Books and Kindles: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Eat Them with Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Image of Kindle with All Roads Are Circles onscreen

Yeah, thought I'd put my novel onscreen. Sneaky, eh?

Books, ugh, repellent things. The fluttering of pages, the implicit mockery of cold text, the muscle- and mind-straining weight of ideas. Better to corral all those meandering words and their unseemly punctuation into an electron pool, where you can sip from modest, reduced-page cups of their content, where you can make type sizes wiggle to your wishes, where you can search and highlight and transfer and connect and criss-cross and cannibalize and—whew! [Daubs fevered brow.]

Actually, I love books, those creaky old antiques. If you drop hardcover books on eggs, they make a satisfying squish. If you argue with their authors, you can fling them across the room with a cascade of curses and get a resounding “bang!” from the wall opposite. But the reason I’m even blithering about books is that before I left for a recent two-month stint in the Bahamas, I was given a first-generation Kindle, a discard from a fellow who now is proudly armed with an iPad.

The Salt Slime of the Ancient Reader
Taking a pile of books to the Bahamas was a no-no, mostly for weight issues. And because, having lived in the tropics before, I knew that all things material are subject to the insidious insistence from nature that solids return to goo. For instance, my host in the tropics had vast shelves of great books, which I eagerly scanned. But picking one (and another and another) to leaf through—ahhgggh! All covered with that strange salt-slime that adheres to anything that is stationary for a period in the humid climes. Most unpleasant.

Thus, I Kindleized my reading, and I admit to the pleasure of summoning up multiple books for chunky savoring in one reading session. All those good free Domino Project works, Poke the Box, Do the Work, Self-Reliance and more. And because I am a dweeb, Grammatically Correct and Portable MFA in Creative Writing (even more portable on a Kindle). And a mystery story collection. And my own novel, pictured so promotionally in the image above.

The Palm V—Looking Back Through Time’s Cracked Screen
But I’ve never been the Luddite sort regardless, railing about ereaders being the death of the printed word. Publishing is evolving in crazy, lurching ways, but I think it’s mostly to the good. I’ll frequent (and buy in) bookstores till the day I go blind, happy with the serendipity of the shelves, the sense of discovery and promise the stores afford, and the fine feelings I actually get from the fluttering of pages. But I wrote a newspaper piece, sometime around the Ice Age of 1999, about having jolly fun reading Mark Twain on an airplane with my Palm V. Petrol-based ink, soy ink or e-ink—it’s the ideas therein that make one think.

One disclaimer on this particular model of Kindle: Steve Jobs would have had the designer drawn and quartered. You can barely hold the damn thing without accidentally turning pages, backwards and forwards. Set it down at an angle, set it down on something soft, lift it to move it—your place is whisked to the next electronic edge. I know the newer models have corrected this egregious inelegance, but I can’t callously throw this thing against the wall like I might the printed Portable MFA.

One small coda: today, we renewed our subscription to the Sunday paper. I read a lot of news online (discounting whatever mind rot news-noodling provokes), but no matter the readily available onscreen/Kindle/iPad/ version of the paper, there’s still something about flipping through the physical sections of the newspaper, in bed with a second cup of Sunday coffee …

The Straight Poop on Bookstores

There’s a lot of buzz (with stings) in the air on the topic of bookstores closing because of the ascendance of electronic books, and the inability of the publishing world to react with much other than fear to changes in their old-school model. However many teapots are broken in this tempest, I would hate to see the world with greatly fewer bookstores, because of the many hours I’ve taken pleasure in them, wandering aisles, picking up, thumbing through and sometimes buying books that I’d never have made the tangible—and telling—acquaintance of were I shopping on Amazon. For me, it’s often been the accidental blundering into a book’s arms that has been the romance for me, and I think those chances are lessened with perusal of publications in the ether.

But in thinking of that, I harkened back to my two stints as a bookstore employee, and the kinds of strange things that happen in the retail world. I was the assistant manager of a crabbed little suburban-mall bookstore in Seattle. The store was a chain, owned by a Canadian firm and managed out of Toronto. And I mean managed. We had to obtain authorization, on paper, for EVERYTHING we needed at the store, including toilet paper for the employee bathroom, the wretched inkless pens they sent us, and on. The corporation specialized in the lowest rung of the ladder in store supplies, sending us plastic “Sale” signs where the ink had dripped down in long black tears from the letters. Very classy. The company is long bankrupt, but not before much hair was torn out in trying (and failing) to get them to stock any local books or things relevant to our actual location.

A Scented Stroll(er)
I’m not sure our customers would have noticed though. One time I was stocking an aisle, and I noticed the telltale aroma of poop. “That’s poop!” I said to myself, astutely. I was baffled as to its source, but then I started tracing my way through the aisles, and saw that there were intermittent lines of fresh feces on the floor. I actually followed the trail up and down several aisles until I’d made it almost to the front counter, where I saw that a woman was rolling a stroller out of the store, a stroller carrying a child whose robust production had burst his diapers and made its way down to the wheels of the stroller, and on to our hallowed floor. I started to chase mom just to inform her of her child’s crimes, but then stopped weakly at the door, resigned to my fate. Think of how long it took to requisition supplies from Toronto!

So true that I resented mom for her unconsciousness (or her plugged nose), but I resented more a customer who loudly berated me at the counter for not being familiar with the “Delderberry series,” which she complainingly made clear was a literary summit for some kind of romance literature. I can remember with exquisite clarity her shaking her ponderous head as she sniffily left the store, bellowing about “what kind of a bookstore employee isn’t familiar with the Delderberry series?” Guilty.

Literary Showers
I was grateful to leave the stifling florescent-light hell of that mall environment, and to become the manager of a lovely bookstore/cafe in Santa Cruz a few years later. Little did I know that there a customer would regularly lock himself in our restroom, where he would take full showers, so that when you walked in later, there was about 1/2 inch of water on the floor and EVERY paper towel was used, and on the floor too. I often wondered if that was the same guy who instead of using the toilet, left the full (and I mean full) expression of his bowels a couple of feet away from the toilet. An art project? Either way, I was pleased he hadn’t entered the store in a baby stroller.

But I still love being on the other side of the bookstore counter. (Although from my stints at stores, I can tell you they aren’t merely hotbeds of intrigue—they can be actual hotbeds, when I reflect on all of the thermal mingling that used to take place among employees after the doors were locked.)

Kindles and iPads, glorious devices all—but don’t forget your local bookstore. You might be able to pick up the latest in the Delderberry series, and take a quick shower too.