A couple years back I was given a Kindle as a Christmas present. I had acquiesced to the idea of getting an e-reader when it became obvious to me just how many paperback novels I had
stashed in my parents’ attic and in my own apartment and that, when I moved, they filled a cool dozen cardboard boxes after I had jettisoned at least 60% of them to goodwill (enjoy my complete collection of Dragonlance novels, suckers!). Since then, I have purchased only e-books and hardcovers. The e-books are for reading; the hardcovers are for those really cool books I want to collect and show off. Most of my paperbacks have sat on various oddly-matched bookshelves in my office for the past couple years, collecting dust.
Fast-forward to this past weekend: I had dug out my old copy of Asimov’s Foundation to give it another read prior to discussing it in one of my classes. I’ve done this every year for a few years now, but this time I happened to get a whiff of the pages. It was that stale, dusty, library smell – a shoebox-ish odor of old paper drenched in too much sunlight. It took me on a journey.
I was fifteen. I’d come home from high school the long way (I took public transit to and from school; it taught me all the values of independence without the cost or anxiety of owning a car). I’d swing through Quincy Center and, rather than take the first bus, I’d wait on the second and wander up the street to my favorite bookstore. I say ‘favorite’ as though the quality mattered to me – it did not. They had books there and I bought them by the armload. I stuffed them in my backpack and smuggled them home, reading by metal desk lamp in the darkness of my room long after I ought to have been asleep.
Everything I bought was from the science fiction/fantasy section. I had no idea what was good – nobody I knew had any idea about this stuff and the bookstore employees were just as clueless – so I bought things more-or-less at random, based off of cover art or title. This was how I met Heinlein and Asimov, purchased by purest accident at the same time – Foundation and Starship Troopers, side-by-side, forever bookending my understanding of the genre (I wouldn’t meet Clarke until much later, in college). I got hooked on Robert Jordan from a free sample being given away at the counter – the first nine chapters of The Eye of the World, back when everybody figured there would only be six books. Jordan, in a very real sense, changed my life. He made writing as a profession seem real, and I can’t say how. Maybe I had always sought a medium to tell my stories, and Jordan’s books showed me how to do it. Maybe it was something else.
My parents were athletes of modest renown. My mother held swimming records at her college until well into the 1990s and, indeed, she still might hold a few somewhere. My father was one of those guys who could play anything pretty well. They took their kids camping, swimming, to the beach, hiking, skiing, sailing – you name the physical activity, I did it. Everytime we went to one of those places, though, I would have a paperback squirreled away in a bag somewhere. My teenage years sometimes come back to me as just one long string of people interrupting my reading. “Auston, why don’t you go swimming?” or “Auston, we’re going for a hike – put the book down.” or “I can’t believe we took you on a sailboat to an island in the middle of the ocean and you’re going to sit there and read.”
It isn’t that my parents were against reading – far from it. My father is one of the best read people I know, devouring three or four books at a time. My mother was a teacher. I just don’t think they quite understood why I had my nose buried in those space-books so much. The reasons are layered, nuanced, submerged beneath unknowable strata of my unconscious, most likely. It doesn’t really matter. I did it, I still do it (though not enough).
Picture me in an attic bedroom, curled up on a carpet under the eaves, a skylight over my head. I’m an awkward teenager of the 1990s, so I’m dressed like an idiot – poofy hair, glasses held in place by a tie-dye Oakley cord, a collared shirt with an alligator on it. I’m fit – athletic, even – but I’m nose deep in C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born or book four of The Death’s Gate Cycle, breathing the stale air of a room in the summer with no windows open. My mom is yelling for me from downstairs. I pretend I don’t hear her.
For as convenient as the Kindle is and, by extension, as convenient as the whole Internet is, there is something to be said for hunting down something unknown. Making informed purchases is wise, of course, but also sad. It lacks romance. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from going and smuggling my paperbacks home today, I guess (I now have a whole new set of people I love determined to interrupt my reading). Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have the energy anymore, or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly hypocrite, but I know I won’t go back to a bookstore anytime soon. I won’t spend an afternoon in a deathly silent library, just me and the soft roar of the air conditioners and the smell of old books.
For the rest of my life, though, when I open an old paperback and breathe in that scent, I will remember.