/connection breakdown in ways that being immersed in physical media (or hand-writing letters or whatever) usually aren't.

Part of me wonders if there's a technological or social fix for this device-that-contains-multitudes problem: a screen on the opposite (at least sometimes visible to others) side or edge of the device that indicates what's up.

But also yes, real books are a wonderful thing.

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