These Modern Classics are Meant for More than E-Readers
I fell in love with a boy once because of the markings in his copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son that he lent me after our first date, only to find out years later, after we’d broken up, that they weren't his underlinings at all.
While this metaphor for our relationship would’ve been avoided if he used a Kindle, there is an indelibility of the traditional book that an electronic tablet will never be able to replace.
Like ideas, paperbacks can be traded, borrowed, swapped or lent. They exist outside of corporations and pesky 14-day loaning policies.
By definition, e-readers are elitist. They depend on an upfront investment and require internet and electricity to continue working. It is not recommended to bring them into the bathtub and they don’t work well on the beach, both of which are prime reading territory.
My addiction to the real, paperbound thing has been tested. I’ve lived in three foreign countries and make my living as a travel journalist. I spend a lot of time living out of a suitcase. A suitcase which is likely stuffed with equal volumes of books and clothes, which, if this were a riddle, don’t weigh the same amount.
While reporting on a story about the Bahamian mail boat system last year, the boat’s cook and only female employee saw me reading on the top deck one scorching afternoon. She said she was an avid book lover and we swapped stories about some of our favorites. I raced through my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men so that I could leave it for her.
That’s the ingenuity of the book: like ideas, paperbacks can be traded, borrowed, swapped or lent. They exist outside of corporations and pesky 14-day loaning policies. It doesn’t matter where you bought them or if your device is compatible.
I’ve packed classic journalistic works like Janet Malcom’s The Journalist and Murder or Joan Didion’s Salvador as talismans on big reporting trips. Stuffed deep into my suitcase and read at night in a hammock, the books connected me with the journalists’ kick-ass, take-no-prisoners history in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a bleary, white screen.
Although you’re not meant to judge a book by a cover, you certainly can’t judge a Kindle by its cover. Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao will always call to mind riding the New York City subway during fall 2007, when the weather was still hot and when I could look up to see the train car dotted down with red and white covers and big, black font.
I do try to opt for paperback over hardcover, I’ll admit that I make exceptions, if it's a new book or the only copy available at the library. Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor comes to mind, as well as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. And let me just say, the pleasure of reading those tomes far outweighed the pesky extra pounds.
Added bonus: lugging books around might be bad for your back but the weight can also push you to read faster. Recently, I plowed through Alexander Chee’s Queen of Night while reporting on a story so that I could leave the copy with my neighbor who I knew would enjoy the 19th century historical fiction piece set in France. It didn’t hurt that the book was over 500 pages long and hardcover.
That’s not to say e-books don’t come in handy. A friend gifted me her dog-eared copy of Tana French’s Faithful Place, which, once I tore through, left me craving more. As I was living in a town with no library or bookstore, save a trinkets shop with a paperback section in French, German, Italian and English, there was only one way to slake this thirst: my library card and iPad. I recall spending the weekend curled up in bed, ignoring the perfectly sun-filled days and dazzling beaches so that I could finish “Broken Harbor.”
And you can bet when “The Secret Place” debuted two years later and I was living far away from an English language bookstore that would carry the mystery thriller, I downloaded that baby the first night it was out.
But for this wandering bookworm, there is no substitute for the chalky feeling of pages between your hands.