(not actually MKE. but just as good.)

The Milwaukee airport is home to one of the best used book stores I’ve ever been in–all the more endearing for being smack in the middle of the terminal where you’d least expect to find fine collections of 1940s pulp, political theory, and full sets of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. It was one of the first things I noticed on my interview trip, and I have since allocated an extra half hour for browsing nearly every time I’ve flown into or out of MKE. I’ve actually driven to the airport a few times just for the bookstore. But this makes perfect sense to the five of you who read here, as will the old-ish rumination below on packing up and leaving Boston in 2013 (!), a process looming again in my future. 

Last week I was eight boxes down in packing up my library, not sure how many boxes were still to go. I had the brieftest of thoughts, getting ready to move again, that the whole process would be so much easier if I would just get rid of my damn books.

I’m not against technology and the digital age and all that (mostly). I recognize that the publishing industry and technology generally are rapidly redefining the ways in which we write and consume literature and I’m okay with that; I’m even paying attention to and am interested in these developments and changes. I read ebooks, I really do (at least romance/thriller/pulpy bubblegum crap, and uh, I consume a lot of this). If I were ever to travel for extended periods of time, or knew that I wouldn’t have access to the books I have now, I wouldn’t hesitate to up my e-reading game with some sort of three-thousand-books-in-one-small-device. I don’t think that good literature necessarily needs to be printed with ink on paper.

OH WAIT IT DOES. For me, at least, thornier questions of content transcending medium aside. I need you, feel of paper and smell of ink. If we still had to cut the pages of books before we read them, I would be all over that shit with my vast collection of papercutting tools. I like the indentations in a letterpressed frontispiece (even the word “frontispiece” can’t apply to a screen, can it?). I like the weight of pages as they fall open, and how that weight redistributes itself as I progress through the book. I like the conversations that start up in public places when book covers are shared. I like seeing a row of neat, colorful spines of a shelf, and the recollections of time and place and emotion each of those spines evokes.

See, my books have always been the most distinct markers of time and place in my adult life. Yesterday I started flipping through the pages of each book before I added it to its box (fruitlessly hoping to find $50 or a free movie ticket), and as I flipped this vague link between book and physical place began to take on a more tangible form.

I have actually read very nearly every book I own, and I have managed to leave something behind in every one. Not remarkable things in and of themselves: lots of boarding ticket stubs, bus tickets, bookstore receipts. A tree’s worth of Booksmith bookmarks. Teabag wrappers. Funny doodles from various friends. Grocery lists. The occasional foreign bill.

These bits and pieces clearly mark where I was when I first read each book, and my annoyingly elephantine memory for details fills in the rest. I am on the plane home from Guernsey reading Out Stealing Horses. On the beach in New Hampshire with Skippy Dies. On a couch in Wash Perk with Edmund deWaal and his netsuke. In Three Friends meeting Rene for the first of many times.

It’s not just about where I was for the actual reading of each book either, but where said books found their way into my hands. I’m proud to say that the lion’s share of my books came from independent bookstores. In a very, very few instances I have bought something out of print or needed quickly for class from (an independent bookseller on) Amazon, but I’ve been so, so privileged to have access to excellent bookstores and they have had my not-insignificant business. I miss Powell’s more than just about anything in Portland. Tattered Cover titles remind me of home. When I think about living in Boston, The Brookline Booksmith, the Raven, the Harvard Bookstore, and Porter Square Books have marked my time here most clearly.

If you know me at all, you know that I have strong feelings about Amazon and how it impacts reading habits. I have strong feelings about supporting and participating in the literary cultures and communities that have been lifelines for me. I want my dollars to go back into the stores that bring my favorite authors to read, I want my dollars to support the stores paying taxes to the community in which I live, I want my dollars to help create jobs for the booksellers who are so essential to a reading life. I want to be able to ask these booksellers for books that will change me, change the way I think. I want to know that they’ll suggest things that Goodreads and Amazon and insert-any-bookreview-site-here would not because, while the Internet hosts powerful algorithms, excellent writing and vibrant thought and has expanded literary consumption in many positive ways, the Internet can’t look me in the eye and know me personally (though I’m sure MIT is working on a robot for this). I want to browse slowly through shelves, to breathe in ink, to be reminded, yet again, of all the things I do not know or have not read.

So, goodbye Boston/Cambridge bookstores I have loved. Hello, new places I will love, wherever you may be.


*Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft