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.
21 responses to “The Argument for Books— ‘Heavy, Smelly, Cumbersome, Perfect Bound Books’”
Endearing as always, Jonathan.
John Waters said the same thing — “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”
I posted today, stealing from Danny Marks, that people need to start budgeting books into their monthly finances like they do eating. It feeds your brain.
A save the whales campaign worked, can we do the same for save the books?
Packing up the nest now that Deb and I are entering the next phase. What’s to become of those boxes and boxes of books is a question mark still. For example, there are a couple shelves worth of old philosophy texts from my college days down cellar in the kid’s den which were picked through and given a second life during those kid’s high school days. Knew I was keeping those books for some reason. And great to see a child working through Sartre or Plato’s Symposium, mildewed as they might be. Might just be time to lighten the load now though, as bittersweet as that might be.
Hey Michael, bring ’em on down to AZ next time you visit Tucson. I’ll find a safe place for them.
Great post JE, nothing beats a good book!
Jonathan, way to bring the thunder!
Well said, sir!
You brought my emotions to words so eloquently. Thank you! This was fantastic.
~Crystal (who gladly donated all but a gym bag of clothing [to live on a boat] – but didn’t get rid of a single book)
I guess I’ll keep all this in mind when I decide I’ve tired of reading books to absorb the ideas and thoughts of people other than myself and move to holding titles in order to impress others?
This required more than just a comment. Instead I wrote an entire essay in response. You can find it here –
Superbly put. Everything I’ve been telling people who call me a Luddite (I am) but I also believe in books as art for their own sake. They are a window into the time and person we were when we read them. Hurray for this article!
Just spent all day at Green Apple Books in SF, CA trying to figure out the logistics of parking on Clement St w/ a Moving Truck that could carry all the book I was going to buy to fill up my favorite room in the new house I am buying…when those special numbers show up on my Lotto ticket! Alas had to settle for as many as I could carry…
Excellent Article, love the memories of books ie: Reading “Satori in Paris” in San Francisco, then accidentally finding “The Subterraneans” in Paris a few months later, ditto for Don Quixote in Spain, in English!
I love this essay. Agree with you 100%. I’d like to print it out and make it into a little book, then leave hundreds of copies on tables in cafes and coffee shops all over Chicago. Do I have your permission? I’m utterly serious.
Go for it, dude!
Just throw a little action NWBookLovers way, if you could, please.
There is plenty of room for both. Love my Kindle Paperwhite AND my shelves and shelves of books from used book stores. Don’t be a Luddite.
Thanks, guys. I’ll give credit where the essay first appeared, Brian. I’ll also post links asking the finders of the booklet to post comments at my blog or this one. Sort of an experiment along the lines of what BookCrossing.com does.
You hit the nail on the head sir. I am in love with the title of this essay.
When my husband and I were moving from our two bedroom apartment to our four bedroom house, our friends HATED us at the end of the move. They underestimated the amount of books we owned and that number only continues to grow exponentially.
I only wish more people saw our view of bound books.
How did I not know about Book Crossing?!
[…] reminds us why we love real books—the actual, physical, turn-the-pages paper objects—in this lovely short essay from NW Book Lovers. I live with 15,000 or so books (the number remains uncertain at present, as the library is not yet […]
[…] The Argument for Books— ‘Heavy, Smelly, Cumbersome, Perfect Bound Books’ – an argument for books that pushes across a point that at times seems to me be a big justification for physical books – that “Books are a nexus”. Reading is a solitary experience and the advent of e-readers has made it more so. Heavy, smelly, cumbersome books through book stores and libraries and the passing of one copy from one generation to another make the reading experience more communal. […]
[…] anti e-books. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to read the written word on paper. Check out The Argument for Books by Jonathan Evison, I just spotted a quote from this short essay on Julia’s blog, and it is […]