My office, right now, is a shameless jumble of multiple typed drafts of works in progress, random but important thoughts penned on index cards, carefully considered newspaper clippings, half-filled Moleskines and yellow legal pads, and dozens of books piled not so neatly on the floor. It is a writer’s room.

Additional works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry fill two huge bookcases along the walls. More books reside in the few boxes I have yet to unpack, and more again on the very large table where I do most of my writing. Words are everywhere. Books are all around me. Although it lacks beauty and finesse, I adore this space.

Among the items on my desk is an early edition of Les Miserables, hard-bound in worn scarlet cloth, a gift to a wife whose husband knew her well. The inscription is dated Christmas 1917. The pages are not as fragile as you might imagine, despite edges that have aged to the color of butter pastry left in the oven a bit too long. The spine and endpapers are intact, although the glue along the binding abandoned its post years ago. Buried among the seams, where the pages are neatly stitched together, are little clues about the book’s former owner: small slips of paper with literary notations, a postcard sent from Paris in 1952, a poignant Easter greeting from a very close friend.

The book is one of a six-volume set that once belonged to and was cherished by my great-great Aunt Frances. I inherited her personal library — which is, by and large, a hefty collection of great works given to her by friends, siblings, nieces and nephews as Christmas gifts throughout her hundred years of life. She was an accomplished woman surrounded by people who understood her love of literature, knowledge and culture. To be guardian of her literary archive is an honor, and a duty I take very seriously.

I am a happy receiver and generous giver of books, but not a promiscuous reader. I want to spend my time with compelling stories told in beautiful, poetic prose.

Much of what is out there in the chain gang is not for me. This is what I love: to peruse the shelves of an independent bookshop, sampling its wares, feeling the heft of this volume, admiring the dust jacket of that one, opening an enticing cover to expose crisp white pages that dare us to enter a new world. I want subtle enlightenment. I want an escape. I want to be reminded of universal truths. And I want all of that in a hard-bound book. In a recent podcast, The Writer’s Almanac  quoted writer Tom McGuane:

Literature is still the source of my greatest excitement. My prayer is that it is irreplaceable. Literature can carry the consciousness of human times and social life better than anything else. Look at the movies of the 1920s, watch the Murrow broadcasts, you can’t recognize any of the people. Now, read Fitzgerald — that’s it. That is the truth of the times. Somebody has to be committed to the idea of truth.

You can tell a lot about a person from the books they keep. Choosing a book is a deliberate intimacy. It is an organic, sensual, emotional act of intellectual generosity. This is why I was rather shaken by the seminar I attended last week on the future of book publishing.

A room full of writers and would-be writers gathered at the University of California-San Diego to hear the hard facts from a panel that included authors, editors, bloggers, publishers and a literary agent. We all knew the obstacles to getting published, but what we didn’t want to hear is that once the agent says “yes” and the book is sold for less than you’d hoped and the editing is complete and you breathe a great sigh of relief, your years of work may very well go straight to an e-reader. Or even worse, to a smart phone.

The e-editors on the panel discussed a writer’s need for a platform, proof of expertise in a particular field or genre, and how the Internet is where that happens; authors spoke of the painstaking, lengthy process of creating art and the game playing that takes place among agents; the agent defended her position; the independent publishers cried poverty, and seemed to accept the futility of fighting an electronic takeover. There were no booksellers there to protest.

A few weeks ago, just in time for the holidays, The New York Times devoted a section to e-readers, giving a primer in how to choose from an array of electronic devices. Should you go with the more experienced Kindle or the challenger’s Sony Reader? My local Barnes and Noble swears that their Nook is the best. Even Disney has gotten in on this trend, offering children’s books and family memberships. Are they kidding? It sounds like a health risk to me, and developmentally inappropriate. Is this really, truly, the gift that everyone wants to open on Christmas morning?

I must admit that I am intrigued with the possibility of being able to access all those works at bargain prices. It sounds like a reader’s paradise. But I don’t want to do all of my reading on a hard screen. And children already have too much technology in their lives.

Will future personal libraries be tiny breadboards encased in plastic? How can anyone discount the contribution of the organic to the reading experience — the smell of the bindings, the feel of the paper, the sound of a page being turned? How will you record your notations and epiphanies? Will book sharing among friends become extinct? Can you imagine pulling your darling grandchild onto your lap to read The Runaway Bunny from a smart phone? I keep waiting for the backlash.

The focus on electronics has sent me in the opposite direction. I have become obsessed with hunting down the long-lost and much beloved books of my (and my children’s) childhood. Last year, I was able to find and deliver a beautifully illustrated collection, Japanese Fairy Tales, to my cousin Andrew’s children. His mother, no longer with us, had given me that book in 1960, and it had changed my view of the world. And to celebrate my sister’s son’s baptism, I found a first edition of David’s Little Indian, a wonderful book of days by Margaret Wise Brown.

After last week’s seminar, I spent a desperate hour or two on looking for out-of-print children’s literature and, specifically, for an original copy of The Tall Book of Make Believe, edited by Jane Werner, beautifully illustrated by Garth Williams and published by Harper and Brothers in 1950. My brothers, sisters and I cherished this anthology, and my children often requested the stories in it, despite the old-fashioned language. My copy has literally been loved to pieces.

I found the book at long last, but its rarity set a prohibitively high price — too much for my nephew’s Christmas gift.

I do think he’ll be happy with an alternative: My Father’s Dragon, a revived classic still in print.

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  • Willse Elizabeth December 14, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Brava! Excellent post, and a conversation I could have for hours and hours. I love and keep books, forever on the precarious edge of running out of bookshelf space. I hunt down used copies of out-of-print delights (I collect vintage Cherry Ames books)
    And I spend much too much time and $ at the Strand.

    e-Readers make me shiver on an entirely visceral level. They’re so… antiseptic, and smooth, and creepy! I can’t picture curling up cozily with some pageless wonder device. I think I can’t immerse in the story, unless I feel my fingers stroking the edges of pages. Occasionally a traitorous thought hits when I’m preparing for a vacation- it might be nice to cram several books into one small light device. But- so much would be lost. If a book weren’t itself, it wouldn’t be able to have the marks of when you read it last, it wouldn’t have any context.

  • Amy Wallen December 14, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Coincidentally, last week I went searching for a children’s book that I loved as well. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Perhaps this new technological surge in the literary industry will help out the used book folk.

    Wish I had a brighter spotlight to shine on this topic. But that was one of the reasons for the workshop–to find out what the answer will be. I don’t think we know where we’re going to end up.

    Thanks for putting this out there Ainslie.