Moments a Kindle Can Never Give Me
History Written in the Cover
There are precious moments in my life as a reader and collector of books that my Kindle can never give me. It is a splendid little device--useful, convenient, and thrifty. However, no book I download onto my Kindle will give me the thrill that a few of my collected volumes have. It does not have the ability to carry the history of a single, printed copy of text to me or to anyone else. The unique moment of discovery on opening an old book, a book marked by a previous owner, are not within the capability of an e-book transfer.
I have a small, battered book of Robert Browning's poems printed in 1898, less than ten years after his death. It bears the late nineteenth century in the manner of its manufacture, the tint and weight of the paper, the clear acid-free paper protecting its illustrations. The paper is not white. It has a patina all its own, a sustained imperfection that speaks of time and, by its mere presence in my hands, to endurance. How much did this cost me? Not one cent. An old man needed help carrying trash out of his garage. Amongst the trash a friend and I were helping him port to the curb was this Browning. It was my payment for doing a good deed I was doing for free.
I have an edition of Rupert Brooke's poetry that I imagine has been to war. A sergeant in the army wrote his name on the inside cover with the date, 1917. It is a dark green hardcover of small dimensions, meant to be carried in a pocket. There is a quality of connection to Brooke, to that era of university gentleman and damnation, in reading that book that I do not gain reading Brooke in any other form. It carries its history with it, and Rupert Brooke's as well.
I picked up a copy of Look Homeward, Angel along with ten other used books at one of my favorite used bookstores during my first year in college. There is nothing special about this book, but there was something special inside it. It was a letter from a wife to her husband, gently folded and preserved in the pages of this book, written when they were separated and anticipating his success in college and their eventual reunion. It was written in the early 1950s. Discovering this letter, lost to those who created it and to whom it rightfully belongs, made me wonder how it got into that bookstore and to me. Did the writer die? Did her husband forget where it rested and lose it in shedding an extra volume from his library? Were they both dead and this used bookstore the final resting place their heirs had chosen for Thomas Wolfe and the love letter? I don't know, but I have the letter and Look Homeward, Angel safe with me.
Library booksales provide a wonderful opportunity to fill out a collection on the cheap, so long as one is interested in finding the texts themselves and is not bothered by minor damage and library markings. My possession of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and twenty volumes of the collected works of Honore de Balzac are the product of hunting in library booksales. Stranger additions to my collection from the same sites are a Complete Guide to the Lore and Legends of Gems and Jewelry, a collection of German songs from the Middle Ages, and John Rechy's City of Night. Kindle cannot provide me with the physical adventure of the hunt at such sales, or in cramped bookstores. That is a thrill that books in their physical heft and material reality can offer, and an e-book cannot.
I tend to rate the cities I visit by the quality of their bookstores. I have an affection for Benson, AZ, due to the presence of a small used bookstore in that town whose owner, the sign proudly proclaims, is also the Avon lady. Inside, one finds an eclectic, not-quite-random selection of books. When I replaced my mother's Don Camillo collection, I did it through this small bookstore two states away. Houston did not impress me with its offerings, and the humidity is frightful.
I can remember cities by the books I bought in them. When I vacationed in California the first time, I picked up a copy of Phantom of the Opera. In Colorado Springs, I got John Donne's poetry and prose. In Benson, I bought Eli Wiesel's Sages and Dreamers. I will go to new cities, and remember them in the books I add to my library. And this connects me to my books in a way that I can never be connected to the wireless prizes on Kindle.