Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.

The Little Free Library Saved My Camping Trip

At 11 p.m., the tent, sleeping bags, lantern, bin of dry food, and bug spray were in the car. Early the next morning, we were driving to northern Wisconsin for a four-day tent camping trip. But wait! What was I going to read? All of my books were on my iPad and it would be pretty hard to recharge it while camping.

As a reading addict, I get panicky at the thought not having at least three books to read when I go on a trip. Barnes & Noble wouldn’t be open before we left. Amazon couldn’t help me.

For many people, being without books during a camping trip is no problem. There’s hiking. Swimming. Sitting by the fire. Eating s’mores. Stargazing. And we do all of that.

Lack of old-fashioned paper books would really put a damper on the trip.

I love losing myself in a story and there are lots of opportunities to read during a leisurely trip like camping. When the birds wake up the campground at 5:30 a.m., I like to burrow into my sleeping bag and read for a while before wrestling into clothes and walking down the road to heed nature’s call. For me, swimming really means reading on the beach and jumping into the lake occasionally to cool off. In the late afternoon, it’s nice to have a beer and read before we make dinner. After the dishes are done and we’ve gathered kindling for the fire, I’ll read a little more before the light fades.

If we delayed the trip for several hours until the bookstore opened, we would arrive too late to have lunch with a friend who lives near the campground.

Inspiration struck—I could borrow books from the Little Free Library!

IMG_1344The libraries dot my Minneapolis neighborhood. A Little Free Library steward makes or buys a house-shaped box, stocks it with books, and erects it in the yard. Patrons can take book or leave a book anytime. If the steward registers the library, it will appear on the world map the Little Free Library organization maintains on its website.

Little Free Library is a grassroots movement begun in 2009 by Todd Bol of nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. He and Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw the opportunity to build community and share a love of reading. Initially, they and other volunteers donated time and materials and the movement grew within the region. Word-of-mouth, as well as regional and national media, helped spread the idea, and by the end 2011, there were nearly 400 Little Free Libraries across the U.S. In 2012, the Little Free Library became a nonprofit corporation. In early 2015, nearly 25,000 Little Free Libraries were registered across the world.

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Within blocks of my house, there are eight Little Free Libraries. I visited two and came away with three books to devour on my camping trip: a bestselling mystery, an historical novel, and a memoir I’d read but enjoyed enough to reread. Crisis averted!

After we returned, I put the books back in circulation and added several more from home. It’s inspiring to see how a grassroots organization can do so much to support a love of reading and foster a sense of community.

Bookstores Beat Amazon for Browsing

I love that I can zero in on several pairs of cool shoes on Zappos that will fit my hard-to-fit feet. Yippee! The Internet brings me things I can’t find locally. Problem solved! I have happily spent time searching for deals in the clearance sections on Banana Republic, JJill and Macy’s websites (usually when I should have been doing something else). Score—70% off! But I do not love browsing on Amazon to find books I might enjoy. For that, nothing replaces the sense of discovery and delight I experience in brick and mortar bookstores like Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, or Subtext.

Amazon’s “Recommended for You” algorithm is too simplistic. Just because I recently read a book about the Holocaust doesn’t mean I want to read three more books on that subject. At least not right now.

The trouble is—I don’t always know what I want to read. Until I picked up Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories by Kyle Minor and One of Us, a novel by Tawni O’Dell that’s set in Kentucky coal country, I didn’t know I would enjoy them.

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Browsing in a bookstore is almost meditative. I give my mind and feet permission to wander and I open myself to discovering what’s there. When I find a good book that wasn’t on anybody’s bestseller list, it’s a pleasure. The title or cover lures me. After reading a few pages, there’s a moment of victory, “Yes! This one will be good.” I feel inordinately lucky. It isn’t just a book. It’s a good read—sometimes a journey to an interesting place. Other times it’s a respite from a bad week.

If I find a book, I buy it, but often I am torn. I also love to read ebooks. I can read in bed without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I can carry 10 pounds of books in a 1-pound device when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, ebooks lead me to Amazon. Buying there just hastens the demise of all those independent bookstores that I love. If independent bookstores could offer books in either paper or digital form, I’d gladly buy my ebooks from them. They’ve earned the sale by giving me a great experience. Amazon is procurement, not browsing. Visiting a bookstore is an adventure.

I Never Used To Be A Quitter

But in the last two months I’ve fired three of the books I was reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

I LOVE to read and I consume several books every month—mostly novels, memoirs, and essay collections. It stands to reason that occasionally I’ll pick up a dud. But three in a row? What’s going on?

Why I Set Aside Those Books

IMG_0385Each book was favorably reviewed and the subject matter sounded interesting. I expected to like the books and looked forward to reading them.

At first, I read with enthusiasm, but I stopped enjoying myself about 80 percent of the way through The Signature of All Things. I made it through only 60 percent of The Invention of Wings and about 20 percent of The Empathy Exams.

