Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A father’s case for physical books

with 2 comments

The Book Table in Oak Park

Over the weekend, I brought my daughter Beatrix to her first bookstore, the Book Table in Oak Park, which is arguably the best independent bookshop in the Chicago area. I love it, first of all, because they keep plenty of my own novels in stock, but also because their selection is fascinating and thoughtfully curated. Every table is covered in modestly discounted copies of new releases, many of which I’d never seen before, with an emphasis on art, design, and books from speciality publishers like Taschen and NYRB Classics. I never leave without making a few wonderful discoveries—or at least adding some potential items to my holiday wish list—and I always emerge with a newfound appreciation of the social importance of independent bookstores. Jason, the owner, has been a good friend and supporter, and I was perfectly honest when I told him that I expect to bring Beatrix back for years to come.

Yet the visit also got me thinking about the role that books will play both in my daughter’s life and in the lives of other children the same age. Bookstores, as we all know, are disappearing across the country; so, too, are bookshelves in private homes, as readers increasingly begin to rely on devices like the Kindle. I’m not against electronic books in any way, and they’re clearly a great option for a lot of adult readers. But I think there’s a risk here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I owe much of my education and my love of reading to scrounging for books on my own parents’ bookshelves. These weren’t books that I was asked, or even permitted, to read; they were simply there, lined up alluringly, and it was only a matter of time before I was reading well over my head. Now, however, we’re looking at the prospect of a generation of children raised in the households of parents who may love reading, but lack an environment of physical books that kids can discover on their own. And I’m concerned about this.

The Amazon Kindle

I’ve spoken before about the end of browsing, in which astonishing online resources can give us instant access to the exact book we want, but aren’t nearly as good at giving us books we never knew we needed. For adults, recommendations and social networks go part of the way toward solving the problem, but they aren’t a perfect answer. Time and again, they tend to return to the same handful of established classics or recent books—nearly every reading thread on Reddit seems to center on Vonnegut, Infinite Jest, or House of Leaves—and they rarely find time for the neglected, the unfairly forgotten, or the out of print. It’s an even greater problem for children, who tend to be steered toward approved or required reading, and lack the resources to seek out other books on their own. The tricky thing about buying books for kids is that you never quite know when they’ll make the next big leap. Usually, it happens on its own. And the first step, at least for me, was rummaging unsupervised through an adult bookshelf.

In my case, I’m not too worried about Beatrix, who will inevitably grow up in a house crammed with books, and who has a father who will probably be delighted the first time he catches her reading George Orwell or Stephen King. But I’m still of the mind that the decline of printed books in many homes has consequences that can’t be entirely addressed by reading aloud or stocking the house with books for kids. A Kindle is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t evoke the same kind of curiosity—or access to randomness—that a fully stocked bookshelf can, and it can’t compete with other kinds of screens. One solution, of course, is to bring children to bookstores or libraries and just let them wander: the moment I first ventured into the grownup section of my hometown library is still one of my most exciting memories. But the best answer is also the simplest one: to keep buying physical books, not for your children, but for yourself.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

2 Responses

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  1. I, too, lament the loss of browsing… As well as the loss of nearly every bookstore within a one hundred mile radius of my hometown. Clicking through online catalogues will never match the experience of a physical bookstore.

    C.B. McCullough

    March 26, 2013 at 10:55 am

  2. I know I’m supposed to agree, and I pretty much do, but just remember: http://www.theonion.com/articles/amazoncom-recommendations-understand-area-woman-be,2121/

    Nat

    March 26, 2013 at 7:18 pm


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