In another few weeks, I will be moving to another apartment in the same building in Manhattan where I have spent the past few years. While moving in itself is a traumatic event as everyone knows, my principal problem is books.
I have a huge collection of books. In the three or four major moves in my lifetime I have culled, boxed, given away and donated thousands of books. During each nesting experience, however, I have acquired yet more books and have repeated the culling process each time. I could never pass a bookstore without buying one or more books.
The fact is that I am probably a bibliophile in my soul. I love books. Reading books takes up much of my time, when I am not writing books. For years I have collected sets of leather bound books by favorite authors. It is a valuable collection. I have leather bound books by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy, O’Henry, Balzac, Henry James, Turgenev, Twain, de Maupassant, and on and on. To list them all would make this essay endless.
I also have duplicate copies of my own books in every language in which they have been translated and published. They amount to hundreds of copies. I will never part with them. They are as much a part of me as my DNA.
I love reading novels, older novels and contemporary novels. My tastes are eclectic. I have many non-fiction books as well, on politics, history and religion with particular emphasis on American history, which is yet another passion.
Now here is the kicker.
I am a pioneer in electronic publishing. All of my books have been reversed from major publishers and digitized since the late nineties. I have for years been touting the inevitable switch from print to digital. It was a no-brainer bound to happen. And it has reached the tipping point.
I made the first pitch for digital books on handheld reading devices at the Las Vegas International Consumer Electronics Show for the SONY reader when it was introduced in 2007. I bought one of the first Kindles and for kicks have been collecting other reading devices like the iPad and the Nook.
For years I have been addressing groups on the joys of reading content on screens. At first my reception had been hostile. I have listened to the same complaints ad infinitum. They all have the same ring. I love the tactile feel of a book. I love the smell of ink and paper. I love to hold them. Books are my friends. I like to see them on my shelves. A curse on screen-read books.
My response is always the same. I feel your pain. I cite other examples of lost items, both corporeal and emotional: The clip-clop sound of a horse’s hooves on city streets, the beauty of horse-drawn vehicles, the smell and sounds of sizzling logs in fireplaces, the fading art of writing letters, the lost joys of childhood, the reassuring scratches made by pen points dipped in inkwells, my mother’s cooking, the reassuring house calls of the family doctor, the old New York Herald Tribune, penny candy, knickers, saddle shoes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. It didn’t bring tears to the eyes of my audience and did not soften the blows to my advocacy of digital books.
I would explain to those early listeners and those I speak to today that there is a lot to say for the psychic joys of a physical book, but, in the end, there is one hard truth that is inescapable. The heart of a book is its content. Content trumps all. When all is said and done reading is a one on one communication system, an author’s presentation of his or her insights, stories, opinions, a distillation of his or her thoughts, instructive, inspirational, original, and, in its own way, a miracle of transference through words. I suppose one can find numerous other definitions, both literary and instructive. Content and its dissemination is the beating heart of civilization. Enough said. I’m sure the point is made.
In one tiny device, Kindle, Nook, iPad et al, I can fit the content of every book on my shelves and can, if I chose, soon be able to download at my whim the content of my choice among most books ever published since the discovery that content can be portable.
That said, it does not diminish my love of physical books as objects of admiration and devotion.
But here I am culling once again. I find I am being more ruthless than ever with less second thoughts or pangs of conscience on what to keep and what to discard. I no longer really want to shelve paperbacks and am making my culling judgments on the basis of my emotional attachments, my love of the content presented by those authors who have truly moved me, whose content has given me hours of pleasure and made a difference in my understanding of the human condition.
I will keep those books in my new apartment as a monument to my love of books and my favorite authors as well as a symbol of enduring friendship.
Oh yes, one more thought. While I can enjoy the sight of seeing many of my “friends” tucked comfortably on my bookshelves, I can now carry these “friends” everywhere I go and in both a physical and symbolic sense hold them close to my heart.