An Island Point of View Nantucket Essays Nantucket Voices

You’ll Need a Bookcase

essay by Robert P. Barsanti

I can’t buy a decent bookcase. If I want, I can get one on Wayfair or from Ikea that looks like a bookcase, but the shelves won’t hold anything heavier than a take out meal. I can find one created by a craftsman made of walnut and sturdy enough to hold the Harvard Library in leatherbond, but the bill is roughly what you would pay for a used Toyota. And it won’t buy the groceries.

Bookcases are rare because book buyers have become rare. Nobody belongs to a book club. The nation’s doorsteps do not shake, once a month, with another Michener or Vidal tome. We don’t stop by the local bookstore because Borders blackholed them into a corporate orbit around The Gap and the Cheesecake Factory. Then, as black holes do, Borders disappeared into itself and left a Spirit of Halloween Store in the cavity. Amazon once sent out books: now it delivers candy, videos, and Whole Foods ready-made vegan meatloaf…

At this point, a large number of books are bought so that they can be backgrounds for the Zoom quarterly sales meetings. We sit in front of fifty dollars of used books, aligned in a careful scatterplot while Justin and Becky show the quarterly sales projections for the southern markets as we nod our heads in attentive boredom.

Our digital overlords have squeezed the reading time out of our lives with flashing lights. Our eyes fill with Madden Football, Candycrush, or Bridgerton. They silt our minds with handful after handful of popcorn until we sit in the dark and wonder why our mouths are so dry and our heads are so sore. The dopamine keeps us munching, flash to flash, cut to cut,

Angry Bird to Angry Bird.

To step a bit further back, most people in the world don’t have the time to invest in the latest Stephen King. They have deadlines and commitments, be they breathing or glowing. Very few jobs end at five in the afternoon: most ask you to finish the daily reports at home, create a slide deck for the next meeting, or start your next shift at the bar. In our American Odyssey of Productivity and Investment Returns, management finds a way to give you a computer so you can take the boss and the office home with you, set it on the kitchen table, and watch it consume your own private time in a glowing blue fire.

Reading is counter cultural as is Nantucket. Reading asks you to step away from the flashing and beeping to settle into a place where the pages turn, the waves roll in, and the fog silences. On-island, the finest luxury is time, and it is in that time that people retire to the Shire, Winterfell, and the Overlook Hotel for some time away from touchscreens, trackpads, and TPS reports.

The island has two bookstores and 100 miles of beach. Most of the books sold on Main or Broad Street get dropped, sooner or later, at one of the beaches. Surfside and Cisco are poisonous to the twenty-first century. Cell phones lose their reception, fill their holes with sand, and get dropped into the Atlantic. The latest from Elin remains just as powerful with a handful of Nantucket’s finest in the spine and a quick dip in the brine.

More seriously, our visitors spend thousands of dollars to escape flashing lights and buzzing alerts. When they sit on their beach chairs before the rolling surf, they have paid good money not to have anything to do but stare at the horizon and listen to the time wash by. All of those books that they meant to read sit up and perk their ears in the beach bag. They left the busyness on the other side of the sound; they finally have time for Nat and for Margaret.

Our digital overlords don’t want us to read. They can’t put a pop-up advertisement inside the pages. They can’t scrape our data and location off the covers. They can’t alert us of the latest sale at Pottery Barn, nor can they beg for our votes and for our cash. The dopamine itch for likes on Instagram fades in the sunburn. Instead, in the face of eighteenth-century printing technology, they fall deaf and silent.

Time is the birthright of our island. We measure it in sunsets, tides, and waves, instead of in buzzing alarm, alerts, and activity circles. Sooner or later, the day will get buried in a fog bank, and you will remain in a room, watching the mildew grow. The books touch your elbow at that point.

There may be nothing more selfish than reading. You shut the world out, with its needs, desires, and expectations. Dinner will wait until you finish another chapter. Further, you can’t really explain what you read. The incommunicable silence, punctuated by sighs and smiles, exists only in your mind. Nobody else can really understand where you have gone, even if they read the same book tomorrow.

At their best, books are recipes for the meals you cook in your head. They manipulate your feelings, your memories, and your fears into creating a world that you move through, perched on the shoulder of a character. Your husband or your daughter can read the same book just as they can make the same recipe. But their meal is not quite yours. The two of you have made your own chocolate cheesecake, but they are not the same. You each bring slightly different ingredients.

In contrast, Netflix, Facebook, and TikTok all deliver fast food to your door. The Big Mac that comes off the bicycle or out of the backpack tastes the same, or slightly worse, than the Big Mac everyone else eats. Since they are corporations selling your mind to profit their board members, they don’t want you cooking on your own. They want you paying for their DoorDash Chicken Strips.

One of the best features of the annual Book Festival is when local authors cather at tables are set up for the self-published. These people have made their own recipes, fine tuned them, and wish to bring them to you. They aren’t making money for board members or for corporations. They have a vision they want to share, and they have spent hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours shaping these mental recipes for you. They selected the pictures, picked the typeface, and went over the text, one more time, in search of typos. If you can quit the junk food, you may find something worthwhile in your own kitchen.

But be careful. You will need to get a bookcase.

Articles by Date from 2012