Reading historical fiction and learning about unfamiliar cultures usually appeals to me. For a while, I enjoyed those aspects in all three books. Soon, however, the level of detail each author incorporated stopped being fascinating and turned tedious. I just don’t want to know that much about moss (Gilbert), the infighting among abolitionists (Monk Kidd), or peculiar subcultures (Jamison).

I enjoy character-driven stories. Each of the book’s main character (and the narrator in the memoir-based essays in The Empathy Exams) is unusual and had the potential to be interesting. While I was curious about the main characters, each had a quality that was fundamentally off-putting. I stopped wanting to spend time with those people.

Is It Me? Is It Them? Does It Matter?

1. Life is too short. I’m not going to waste time on books I don’t enjoy. There are too many good, satisfying books I could be reading instead.

2. I no longer care why a book doesn’t meet my expectations—it’s still fired. I used to assume that if a book was disappointing, that the failing was probably mine instead of the author’s—perhaps I wasn’t intellectual or sophisticated enough.

However, in the last decade I’ve read too many mediocre books, so I no longer blame myself. Too often I’ve thought, “Wow! How did that get published?” The publishing industry has been changing rapidly in the last decade, and publishers are risk-averse. If one book is successful they try to clone it (e.g., vampire novels). Other times publishers invest in concept books in which the premise is interesting but the writing isn’t strong (e.g., The Hunger Games). Plenty of good books are still being published, but finding them has gotten harder, especially when only a handful are featured in reviews and blogs.

3. I need to rely on reviewers less. Or I need to find reviewers whose taste is more similar to mine. I read reviews of the three books mentioned earlier, and yet, I was disappointed.

I’ve learned to dig into Amazon and Goodreads’ reviews, but I disregard their suggested reading lists. Just because I read XYZ, doesn’t mean I want to read another book with the exact same subject matter.

I take the reviews in the New York Times Review of Books and Washington Post with a grain of salt (or a whole box?) Their critics are often captivated by the literary experiments some authors engage in. The book may be a clever exercise but if it fails at telling a good story, I’m disappointed.

Reading is too important to give up, but I do wish I had a better way to choose books. How do you discover the gems? Do you ever fire the books you’re reading books? Why?

Why We Read The Books We Do

f306a4206f3db95e9d87a8b4aaf37eb6[1]“Guess what I’m reading,” 12-year old Crystel says.

First, I try the vanilla genres, “Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, science fiction, fantasy?”

She shakes her head no every time.

What else is there?

“Dark Romance,” she says. Her eyes light up.

Oh, my, I think. “Books let you read anything you want,” I say, thinking of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James and wondering what she IS reading.

I have a 1 ½ hour round trip drive to work thus my book reading has become books on tapes. Jody noticed Fifty Shades in the car. She raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t push Play when the kids are in the car,” I said.

Fifty Shades ended up too spicy. I returned the trilogy to the library. How much flavoring can one take? Jody’s happy if I hold her hand.

12-year old Antonio reads Pokémon from back cover to front. “I like reading different stories about Red the Trainer,” he said.

Recently, he’s been downloading the series onto his IPod to read.

I’ve not read a single page of Pokémon. I don’t enjoy graphic novels. It reminds me of the funnies. In my family of 14, the funnies were prime reading material on Sunday mornings. I avoided any tussling by turning my back on the colorful newspaper that would be shredded by noon.

I don’t read fantasy or science fiction either. Give me the real stuff. Memoir, non-fiction, and fiction based on truth.

One evening, Antonio held up a thick book. “Look what I’m reading,” he said.

The heftiness of the book surprised me. What could hold his interest that long?

He laughed. “It has lots of pictures in it.” He had found Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick in his school library. Not that he went to the libary on his own volition. He needed a book for reading prep.

“Ta dah!” I’m sure he exclaimed after perusing the pages.

I asked if the illustrations reminded him of his own pencil drawings. “Nope,” he said. There goes that elevated thought.

After finishing Wonderstruck he found The Invention of Hugo Cabret by the same author.

Antonio doesn’t know (or care) that the book won the 2008 Caledcott Medal, the first novel to do so.

With 284 pictures within the book’s 526 pages, the book depends as much on its pictures as it does on the words.

Selznick himself has described the book as “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”

“Guess what page I’m on?” Crystel says in the car, on the couch, in her bedroom, as she makes her way through her dark romance.

“How did you find this book?” I asked her.

“When I was on Utube I clicked a thing on Ellen and Twilight.”

“I learned enough about the characters that when I went to our school library and saw the series, I picked it up. They didn’t have the first book, Twilight but they had New Moon. I read a little from the middle and there were no words that I didn’t know. And this cat is so cute. I’m reading Eclipse now.”

The four Twilight books have consecutively set records as the biggest selling novels for children.

Even so, I’m not interested in reading the series. It’s not my genre.

Is the lesson here that parents can model reading but not the genre?