but books are entirely different

Dear Nick. Never live without beautiful books. Love Mum

Any book lover must read this essay by Nick Bilton published recently in the New York Times.  If you’ve given any thought to decluttering those bookshelves now that you have a kindle or ipad.  If you’ve wondered whether bookstores will be shuttered for good at some point during your lifetime.  If you’ve even one sentimental bone in your body.  Especially if you’re a jotter, a dogearer, a tucker inner of slips of paper, photos, or even grocery lists.  This is one to print out, bookmark, tuck away.

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this image is a screen shot from twitter

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just one book

Confession time.  I love AMAZON.  Ok.  I do, and that’s that.  So let’s just clear the air right now.  I send money to the devil, and there’s little hope for me now.  I can tell you the seduction was very sudden.  It took me quite by surprise, and now that I am in so deep, I look back and wonder how come it took me so long to fall? 

Indulge me please in a little back story whilst I set this up because I feel I must explain this Faustian bargain I’ve gotten myself into with Amazon. And besides, this is the fun part to write:

I have a tenured position at a large community college in suburban Silicon Valley, but when I was offered this job straight out of grad school some many years ago, I was living in Shangri-La by the Sea.  An idyllic town nestled in a grape-growing valley encircled by ancient volcanic peaks, a college town full of artists, poets, and musicians who were all my friends and where I could ride my bicycle through halcyon fields and gaze out at the green-glass sea — all in the same day.  How could I leave this magical place for hot, smoggy suburban sprawl?  Well, I had to.  I would have sat beside Larry the Lech on a Greyhound bus bound for Yuma, Arizona if some prison warden there had promised me a tenure track job teaching parolees how to read.  So it was all Thanks and Wow.  I have a job!  which quickly turned into   a job in . . Silicon . . .Valley.  That little whimper lasted about two seconds, though, because you know me.  I’ve got my parachute packed whenever the mood gets glum, right, and I’m thinking Love that job, but how can I get out of living THERE?  And that was it.  I found a little studio apartment a block from the coast and have been driving over a treacherous two lane mountain highway into the traffic-choked valley — one hour each way — ever since.

For the past bizumpteen years I have been passing this time during my commute listening to radio programming: a little npr, some bbc news, local talk radio, even Howard Stern before he moved to cable.  And lately, as my hair has grown streaked with silver strands here and there and I feel more and more compelled to smooth out my wrinkles with peaceful passings of time, I gave up all the political cacophony in the car and began listening to Spotify, a miraculous jukebox in the sky that streams any song I could possibly want at the touch of my iphone.  I absolutely love it!  These 50 minutes or so in the car coming and going are the only time in the day I have to myself, and with Spotify I can listen to all sorts of commercial-free music or pick from one of the many playlists I’ve created to satisfy whatever mood I’m in and just mind wander my way to work.  The only thing that would make this journey better would be perhaps a little bit more glamor I guess, and I sometimes imagine myself slipping into a Burberry trench coat with the Times tucked under my arm as I hop onto a crowded commuter train — of course the fantasy involves tracks headed for an exciting metropolis rather than the perpetually rosy land of wide impeccably landscaped boulevards dotted here and there with chino-clad techies in business casual out for a quick burrito.  And I imagine I’d be able to read the paper or make it through that stack of books on my nightstand so much quicker with the click and clack of the train and all those people to watch.  Wouldn’t that be romantic and ever so productive?  Enter Amazon’s version of Mephistopheles with a promise I could not pass up.  Mr. Audible himself, holding out to me with a sly grin, the audio book and snickering:

Amazon hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is Amazon,
And where Amazon is must we ever be.

~ Christopher Marlowe, from The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

I reached out my hand and took just one.  Just one, and I was hooked.  Oh, I know.  I know!  But it was free with a 30-day trial membership — how could I pass that up?  And it came with the promise of more, too . . . a virtual stockpile of books and all available with the click of a button whose pages I did not even have to turn . . . novels that have been languishing on my shelves for years suddenly brought to life in my car by some British character actor with a knack for voices . . . and I could “read” them on my drive to work!  How come it’s taken me so long to figure this out?  Needless to say I’ve been an Audible subscriber for less than a month, and I’ve already downed FOUR books on my way to work, crossing off title after title on my Classics Club 50 in 5 reading list.  And that, dear friends, is my big confession.

Listening to audio books has been a mixed blessing, I’ll admit.  I don’t like not being able to linger over passages or flip back to them as I unravel a plot or spark an idea for a blog post.  The language is ephemeral, and listening to a book rather than reading it makes the experience, for me, a temporary one, because I can’t remember favorite lines that made me smile or an image that touched me in some way.  The blessing in this is that perhaps I spend more leisure time than intellectual time with the books, letting them exist for pleasure and entertainment rather than critical reflection.  I’m learning to select audio books with this in mind, now, and have recently “read” two English satires: Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel Lost for Words, both of which you’ll just have to take my word for being wonderfully hilarious entertaining “reads.”  But I do miss the soft fiber and smell of paper and glue.landofsteady  Right now I’ve got a bound copy of Ted Thompson’s debut novel, The Land of Steady Habits, and as I read it I’m acutely aware of running my fingertips over its pages while I read and wonder each time as I do, has Little Brown got some secret supplier for this incredibly soft paperSome chemical cosmetic additive for us page strokers to insure we never abandon our books and thereby bring about the collapse of the publishing industry?  I mean, I never thought of myself as a literary sommolier, but there really is a distinct palate to this Little Brown paper that I just love.  And I suppose that’s why I could never fully hand over my library to Amazon’s Audible.  Swing from this one branch, yes, but only in the car on the way to work.  I promise.

Faustus: Stay, Mephistopheles, and tell me, what good will my soul do thy lord?

Mephistopheles: Enlarge his kingdom.

Faustus: Is that the reason he tempts us thus?



 waughStAubyn   audible

The nitty gritty:  To get started with Audible, visit their website and get a free audio book with your subscription.  I purchased a Gold Membership at $14.95/mo, which buys me a 30% discount and a one-free-book-per-month credit.  Hardly a bargain, I know, but what can I do now?


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what your shelves say about you

A man is known by the books he reads.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love Emerson but sometimes imagine him so smarmy with all that pithy wisdom of his.  I even surmise at times he’s the reason Thoreau sought out that cabin in the woods.  Can’t you just see them gathered around a stone hearth in sturdy straight-backed chairs, puffing on their pipes and Emerson blowing insufferable smoke rings around Thoreau.  The both of them there some quiet Sunday afternoon in a busy race to see who can compose the best commencement speech lines while Mrs. Emerson hovers about the stove.  Thoreau with a distant look stiffens a fist in the air and says, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” to which Emerson quickly replies, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  Thoreau barely rolls his eyes and sighs deeply to a rumble in his belly before Emerson fires off another: “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air!”  Grrr, Thoreau stews and thinks to himself, I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.  Off he goes.

bookbedroomSure old Ralph Waldo is full of pomp and cool reason, but he gets it right just about every time, don’t you think?  A man is known by the books he reads.  Isn’t this so true?  Can’t you walk into a home and learn a lot about its owner from the bookshelves, or lack thereof?  Admit it.  You’re guilty of checking the spines and formulating opinions about your hosts based on the books they read.  You have walked into a room and checked them out, you have!  But where’s the harm?  I don’t feel guilty at all.  Sometimes, it seems to me the best companions are those whose books would find a happy home on our own shelves.


Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.  ~ Thoreau

Books, books, books. It was not that I read so much. I read and re-read the same ones. But all of them were necessary to me. Their presence, their smell, the letters of their titles, and the texture of their leather bindings.  ~ Colette

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