Ras posted a video last week of Samuel, the remarkably expressive 3-year-old who recites Billy Collins’s poem, “Liturgy.” This gave me a cherished opportunity to tease ol’ Rasoir for having forgotten that I posted the same video here last August. But Samuel won my heart all over again. So did something about the way he’s being brought up. Here’s what I wrote:
Look over Samuel’s left shoulder. Go ahead . . . all the way back through the dining area. What do you see? A bookcase full of . . . what do they call those things again? Those rapidly obsolescing objects that people turn the pages of and insert toilet-paper bookmarks into and stain with the nectarine they’re eating while they read? Ah, yes: books. Samuel is growing up in a house with books. He’s blessed.
So was I at his age. And so, I have to say, were all our daughters, who are very different people but who all can be found with a book in hand whenever one’s available, and who all got that way because they grew up with books in the living room, books in my den, a mother who cradled them every night with a book in her hand, books on the floor, stray books turning up on countertops and stairs, books on the toilet tank, books piled up and toppled over by the bed.
Which is why—you knew I’d get around to this, didn’t you?—I’m still queasy about e-readers. Kindles are selling like mad, and as for iPads—are they now at 25 million sold? It would be delusional to deny that they’re cool. Who could argue with changing the font size at will, or looking at pictures that glow on the screen? But I worry that the culture of the book—the whole gestalt—cannot be digitalized. Will the bookish still be bookish—worse, will we even raise anymore bookish people—when the family’s whole library is resting there on the kitchen table in an iPad?
There’s something to be said for a book-filled home. And it doesn’t just have to do with what’s in the books, but with the presence of the books themselves. Arrayed on the shelves or in disarray everywhere else, if they’re what a kid sees every day, they shape her. For the rest of her life, a book-filled room tells her, in her cells, that this is a safe place. It could be her own home someday, or the living room of some new acquaintance, the site of a dinner party. There’s a sheltering, sometimes ramshackle familiarity to a room full of books, a fond affinity with our better angels. There is a sense that people like me have homes like this. I think this sort of thing is called a signifier. This may vanish.
I know: This is an exaggerated complaint, and worse, it’s trite by now—all the old book codgers make it. And I have before, here and here. But a little while back, when I wrote about the first book I ever read on my own—Poe’s Tales—I recalled that . . .
. . . I found it in my father’s den, which was book-lined and dark, the windows heavily draped. A tall statuette of an eagle from a pharoah’s tomb stood on the desk and strangely carved Asian and African masks hung on the walls. It was like one of those spooky chambers, full of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, that Poe was always writing about.
If the appeal of reading—full-immersion reading, reading as a way of life—does not depend mainly on the atmospherics, it is undeniably enriched by them. My father’s gloomy den—what better place to first encounter Roderick Usher? When daydreaming of reading of book, do you daydream of clicking on it? Or do you dream of curling up with it? Drawing the blankets around you by the fire. Leaning your back against a tree. Coming across a little note you wrote in it the first time you read it, a decade or two—or five—ago.
The allure of gadgetry is undeniable. Just the coolness of it. You may be drawn to certain books for their tactile pleasures—hardcover books with their coarse pages, the photos on covered stock, the subtle suction you can feel when you lift the cover. But you want your gadgets sleek. Hence, Steve Jobs. I marvel at an iPad as much as anyone.
But you could probably replace grandpa with a gadget, too. And we wouldn’t want that, would we? On the other hand, iGramps would surely be programmed not to complain all the time about e-readers.
Okay, one last grumble and I’ll end the tedium. Global warming is bad enough to contemplate. But are we ready for a future without used bookstores? Will the Samuels of some future generation never know that used-book smell? Or pull a volume off the crowded shelves and search for a place on the floor to sit and read? Or walk through some city for the first time and come across a used-book store and feel the excitement that bookish people still know so well? Will they want to duck inside that store on a rainy day to browse for hours through a Kindle?