Digital books do not merely change how we read, they change how we give.
I mention this because Christmas is but a week away and Hanukkah a mere two days. In past years, this time of the year has meant serious last-minute holiday shopping for me at a bookstore, wandering quite happily among the tables and shelves in search of books made of paper for family and friends.
And it will mean that again this week, though the number of paper books I buy will have decreased because the number of people in my immediate world who now read largely on an eReader or tablet has increased. Also, it will have decreased because a number of people in my immediate world no longer read. They’re either dead or they’ve been seduced by “Dancing with the Stars.” But that’s another issue.
Nevertheless, a paper book remains a wonderful gift — and a wonderful last-minute gift. I’m a novelist and so obviously that sounds unbelievably self-serving. Trust me, it is. I have a daughter in college and an 1898 house that retains heat like a sieve: Whoever built it owned stock in an oil or natural gas company.
But equally as obvious is the reality that my books sell on eReaders and tablets, too, so my affection for paper books is not entirely self-interest. The fact is a paper book is a nearly perfect present. It is deeply personal and can reflect the recipient’s interests. My late mother-in-law loved historical biographies; her brother — my wife’s uncle — is riveted by military history. And about the only thing my digitally savvy 18-year-old daughter does not do on her phone or computer is read literary fiction. She still prefers paper books when it comes to the novel.
Moreover, you do not need to worry about size when you buy a person a book. One size really does fit all. And if you misjudged someone’s taste, it is incredibly easy to return a book — and not worry that it is has been marked down in the days immediately after Christmas and Hanukkah.
And, finally, there is this: We still have a totemic connection to books. To pulp. To dust jackets. When we see a cover or hold in our hands a book we once cherished, we do not merely recall a detail of the plot or a snippet of dialogue: We remember where we were — and, yes, who we were — when we first savored that particular story. William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” catapults me instantly back to the Hialeah-Miami Lakes Public Library and I am once again 14 years old. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” is a snowstorm in March 1993 and the wondrous news that my wife is going to have a baby.
It’s not unlike our idiosyncratic, profoundly complex relationship to music and the songs that breathe life into memory.
This year there were some new books I particularly loved and can recommend: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, a first novel with parallel love stories set against small college baseball; “The Last Werewolf,” by Glenn Duncan, the tale of (yes) the last werewolf on earth, an eloquent and good-humored soul who simply has to eviscerate and eat a human once a month; “The House in France,” Gully Wells’ memoir of her wildly eccentric and urbane parents on two continents; and Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers,” an exploration of what the world might look like a few years after the Rapture — or something like the Rapture — when the folks who remain once more are dining at Applebee’s and playing Little League baseball.
The truth is, I understand as well as anyone that the digital genie is out of the bottle. I respect digital reading devices, just as I respect my smart phone. I simply believe that paper books make wonderful gifts and am mighty glad there are still bookstores around. So, big props and happy holidays to those booksellers who are still fighting the good fight on behalf of pulp — and can help me find the perfect gifts for family and friends.