This week we honored Jonathan Evison with a PNBA Award for his novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. (It’s PNBA Award #2 for Evison, who won last year for West of Here.) Today, he kicks off six weeks of essays by our 2013 winners with a well-argued case for real books.
Let’s disambiguate right off the bat. When I talk about books, I’m talking about actual books—heavy, smelly, cumbersome, perfect bound books. The kind that take over your whole house. The kind that are a pain in the ass to carry on airplanes. The kind people borrow and never give back. I don’t have a problem with e-books. In fact, I’m glad they exist, particularly for people like my buddy with muscular dystrophy, who was never much of a book reader, because the ergonomics of reading were a nightmare. Now, with an e-reader, he reads voraciously. So, hooray for e-books!
But that’s not how I roll.
I want the physical object, so I can mark it up and dog-ear the pages, and set my coffee on it, if I please. I want to feel the weight of it in my sweaty grip, thumb its pages, run my hands lovingly over the cover. I want to be able to defend myself with the thing if I have to. Nobody ever deterred a mugger with a Kindle. You see my point? Besides, e-books make terrible gifts.
Long after I’m done reading a book, I still want to see it, and be reminded of the experience, assuming it was a good one. I once lugged Don DeLillo’s five-hundred-pound-gorilla, Underworld (in hardcover, no less!), around San Francisco for a week, up and down those godforsaken hills. It was a workout. I was tempted to start tearing pages out of the damn thing as I read, just to lighten the load. Every time I sat down to eat, there was Underworld, right in the way of my plate. Every time I used a urinal, there was DeLillo, grazing the leg of the guy next to me. Two or three times I forgot the damn book in bars, and had to walk back and get it. The thing took up so much room in my backpack, I wasn’t able to pack the requisite San Francisco layers. I was cold half the time because of that book. But by God, it was worth it. And all these years later, Underworld still sits on my bookshelf down in my office, taking up way too much space. I can’t so much as look at its mighty spine without thinking of the bad chow mein I ate on Stockton. Or the nine dollars I paid for that beer in Hayes Valley. Or that homeless guy on Mission who pulled up his shirt and showed me his oozing penetration wound. Or that screaming toddler across the aisle from me on the flight home. You see my point?
Now, let’s talk about wall space. Nothing short of a Picasso beats a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of great titles. If I walk into a place, a party, say, and there’s a bookshelf, I immediately gravitate toward it. Unless there’s a bar. But even then, it’s only a matter of a few rounds before I make my way to the book shelf. If there are good books on it, I may never leave the spot all night. Anybody I really want to talk to is going to make his or her way to that bookshelf sooner or later, anyway, right? Books are a nexus. They start conversations, and they continue conversations, and they make people better conversationalists. I have not found this to be the case with Iron Chef, or even alcohol.
Okay, for anyone who’s still not convinced that books—paper books, as sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores—are not absolutely indispensable to even the most shallow among us, here’s my go-to argument, my deal closer, as it were. Listen up, horny people, and hipsters: Anyone who ever said they got laid reading an e-book is lying. It is physically impossible to look cool in the coffee line holding a Tablet. You just can’t do it! But if you’ve got a thin volume of Baudelaire poems, say, or a Murakami novel, look out! That rolodex you bought at Goodwill is gonna fill up in a hurry, bro! You know why? Because books are social currency, always have been. Books will always be cool. Even if most people don’t read them. As long as they buy them, the rest of us will be okay.