• by Robert P. Barsanti •
On this Sunday morning, the coffee is percolating, the coffee cake has been cut and tasted, and the newspaper is spread out over the table. Its various sections are weighed down by books. The house remains quiet.
This is a house of bookcases. They stand, floor to ceiling, in the various rooms and are stuffed with fifty years worth of books. Two of the cases have been heroically organized: Michener stands next to McKuen, Asimov next to Woody Allen. For a long time, I have been a bookshelf peeping Tom. I make my own prurient assumptions about the folks who keep Fifty Shades of Gray and the Story of O in their living rooms; I take care to look where I am sitting. Bookshelves, however, testify to the collector. On this silent Sunday morning, I poke through shelf upon shelf of paperback American History, bestsellers, and a series of philosophy books by the Durants.
Bookcases are (or were) our own memoirs. They contained the books we bought for ourselves, the book others bought to make us more presentable, and the ones we want people to think we read. My parents’ bookcases contained the self-help books my mother bought for my father, along with the American Heritage series of art books. I don’t use the Oxford English Dictionary more than once every six months, but there it sits, waiting to offer its expert definitions to all. You can even using the magnifiying class for extra enlightenment.
When I walk into a stranger’s house, or worse, when I am a guest there, I make most of my character judgements about my host from the books he has in the living room and the magazines he has stacked in the john. If his library is full of Shelby Foote and his bathroom has “Modern American Sharpshooter” and “Guns and Ammo,” I know that I am in the presence of some unredeemed rebel or my personal physician. It depends on the number of dogs spinning through the doorways.
The age of bookcases has passed. I am no more likely to walk into a modern house full of bookcases than I am to find a water trough in the back yard and a root cellar in the basement. We live in the cloud, where all of our cultural favorites float by. We no longer have our records lined up beneath the stereo nor do we have a wall full of VHS tapes. All that we had, have now become artifacts or, frankly, corpses. Instead, the television dominates the modern living room; the man cave has moved upstairs.
In my youth, the cultural elites argued about the pernicious effect of television. They worried about the children coming home from school, sitting on the sofa and watching “F-Troop” and “Car 54, Where Are You?” while our minds liquified and dripped out our ears. Television won and sowed salt in the ground. The living rooms I visit now have a three foot screen mounted on the wall, a nest of sofas and ottomans, and blinds for the windows. The television and its cable now provide the movies, the music, and the shows for everyone. Nothing remains in the room; it all comes from the TV.
The true bookcase of the twenty-first century is the desktop on our phones and tablets. Our character is shown, measured, and assessed by the apps we use. Your iTunes library, your pictures, your Facebook feed, and your vines lay out the secrets of our lives far better than any medicine cabinet or book case. What secrets of the human heart does my Angry Birds score show (Why does he play it so often?) or my Words With Friends (Why doesn’t he play this anymore?). What does my search history show? What is in my Kindle? What does my soul contain that cannot be measured by my phone?
The time has passed for resistance. We have walked into Wal Mart and Target with the best of intentions, then walked out with a 64 inch screen and a collection of brackets. We settle back into the sofa, put our feet up on the table, and watch the Red Sox ground into crisp, life like, double plays. It’s hard to rebel with a beverage in one hand and a remote in the other.
I remain a reader. When I was younger, I would graze at the used book stores for titles and recommendations. I slowly collected all of John D. MacDonald’s and Robert Parker’s work using wrinkled dollar upon wrinkled dollar. In my own book case, I still have the complete used set of Adam Hall and Ian Fleming. Nonetheless, even my bookcase has shrunk and collected cobwebs. I have slowly switched over to reading by glowing. For me, buying on-line rewards the impulse and the wallet. I read the review, get the recommendation, and buy the work before my next sip of coffee. All of my books fit onto one thin device and I can read at three times the speed I used to.
Still, I don’t read as well as I used to. I settle into a novel on the device and I slowly descend into the world. Then, a notice comes flashing across the top of the screen about some piece of e-mail that doesn’t need me. Then the New York Times tells me what the unemployment rate is. After that, and several delicious moments of piece, the Facebook and Twitter voice starts to pester. The tablet has so many different things that it can do that it wants to do them all the time.
As a result, you can read certain things well on the device. Newspapers, magazines, and other bits of short attention span theater work really well on the iPad. The screen, the motion of reading, and the alerts make reading on a device more like grazing. Grazing is a fine way to keep in touch with the world; like a cow, you can wander a long distance and pick up a great deal to it, but none of it changes you or the way you look at the world. Most of what you read tends to be reflective. I choose to follow the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone. As a result, I am not going to know what Howard Stern and Fox News is saying. Most of the news I read has been selected to agree with me.
Novels require silence, time, and a peculiar focus. You need to sink into a novel; you need to surrender to it. A print novel will not allow itself to be interrupted. Instead, the best novels interrupt your life. You think of the characters and the world while you drive, while you sit at your desk, and at meals. You push family and friends away until you can finish it. And, when you finish a good book, your curse the author for stopping her work.
When you surface, the change has bloomed on your bones. A good novel has conquered you, planted its flag, and enslaved the natives. Even the most pulpy and digestible of novels tattoos your soul. We have an entire generation of readers who see the world through Harry Potter’s spectacles and Katniss’ green eyes.
Our electronics may solve this fiction problem eventually, although I suspect that the advertisers will find their way in eventually. All of our screens, in all of our living rooms, serve only to reflect ourselves back to ourselves. Facebook doesn’t transform anyone, it merely validates and strokes. If we want to start living in our living rooms, it must come through books and novels.