My entire life has been built around books. From my earliest memories, I was surrounded by books, whether it was comic books to console me when I was sick, or Dr. Seuss books to help me learn to read before I ever started school, books have always been an enormous part of my daily existence.
And thank whatever gods there be for that. There’s literally nothing I’d rather do than read a good book. You can take that however you want, and I know pizza and sex are suffering some pretty severe hurt feelings right now, but at 48 years of age I think I have earned the right to say that reading is just about my favourite thing in the world, and books are the primary delivery system of my drug of choice.
Now, I read other things. I read the occasional magazine, and once in a while I’ll somehow end up with an actual newspaper in my hands (this happened much more often when my wife worked as a newspaper delivery driver). And of course, the internet. Or The Internet as some would spell it. You know, the web. Or, The Web. I don’t know why some get so worked up about capitalizing words like internet or web or website. That always looks wrong to me. But I digress. (But I Digress is the name of a column by comics-and-other-things-writer Peter David, which he once collected into a fun book called, wait for it — But I Digress.)
Anyway, my point was, I love to read. I love to own books. These are two different loves, and one is an abiding romance (the reading) and one is a fickle passion (the owning of books). I often cull the herd of my book collection when necessary, and while I sometimes miss some of the books, I would be much more distressed had I never had the opportunity to have read them in the first place. The reading is an essential human need, for me, while the possession is a bonus that I treasure but that, ultimately, is decided by factors not always within my grasp.
My favourite authors include James Howard Kunstler, Carl Sagan, and I’m going to say Vladimir Nabokov, even though the only book of his I’ve ever been able to read all the way (not counting his wondrous autobiography Speak, Memory) through was Lolita. But I have read it all the way through at least four times, I own three copies of it (one softcover, one hardcover and one annotated version), and I think it’s the most brilliant thing ever written in the English language, so I feel like that allows me to say Nabokov is one of my favourite writers, even though I have only read a small fraction of his work. I do have a copy of Pnin I bought to read on a business trip about 9 months ago — I’ve read a couple of chapters, and I like it, but I haven’t gotten back to it yet for some reason. Whenever I tackle Lolita, though, I always am riveted from beginning to end. It’s always a page-turner. You see, Lolita surprises me every time I read it, and it breaks my heart every time I finish it. It resonates with me like no other work ever has, and I don’t care what assumptions that statement inspires in you. If you’ve read it, you may understand. If you haven’t, not only do you know nothing about what I am talking about, but you know far less about life than you could know, if only you took the time to read and try to comprehend what Nobokov was saying about need, and memory, and most of all loss.
Loss is kind of what inspired me to write this. The author Stephen King (whose novel The Stand blew my mind when I was 14) was recently quoted as saying “The bookstores are empty. It’s sad. I remember a time when Fifth Avenue was lousy with bookstores. They’re all gone.” And his observation filled me with sadness, a sense of dread, and most of all a powerful feeling of loss. I realize as people grow older (I’ll be 49 in a few months, very far indeed from the 6-year-old who started reading comic books in 1972) they more and more see the march of time and their place in the world slipping away from them. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, constantly reminding my kids that in my day, you had to go to the movies to see a movie, or buy a record to listen to some band’s new album, or go to the drugstore or the comic shop to be able to read comics. Now, all three of those activities and many more can be pursued with a couple clicks of a mouse on our home PC. There’s virtually no waiting, and no end of entertainment and information right at our fingertips.
But when you close the window whether to your comics-reading program of choice (I like CDisplay) or CNN.com or The Comics Reporter, you have no physical connection left to the words you were reading. You may be left smarter and better informed or entertained, or delighted, or angry, or disgusted, but whatever is left of the reading experience now resides solely as a memory in your mind (unless you downloaded the webpage, in which case I suppose it exists in physical form on your hard drive, but you know what I mean).
The end of the book as a dominant form of reading material fills me with sadness and longing for not only another time, but a better world that perhaps never existed. One in which books were owned and loved and most importantly read by everyone. Not everyone read the same books, but everyone read, and they loved to talk about what they were reading, what they had read, what the hoped to read in the future, and perhaps what had inspired them to write themselves. (If you’re not thinking about Burgess Meredith by now, you are far younger and think much less about reading than I.) “I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book,” said James Spader’s character on The Blacklist, and while the show varies wildly in quality from week to week, that quote is as true a thing I can say about myself as can be imagined.
In the four decades I have been reading, books have enlightened me (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos), engaged me (James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency), frightened me (Fast Food Nation) and inspired me (too many to name). As I write this today they seem to be a dying artform, their disappearance noted by an author whose work was among the first to scare the living shit out of me (Stephen King, The Stand). That that author is scaring me now, not with fiction about a world-devastating plague but rather the very real end of an era that has meant so much to my life, is ironic in ways that I can’t even begin to express. But at least I am aware that it is ironic, because I have read books, I have always read books, and I will until they, or I, are no longer around. If you need me, I’ll be in the garden, reading, for as long as I possibly can.