Every so often I think about books I've collected and think, what was the point, really?
For a while, as I moved through life, I collected books like picture frames collect dust. Naturally, easily, and really, really, quickly. Everywhere I went there seemed to be a used book sale going on. I often went along with my mother, who enjoyed antique shopping and auction-going, and there was always at least one moldering old box of books to browse or buy. When I was in college, I had to buy a ton of books for course reading lists. And then, I stopped fooling around and got serious: I worked at a used bookstore. Bull? Meet china shop. Only with, you know, books, and I didn't so much break them as just hoover them up.
So then the problem became, where to keep them? Before I married and moved into my own place, I had to be a bit careful about accumulating too much furniture, but once I did, I started finding bookshelves as easily as I continued to find books. And, up to a certain size, bookshelves are wonderful pieces of furniture, especially if you're a not-very-strong woman with a not-very-big car. Mattresses, couches, chairs, appliances, even futons, to a certain extent, are hard to haul around by yourself. Bookshelves? Especially smallish to mid-size ones? Not so much. Put your hands, palm side up, underneath the top section on the bookshelf, lift, and go. Cram into your trunk and tie it down, or shift your front seats as far forward as they'll go and shove the bookcase into your backseat on the floor.
For a long time, then, I experienced a blissful state of balance. I brought home books, I had places to stash them, I even, wonder of wonders, had time to read them. I also had lovely, hopeful, optimistic dreams (and I hardly have any of those, so I really, really cherished those) that someday I could provide kind of a mock library for kids that I would have. Oversize books! Lives of the saints (a favorite from my youth, not only because that was the type of books I found on my parents' shelves, but also because saint stories are full of plot points that would make most R-rated movies blush). Books on art! Books on history! Books of lists! Photography books! I even organized my books into sections: religion, history, reference, New York City (it warrants its own section, you know it does), classics, and of course, "Books People Have Given to Me" (embarrassingly, very few of which I have read, but none of which I will give away.)
And then I had kids.
And of course, you know how that story ends. Having kids is lovely. Beyond lovely. By far the most surprisingly enjoyable thing I have ever done. Also very trying, which is not very surprising, because I kind of expected it to be trying, but never trying in the ways in which you thought it would be and prepared yourself for. And primarily trying because all of a sudden I had a lot less time for reading. I mean, a lot less. Like, I mean, I literally never used to do anything with my time except read. (I begrudgingly went to work and cooked some meals, but I certainly didn't bother cleaning the house, socializing, or gardening, or anything else.) Let's put it this way: I read one hundred books last year, and that was the result of me reading only in snatched minutes here and there throughout the day. To me, reading a total of one hundred books in a year represented me being STARVED of books.
This is not a post blaming two lovely little CRjrs for my lack of reading productivity. It is a post about learning what reading, and specifically what reading books, means to me. And I only shared the above paragraph to illustrate to you that for me, reading a book roughly every three days is not nearly as ideal a situation as would be reading three books every one day.
So yeah, I like reading.
And yeah, I like books. It's not the cool thing to admit anymore. You're supposed to have your smartphone, on which you mainly follow Twitter, or Facebook, or apps, or whatever it is people actually do on their smartphones.* And you're supposed to have your Kindle, or your Nook, because ebooks are so handy, and you can download them anytime, and then you don't have to carry all those books around, and if you're a blogger or librarian type you can even get all sorts of advance copies of books in ebook form, and isn't that exciting?
Maybe it is, if you're in a place where you can get through more than 100 books a year. Or if the Kindle really IS a lot easier for you to hold and read, for any number of physical reasons. Or if you are a librarian, and have to look at a TON of books to know what to order for your library, not to mention so you can learn about books you might want to help other readers find. I get it, I get it, I get it; and, of course, one must move with the times. As Albert Brooks said in the classic movie "Broadcast News"**, "I grant you everything."
