CJ Kaplan explains how some of his greatest love affairs have been with books.
Lisa stood in the middle of her walk-in closet and cried. I knew that she was envisioning her clothes hanging in neat rows from the multi-tiered racks instead of stuffed into the drawers of a Salvation Army bureau as they currently were.
Our charming little raised ranch had been a joy for two, cozy for three, crowded for four and now, with our third child on the way, impossible for five. Lisa’s clothes overflowed from the tiny closet in the master bedroom while I shared a closet and a yellow flowered bureau with my daughter. My son’s wardrobe was spread throughout all three bedrooms. Child #3 would likely be dressing in the dining room at this rate.
So, when our neighbor with the four-bedroom colonial put his house up for sale we went over to check it out. That’s how Lisa came to be wiping tears from her face as we finished the tour of the master bedroom suite.
“We have to buy this house,” she whispered to me urgently as we followed our neighbor back downstairs to the kitchen. I smiled, not because her raw emotion was going to make negotiating the price difficult, but because I already knew we were buying the house the second we walked in.
That’s when I first saw the built-in bookcases.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a thing for bookcases. My dad’s office featured shelves filled with popular fiction and outdated law books. Sometimes I would go in there when nobody was around and sift through the novels, flipping the pages and inhaling their pulpy aroma. It wasn’t even the titles that attracted me. It was the space itself. To have a room in one’s home completely devoted to books, a real library, was something I associated with ultimate success.
I did have my own bookcase in my room. It was a low, two-shelved number that housed my Encyclopedia Britannica volumes and a few sports books that I’d picked up here and there. It was the thing I loved best in my room and for a time it was enough that it was just there. Then one day, I decided that what was on the shelves was even more important.
I was 10 years old when I borrowed my dad’s copy of Watership Down. Richard Adam’s allegorical tale about a warren of rabbits struggling to re-colonize after their home is destroyed by humans was a bestseller and a favorite of the adults in my life. However, weighing in at nearly 500 pages of dense prose that consisted of completely imagined “rabbit language,” it was a daunting task for my young mind.
After just over 100 pages, I found the going too difficult. Devastated, I returned the book to my dad and vowed that I would try again someday. Two years later, I took on the book as a term paper subject to force myself to complete it. I remember setting goals for myself each day so that I could finish on time and write my paper. The feeling of satisfaction as I turned that last page is still tangible today. It was triumphant, but also less like a task that had been completed and more like one that had just begun. My love for bookcases had now been equaled by my love for books.
Like any young person whose passion had been ignited for the first time, I spent every spare moment with my new love. I devoured novels, biographies and histories as if I had been deprived of them my whole life and needed to make up for lost time. I plowed through The Lord of the Rings trilogy, most of John Irving’s catalogue and every word Stephen King ever wrote. I carried books with me to school, to basketball practice, to the dentist, always hoping for a stolen moment to sneak in a chapter or two. I was the kid who read under the covers with a flashlight and climbed trees so I could read without interruption. Nothing made me happier.
That’s why my most fervent wish is that all the Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers disappear in a puff of smoke, banished back to whatever hell in which they were conceived.
Those of you who recognize yourselves in the paragraphs above may part ways with me here because I sound hopelessly and unapologetically old-fashioned. But, I don’t care. This is far too important to me to remain silent. You know why?
BECAUSE YOU CAN’T FALL IN LOVE WITH A FUCKING SCREEN!!!
(Yeah, that’s right. All caps and three exclamation points.)
I was okay when they made mail digital. I was a little sad when they made music digital. But, now I’m downright apoplectic that they’ve made books digital. Books need to be held and cradled and caressed just like any loved one. Would I have felt the same triumph in finishing Watership Down if, instead of turning that last page, I flipped off the monitor?
How will anybody under the age of 15 come to appreciate great literature if they can’t even touch it?
I read my two oldest children all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series a couple of chapters a night for the better part of year. My son memorized the page count of each book, taking great delight in the thousands of cumulative pages we read together. My daughter regularly re-reads all or part of her favorite installments of the series. They refused to watch the movies until we had completed each book, not wanting to ruin what we had accomplished. My kids fell in love with the actual books even more than the characters inside. Never once did they ask if we could read it on the computer.
My little guy is too young for Harry Potter, but one of his favorite bedtime stories comes from a book that I’ve had since I was two. A White Sweater Must Be White is the story of a hapless housewife named Mrs. Barnaby who knits a sweater for her husband George only to discover that it shrinks dramatically every time she washes it. And even though she admits that she knows how yarn shrinks, Mrs. Barnaby continues to wash the sweater in warm, sudsy water each time it gets dirty. After the shrunken sweater has passed from father to son to family dog and cat, it becomes so small that it can only be worn by the son’s pet hamster. Somehow this pleases Mrs. Barnaby to no end. The book has a hard blue cover that appears almost knitted together. The pages are worn and yellowed making the illustration appear even more outdated. I have read A White Sweater Must Be White over a thousand times in the past 40 years. And yet, every time I take it down from Eric’s bookshelves both father and son smile. Putting this story on a tiny screen would completely suck out all its soul and charm.
A couple of years ago, I took out Moby Dick from the Boston Public Library because I hadn’t read it in a while. (Yes, that was your geek alarm going off.) The volume was one of those cracked leather-bound editions with the gold-trimmed pages. I read it over a period of two or three weeks during my inbound and outbound rides on the commuter rail. Oftentimes, I would look up from Melville’s vivid descriptions of whaling life to find other commuters staring at the book and at me. Sure, some of them were probably thinking “what a pretentious snob.” But, I know there were many who thought “hmm, I should probably pick that one up again.” As a result, I felt five percent smarter every time I took it out. I’ve never watched someone take out their e-reader on a train and look or feel the slightest bit smarter.
The Refuseniks were Russian Jews who had been denied permission to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 80s. As pariahs in their own country who were not allowed to hold jobs after they requested an exit visa, these people were often without the most basic needs. American Jews were asked to send what they could in the form of clothes, food and, most importantly, books. I remember collecting books for my temple to send to my fellow Jews behind Iron Curtain. It was an act of defiance and unity that let our Russian brethren know that we were thinking of them. If the Soviet government wouldn’t let their bodies escape, we could help their minds escape through literature. What would have sent them today? A digital file?
I was recently invited to the home of a friend for a holiday party. The first thing I saw when I walked into his condo was the six-foottall bookcase that ran the length of one entire wall. Its shelves were overstuffed with spy novels and political treatises and historical fiction. Several times during the party, I separated myself from the lively conversation and made my way over to the bookcase for further inspection. On my third or fourth trip I noticed, among the le Carres and the Wouks and the McCulloughs, the slender volume of Jewish humor that I had co-authored. I had given it to him as a gift and he had seen fit to place it amidst literary royalty. Whether it was knowingly given or not, this was far and away the best present I received this year. Even better than if he had placed it at the top of his electronic wish list.
We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help.
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
No wonder Kindle’s new tablet is called the Fire.