A Romance with Books

I watched the 1987 movie 84 Charing Cross Road yesterday, and it struck me as particularly poignant considering the current state of the book business. Some people call this movie a romance, though basically, the relationship between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel is little more than a business relationship. The true romance is Helene’s love of books — not just the content of the books, but the volumes themselves.

With the advent of Kindles, Nooks, Palm Pilots, IPads and other reading devices, bound books seem to be valued less and less. Ebook readers sneer at those who profess to love the smell of the book and the feel of the pages, but the truth is, there is a mystique about a printed volume. It exists as a thing separate from its words. You can hold the tome in your hands, riffle the pages, sample a word here and there. There is a tactile connection between reader and story, linking the two parties in a very physical way.

You love your ereader. I get that. I understand you love the ease of being able to cart around an entire library of downloaded stories and novels for a minimal cost. I understand that ereaders, with their ability to zoom in (or do I mean out?) and make the words larger for those with vision problems allow people to keep reading long after their eyes have given up on them. I also understand that such reading devices are the wave of the future.

But . . . here’s my dirty little secret. (Not much in the way of dirty little secrets, I admit, but it’s the only one I have.) I don’t own an ereading device, and I have no intention of getting one until I am forced to. For me, reading has always been a Zen-like experience where I become the book. Not the story. The book. My eyes would be focused on the page. One hand would be grasping the book while the other turned the page, quite mindlessly, I might add. The book might be resting on sternum or stomach, depending on my position. And the story osmosed through my body and into my soul without referencing the words.

For most of my life, I was a constant reader. That’s all I wanted to do, so for several years I did temp work to give myself maximum amount of time to read. To feed my habit, I would take out stacks of books from the library and buy bagfuls of new and used books. Often, I would pass the purchased books on to my mother. One time, I included Oh, God in a stack of books I gave her, and the language appalled her. I shrugged it off, saying I didn’t notice. That really upset her. “I don’t know which is worse,” she said, “that you would be so blasé as not to be bothered by the words, or so naïve as to not know what they mean.”

I tried to explain to her that I didn’t read words, but that upset her even more. I suppose it does sound weird, but it’s the truth. At least, it used to be. As I got older and my eyes weaker, the osmosis didn’t work as well, and I had to start reading words. I did not like that at all! Oddly, my eyesight has changed, and I now have perfect vision about nine inches from my eyes, (though I can’t see beyond that) so I can do the Zen reading thing again, but since I have a hard time finding non-trivial stories to osmose with, I don’t read much any more. (I used to feel guilty at having “wasted” my life reading, but now I’m glad I did.)

Anyway, the point is that while some people love their reading devices, others don’t seem to find the relationship rewarding, and I bet Helene Hanff would have been such a one. All those books she ordered from 84 Charing Cross Road are probably now available free from Google books (because really, who among us except die-hard literature students like Helene would pay to read the unabridged prose of John Dunne), but reading the books on a Kindle wouldn’t be the same for her as reading a leather-bound book with gilt edging. And, although my reading tastes are much more plebian than hers, reading on a device wouldn’t be the same for me, either. I don’t see myself having a Zen-like experience with a Nook or a Kindle.

The lesson of this movie is that it’s important to do things when you can, because one day it will be too late. Helen supposedly carried on a great friendship with Frank — or at least with the bookstore where he worked — but she never once called him, never once sprung for a ticket to London until after the store closed for good. (I’m not giving away any spoilers — the movie begins with her visiting the empty store.) And so it was with me and my romance with books. If I hadn’t wasted my youth reading but waited until now to carry on my romance with books, the romance would have been over before it had even begun.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+