I was taking video of my baby’s small, assisted zig-zag steps between the shelves at Ravenna’s Third Place Books when I looked at him and said something surprising.
“I hope bookstores still exist when you’re old enough to read.”
Immediately I checked myself. Did I mean that? Yeah. Apparently I did.
This was interesting. For years I’ve subscribed to the practical notion that ebooks are probably the future and print books — and the bookstores that sell them — are probably the past. When it comes to the fate of either, I observe. I don’t “hope.”
But I’d been missing something. Something books and bookstores have that digital itself can’t replace. Something I’ve sensed and respected more in the last few months than I have in years.
In a word, weight.
That day at Third Place Books, and a couple weeks ago at Harvard’s Coop Bookstore in Cambridge, I caught myself wanting to pick up A Dance With Dragons, the latest in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’d read the book a year earlier on my Kindle, but hadn’t felt its heft. I passed it from one hand to the other, noticing the distance between my tensed thumb and fingers, feeling the smoothness of its cover, sensing its mass. I remembered the story and relished that awe that something so complex and wonderful could even exist, let alone be created by one person.
British sci-fi author Terry Pratchett wrote a book called “Going Postal” that was turned into a BBC miniseries I saw this spring. A dysfunctional post office sits littered with mountains of undelivered letters. Pratchett believes words have power, and all those words piled up in his fictional building have a power so strong they become a force in the book, propelling their own liberation.
I don’t know why I’ve hesitated to acknowledge the reverence I feel when I open the door to a bookstore and step in. All those words. A few steps in and you’re surrounded.
Walking into Elliott Bay Book Company this week I stopped in front of a shelf that looked significant. In honor of its 40th anniversary this Saturday, the independent bookstore had asked staffers past and present to recommend their favorite books in four decades. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time and Anne McCafrrey’s Dragonsong and other titles beamed at me under a poster displaying staffers’ love letter to those works. Each book faced forward, a couple inches apart. It wasn’t a shelf. It was a monument.
The more I think about it, the more true it seems: Bookstores are not just exhibitors of merchandise. They are temples to human thought.
Before you think I’m leaving the ranks of the practical, let me be clear: I’m not about to toss my Kindle, buy books by the box or join the romantics who think we should save bookstores out of guilt or nostalgia. I don’t root for the defeat of ebooks or the victory of traditional publishing. Our society moves fast and prizes access. Digital books make sense.
But books speak with more than words. They speak with pictures and size and even smell. With sound, too — the whip flip of a page turn. You hold a book open and need a surface to handle a hardcover’s weight. A book has resistance. It makes demands. You have to carry it, put it away, give it a physical space in your physical life. What if that isn’t, as I’ve come to look at it, purely an inconvenience? What if it’s a sign of mutual respect?
After I finished the amazing “The City and the City” on my Kindle, I couldn’t remember the author’s last name. It didn’t stare at me every time I went to read the story. At Elliott Bay I saw the book, “China Miéville” printed big and bold on the front, and felt like I was in the presence of something new.
I never would have predicted this, back when I started reading so much on my Kindle, but I like going to bookstores now not just to discover books I haven’t read, but to make contact with the books I have read and to share a space with great stories.
The bookstore in my pocket is easy enough to use. But it’s not this easy to feel.
So yeah. I do hope bookstores stick around. But not out of a preference for bookstores or for printed books. I just think we need a place where, in our rush to condense and contain, our biggest ideas can be bigger than us.