by Simon Apter
My bookshelf is my most prized sentimental possession, and I am convinced, after watching so many thrift-store appraisals and absorbing so many oddball-collector tips from Storage Wars, that it comprises the most financially prized objects in my house as well. (Once, after buying a virtual library in an L.A. locker, Dave Hester, the “Mogul” of Storage Wars, lined up the book-filled bankers boxes on the storage lot tarmac and then counted off in paces the serpentine’s length, declaring each literary step to be worth so many dollars as the SW cash-register sound dinged along.)
My shelf also comprises my favorite piece of “art” in the house, and not in the rather obnoxious way that people unctuously refer to high literature as high art (I’m looking right at you, ghost of Norman Mailer), and vice versa, but instead because I’ve arranged my books, from top to bottom, so that the spines form a rainbow. Red to violet from the top down, then whites, browns and blacks underneath.
One of my bigger disappointments in re-arranging the books this way was my discovery that I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in the Western Canon as I had thought—my bloc of iconically orange Penguin Classics was woefully smaller than I had expected it to be. A slightly bigger disappointment was my realization of just how few, exactly, of the textbooks held over from college I’d read or, in some cases, cracked open (What the Anti-Federalists Were For, by Herbert J. Storing, is as representative a volume of this collection as any, although I refuse to take complete blame for not having read this one. Upon registering for my rebels-versus-redcoats junior-year history seminar, “The American Revolution,” the instructor informed us—after it was too late to transfer out—that his class was actually supposed to have been called “Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution,” but that the registrar had deemed the title too long for the Bulletin. That, he explained, was why the syllabus had been stocked with so many excessively dry books).
But as much as I love my books, I’m afraid I may never buy another one again. For I’ve switched, you see, to tablet.
I’ll preface this by saying, mostly seriously, that I’ve gone electronic for medical reasons: the daily heft of lifting some combination or permutation of five or six books, magazines, and newspapers adds up, and after my second back surgery for a (re)herniated lumbar disc, I decided to lighten my load.
The early returns are promising. Never before have I been able to combine two of my four or five favorite activities—viz., browsing at the bookstore and lying around the house in my underwear—at the same time! Why risk getting kicked out of Barnes & Noble when I can now read the first ten percent of virtually any book I choose, in any room I choose, in any outfit (or lack thereof) I choose? Why spend hours at the store with a stack of books, vacillating Should I, shouldn’t I? when I can spend seconds downloading first chapters and then leisurely deciding what to do with my ten or twelve dollars (as opposed to twenty-five or thirty for a new hardcover title, yet another advantage of going digital) after taking in a generous sample?
But perhaps most inspiring is a rediscovered love of reading. Not of books—that affair has never flickered out—but with actual words-on-a-page, solid English prose. Just as one can hop around the Web via embedded hyperlinks in blog posts and articles–from Times science piece, say, to NIH study to university biology department–a tablet-reader can do the same with books. He can even purchase, for a mere $4.27—perhaps one-fifth what I paid in college—an electronic copy of Professor Storing’s What the Anti-Federalists Were For from Amazon’s Kindle Store.
My first electronic purchase, the memoir of the late Christopher Hitchens, led me to download samples of Arthur Koestler, George Eliot, P.G. Wodehouse (Attempts, naturally, to rectify that aforementioned Western Canon deficiency). Should, for example, it interest me after Hitchens’s last chapter as much as it did when he initially mentioned it in the first, I’ve got the opening chapter of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey ready to go. And all of these siphoned into my device without the hindrance of classical consumerist tyranny of choice–or of pants.
So where do I go from here? Not to B&N, obviously, except for sentimental reasons. I don’t know what my paperless future will be like, but I imagine less weight, less boredom, and most important, more reading.