I’m reminded, now more than ever, of something Arthur Miller (yes, that Arthur Miller) told me as we sat together in his kitchen on 68th St. in Manhattan. “One day in the future” — this was around 1999 or 2000 — “someone will have an idea of genius. They’ll decide to put books in a store and allow people to come in and browse them. It’ll be called a ‘bookstore.’”
You’re probably asking yourself what I was doing in Arthur Miller’s kitchen. My then-employer, Gotham Book Mart, had sent me to get five or six large boxes of rare and not-so-rare books signed by the renowned playwright. One of the ways the sinking bookshop stayed afloat was by milking its proximity to famous authors. Signed books sold like hotcakes. They were a boon in a dying market, and if they couldn’t come in to sign and schmooze, we went to them.
The most remarkable such trip was to Provincetown, Massachusetts. We drove up from New York to spend the weekend with the famously hermetic illustrator Edward Gorey at his mansion on Cape Cod. Overgrown weeds had ambushed the house on all sides. Thorn bushes crowded the walkway up to the front door. Inside, the house reeked of cat urine.
Everywhere there were books: on sagging shelves, piled on top of tables, in stacks on the floor, cluttering up every conceivable surface. Any square inch not occupied by books was occupied by an equally endless collection of trinkets: I recall a rich assortment of colored glass bottles of every size along the many windowsills of Gorey’s great home. From the stairwell the theme song of “Cheers” resounded down through the sitting room. In contrast to the spooky, ethereal persona he projected through his books, the man was a television junkie.
Both Miller and Gorey have since died, and everywhere there are signs that bookstores are about to follow them to the grave. Of course, people have been talking about the death of God for a very long time, and the old bugger is still with us. So I’m not going to get all sentimental just yet. Bookstores — and, let’s just say it, books — may yet survive the online onslaught.
There was a time when I proudly stated I’d never buy a book from Amazon. A vacuous statement, and easy to say by someone who at the time lived in the vicinity of countless English-language bookstores. This was the same mouth that had proclaimed at various points in its history that it would never a) eat onions; b) kiss girls; c) speak a language other than English. The contradictory adage “Never say never” never seemed more appropriate.
Now that I’m living in a place with no access to anything in English but bestsellers — and even those must be hunted down — Amazon has begun to makes sense. It’s all so perfect. You go online (if you’re like me, you’re there already), find the book you want, click and wait for it to arrive at your door. All you need is an Internet connection and a mailing address. So why does clicking “Add to cart” make me feel so unethical?
I’ll chalk it up to having spent most of my working life in bookstores. I’ve breathed in so much of their dust that they’re part of me. The weirdo who comes wandering in off the street with Ziploc Baggies full of pennies and complaining about his rabbi will never infiltrate the virtual walls of online commerce (which is probably a good thing.) But neither will the Arthur Millers and Edward Goreys. And neither will all those odd and interesting people I’ve met over the years who simply happened to ask the right question to the right clerk at the right moment. Some of them are — yes, thanks to the Internet — still my friends.
Sure, you can have fun writing reviews and posting them to Amazon. There are all kinds of interactive ways of sharing your passion for books online, too. For me, however, they don’t quite measure up to the serendipitous experience of stumbling upon a book that changes you forever.
My personal library is like a large-scale model of the mental world I’ve inhabited for the past 20 or so years. I pride myself on being able to remember where and when I got just about every book in my collection. Downloading an e-book to my Kindle app is exhilarating for it’s speed and simplicity, but I doubt it will leave me with much after I’ve read and digested the text. Books have always been about more than just content, haven’t they?
Maybe I lack the visionary imagination of a Steve Jobs, but books are simple things in the end. They come in all shapes and sizes and they can take abuse. I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw a Kindle. A woman came into the bookshop, pulled the broken device from her purse and explained that she needed to buy back the books she’d lost when it slipped out of her hand onto the pavement. She was crestfallen.
As I muse on the demise of bookstores and the much-prophesied disappearance of the “dead-tree book” I watch my daughter flip the pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” She’s enjoying the colorful pictures of fruit and the feel of the cardboard in her hands. She pokes her fingers through the tiny holes. She’s just as taken in by the physical properties of this book as she is by the content — more, actually, as she can’t yet read.
What, I wonder, would her first experience with books be if she were to fondle a Kindle “Baby” reading device?