I recently recommended a book to a friend, and his response was, “Yeah, I heard it was
good, so I downloaded it to my Kindle and I’ll get to it someday.” I wonder if he will, or
if it will just be part of a growing list of “someday” titles easily accessed and easily
stored on an e-shelf; just one more set of bytes.
I am not a Luddite, and I do like cyber-magic, but I cannot image not being able to go to
a good bookstore to browse beyond the week’s bestseller lists. I cannot imagine not
being surrounded by books – old friends and new acquaintances - or not being in the
middle of at least one “good read.”
I grew up surrounded by books, spending rainy afternoons reading in my father’s den,
amid the smells of old leather bindings and his tobacco. I looked forward to
Thanksgiving in large part because my parents’ friends Felix and Lilly Rothschild would
bring me books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, as bookshops did back
then. I read my way though boarding school by penlight every night after lights out, and
rummaged for used treasures at the Brattle Book Shop.
As an adult, I came to value the bookseller as well as the book. Linda Cox and Susan
Timken at The Book Store on Beacon Hill would often send me home with a title I hadn’t
intended to purchase because of their enthusiasm for the writing. As a family, we would
frequent the Hathaway House Bookstore in Wellesley for its wonderful children’s library
and its great space for kids to sit and explore books. Alas, both establishments are gone,
but there are still some wonderful bookstores – my list includes Bunch of Grapes in
Vineyard Haven, The Toadstool in Peterborough, NH, Toad Hall in Rockport, MA, and,
happily almost next door, The Hickory Stick in Washington Depot - all staffed by
booksellers who are connoisseurs of good writing.
For good writing is what it’s all about. Whether it is poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction,
and no matter what the subject, good writing is the measure of a good read.
(Here’s an experiment: Look over the various year’s end Ten Best Books lists and pick a
book on something you know little or nothing about. Odds are you will enjoy it for the
writing, and learn something new in the bargain.)
I worry that if our children grow up with fewer good books around they will not become
critical readers who value good writing, and not make the effort to become good writers
themselves. If you have something worthwhile to say but you cannot communicate
effectively, how are you going to get anyone to pay attention? How do we share ideas
and have meaningful dialogue about stuff that matters if we have not mastered the arts of
critical reading and good writing?
A Kindle might be useful for the beach or an airplane ride, but I surely hope that our
children grow up with access to good booksellers, surrounded by lots of good books and
with lots of unstructured time in which to read just for the fun of it. Because a rainy
afternoon is a terrible thing to waste.