But give me this: articles divulging the fact that your e-reader is reading YOU are creepy as hell. Last year ebook retailer Kobo released some (keep in mind: "some" is always the operative word in these stories) of its data about the books most readers didn't finish, as well as the ones they did. And this is not an isolated story; a quick search and run around the Internet will net you any number of freaky-ass stories about how the people you are buying ebooks from can see what you're reading, when you stop reading it, what you highlight, how long it takes you to read pages, and all sorts of other information about what else is on your device and how you use it. There's also all sorts of really charming stories about how your various accounts can be hacked via ebooks.
Now, I can certainly understand if you don't want to follow those links. The stories are depressing as hell and I'm pretty sure the only way most of us keep using computers and devices is to delude ourselves, every day, about how secure our devices (and therefore our lives) really are. So let me nutshell the stories for you.
Ebook vendors can see (and do see, and SAVE information about) every little thing about your reading habits, way beyond just knowing WHAT you're reading, which is creepy enough. And who is very interested in that information? Well, for one, publishers. Marketing departments. Authors. And why? Everyone wants to know what you're reading so that, of course, they can sell you more of what you want. I have read stories now that talk about how authors are already tailoring characters and storylines based on reading data about where in the text people stop reading, or where they speed up. I have one word for this:
Why do you read? There's about a million reasons why I read, but one of the tippy-top reasons is that I love that moment of identification, of communion, with one other person--the author. As an introvert I am programmed to love any deeper interaction with just one other person, and reading provides that for me. Furthermore, reading--communing with an author--allows me to feel connected to the human race, and to experience. It does not matter that the author and I really don't have a way to converse back and forth. They put themselves out there with their book, and I put myself out there by finding and reading and thinking about it, and sometimes, when I come across an "aha!" moment in a book, where something just strikes me as perfectly funny or perfectly reasoned or just perfectly perfect for me at that moment in time, I can just enjoy it. The author and I can be together without being together, which is weirdly impersonal, I know, but also very comfortingly universal.
Until now. Until the marketing department gets hold of data about how I'm reading, and lets the author know they have to punch the story up a bit on page 176 to keep the reader interested. Really. Can you imagine a world in which Wuthering Heights ends with Cathy marrying Heathcliff because that's what more readers want? Sure, it would make the novel shorter, maybe happier, but would it be Wuthering Heights anymore? How about when all nonfiction, including memoir, history, science, has to be "helped" just a little at various junctures to make it more "page-turning" or "marketable"? Brother. As if it isn't hard enough to find some version of truth in nonfiction, now we get to think about publishers tweaking every single paragraph to keep you reading your ebook.
Lately I had been thinking, you know, the kids won't need or want my library of print books. They'll be digital natives, after all. And if we ever move, do I really want to move hundreds of books again? And their bookshelves? If the writing is on the wall for reading, and print books, maybe I should find some other reason for living, ditch all the books, and live lighter on this earth.
But I can't do it. I just went and visited my bookshelves in the basement (it's a nice, warm, and partially finished basement, and that's just the only place we have room, so that's where they are), and just looking at them made me feel calmer. And you know what? Nobody recorded how long I looked at each title, or which books I removed lovingly, recalling who gave them to me and why, or when and where I bought them. Joyfully, a lot of the books I own I have not yet read, so I feel like I always have this store of fresh reading material, even if the Zombie Apocalypse comes and we have to lock ourselves in the house. (Books, Fiber One cereal for me, and endless pasta for Mr. CR and the CRjrs, and we should be nicely placed to wait out that Zombie Apocalypse, I hope.)
So: I'm keeping the bookshelves. And I'm not going to just say no anymore when I pass any book sales. Because I love books, and I always want them around, and I want the old-fashioned kind that marketing departments aren't watching me read, and that Amazon can't pull back off my Kindle just because they feel like it, even though I've already paid for it. There's many healthier reasons why I'm going to keep the books, and the shelves, but at least one reason is because I am thrilled, when reading print books, that nobody but ME knows why or how I'm reading it.
*I have a cell phone, but it is a flip phone and is roundly mocked by everyone I know. Including a friend who sent me a text on it, and then had to show me how to open and read the text the next time I saw her.
**Watch Broadcast News if you want your mind blown by how different things looked even thirty years ago. A newsroom with no computers! People using phones hanging on walls!