I’d say I love books unapologetically, but I have to admit that at the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Is this love of books a vice in an age in which human activities such as agriculture is stripping our planet of primeval forests at the rate of seven million hectares each year?”
Worse, is it now—or will it soon be—a guilty pleasure? Forbidden love? A crime of passion?
At the rate I mentioned above, from a study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, there will be no more rainforests in 100 years.
Can you imagine earth without forests?
It’s the stuff of science fiction like Frank Herbert’s Dune.
It’s the stuff of cli-fi (climate fiction) like Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.
It’s the stuff of the post-apocalypse as imagined in many of the 22 stories in the anthology Wastelands, with short stories by Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, George R.R. Martin…
It’s the stuff of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which books are outlawed and burned upon sight.
Although I am doing a lot of work online now, where I do get to read countless stories, usually via links posted on Twitter or Facebook, I’ve only so far read one book in PDF format on the backlit screen of a tablet, The Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. I can’t say I devoured it, but I so immensely enjoyed how the book supplied the facts from which Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland leaped off to the fantasy world that made her life such a worthy subject that no sooner had I finished it than I bought myself a physical copy of this 432-page coffee table book that was as much a joy to read as to look at.
It might be a dream to have, say, 100 books in a gadget, all accessible to me at the flick of a finger, books I can carry around with me anytime, anywhere, whether to the beach or on a campsite tent up a mountain, in a waterproof bag with a fully charged powerbank on a boat floating languorously on some lagoon, or on the road.
I need to experience books, not just read them.
But I love books and not just to read, but to hold in my hand, to turn from page to page, to stuff on my shelves, to pile on top of each other on my bedside and on the floor.
When I had my bedroom done, my dream was to have my bookshelves disappear into the walls, so when they did, my room was all white space—white walls, white floor, white ceiling, and a bed covered in lush white sheets—but no offense to the tree hugger, my books have now spilled onto every available space, cramming corners all the way to the bathroom. Piles of them make towers up to 50 books high, inhabited by the likes of Oscar Wilde as a sleuth investigating the deaths of teen male prostitutes at a reimagined point in London history (The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, GylesBrandreth), or Abraham Lincoln slaying vampires in an American alternate universe (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith) or zombies on the hunt for the last of the uninfected in a very likely future (World War Z, Max Brooks), or Oswald Cornelius on the prowl for the most unforgettable pleasure possible in the company of one woman or more (Switch Bitch, Roald Dahl), or a 13-year-old and her group of other kids coming of age in a version of The Breakfast Club in hell (Damned, Chuck Palahniuk).
Oh but I got so many more such people whose adventures and misadventures I join every time I curl up in bed to read, all these lives fleshed out on paper white, off white, or cream, in types that make it easy on my eye (or sometimes make me squint), light or bold, sometimes italicized (for emphasis), with fanciful touches like drop caps and stylized initials.
Although I have my room to myself, the company I keep in it, each of them, is—forgive me for stating the obvious—one for the books.
Diana Vreeland writing little dictatorial notes to her Vogue staff on articles of clothing or elements of personal style or editorial judgment (Memos: The Vogue Years, edited by Alexander Vreeland)…
the Duchess of Windsor, my dear Wallis Simpson, on a year-long educational, experiential tour of the brothels in Beijing (The Duchess of Windsor: A Secret Life, Charles Higham)…
from my “This Is” series of artist profiles by Catherine Ingram, count in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali…
The “blasphemer” Gore Vidal, if only in his riotous, outrageous, and uncannily cheerful novel Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal…
Madonna’s innocent side (but not too innocent to conceal the dormant bitches lurking in the eyes of girls in their tweens or early teens) in her children’s story series The English Roses, illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari…
Oh and there’s the intersex man Cal Stephanides, Jeffrey Eugenides’s character in Middlesex, who had me at the very first sentence of his mindblowing 544-page narration: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day, in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”…
No wonder I never feel alone in my room. It doesn’t come without health risks because even when I feel free of any obligations, free to just sink beneath the sheets, I find I share my bed with so many—lost children (say, Emma Donaghue’s Room), damsels in distress (Ronald Frame’s Havisham), missing girls (Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia), suicidal teenagers (Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story), and serialkillers (Bret Easton Ellis‘s American Psycho).
I must confess to my sleep doctor that the hours I should spend recuperating from the daily grind are often spent cast adrift on a vast ocean (The Life of Pi, Yann Martel), in an altered state (Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby, Jr.), on secluded islands (And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie), on the Planet of the Grand Buffoon (The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery), in the woods of Kochi (Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami), or in some mysterious bookshop (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan).
But what should keep me from having them all and more, if instead of physical books that eat up too much of my space, I had an e-reader, like the Kindle Unlimited, through which I can access millions of books for free? At the pace by which technology revolutionizes things, a small gadget may soon have enough space and memory to store the 53 million items you can read at the New York Public Library.
But do I have any need—or enough time—to read that many?
And how much power do I need to keep an electronic device at full charge to read that many books? Plus how many models of such a device will I need in the course of my life in this age, the age of obsolescence, in which whenever I buy anything, a new, better, faster, smaller, more advanced model is likely being developed to take what I have just bought straight to the wasteyard in a few years, even a few months, like the three MacBooks-turned-junk that I’ve accumulated over such a short period of 10 years?
No, it’s not fair, but I think I can read no more than 5,000 books in this lifetime, so I guess I might as well relish them, feel them on my skin, under my thumb, my eyes feasting on every detail, the creases even, the scent of paper hot off the press or mildewed by time wafting to my nostrils as I turn each page, and the weight of them on my abdomen, or my lap, or my chest, in my hands, no matter how heavy they are, as heavy and burdensome as, say, Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski.
E-readers are like porn, they can be just as satisfying, but I am a hopeless romantic, not to mention touchy-feely, when it comes to books.
I like my books as they are—solid, tactile, tangible, imposing, very, very physical.
Author’s Note: This has been updated from an article originally written in 2016.