I used to think that libraries were virtuous. When I was a kid, trips to the library were akin to trips to church. Both environments were silent, hallowed, with soaring ceilings and an occasional homeless person. Both felt like sanctuaries for a certain kind of knowledge, a knowledge yoked together with duty and obligation: the sanctity of the Word. Both filled me with a strange, humbling sense of my own insignificance. I was not the first to read these pages, be they Bible or hymnal or storybook, and I would not be the last.
The bookstore was nothing like either of these places. Growing up, I did most of my book shopping at Chapter One, a strip mall storefront conveniently positioned just a few doors down from a Baskin Robbins. They sold activity books with paint sets and Koosh balls attached to their covers, pop-up books whose complex origami had not yet been crushed by the mashing paws of other schoolchildren, Far Side collections like vast scrapbooks of hallucinations, chapter books bursting with educational mysteries whose answers were printed upside down at the end of the book, and later, lean bumpy-covered books printed on newsprint and published bi-monthly that told tales of man-eating hamsters, werewolf camp counselors, and brave young girls who faced burning at the stake when their proto-feminism was confused with witchcraft.
I was an only child, and spoiled when it came to reading material. I read a new book every few days, and these books were usually my own. I burned through paperbacks the same way a Franklin stove devours wood shavings, entirely indiscriminate, and yet, even in the midst of this consuming passion, I saw and vaguely regretted my own decadence. A nobler person than I wouldn't be tugging her mother's arm across the parking lot in the mad pursuit of more Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen. She'd be going to the library.
It was only in college that I began to recognize a library's unique appeal. It probably helped that our campus library was far closer than any decent bookstore; also it was free, allowing me to read as promiscuously as I always had and still have money left over for late night nachos, theme party costumes, ironic Walmart impulse buys ("Oh my God, a My Little Pony with an American flag tattooed to its ass!"), and bad blockbuster movies at the local cineplex. But there was more to it than that. In my growing up years, the library was overstocked, unnavigable, daunting, and once I found whatever I was looking for, I was eager to leave. In college, the library was a place to linger. I snuck in cups of coffee and wrote papers and stories in an armchair, snug between the stacks. I went in for twenty minutes between classes to check my email or read a magazine. I checked out videocassettes from their large, idiosyncratic collection (they had Weekend and Eating Raoul but not Jaws, which suited me fine) and watched them on my roommate's TV; I even figured out how to use interlibrary loan, which if anything was faster than Amazon.
All this prepared me for grad school, where I had a vastly superior library at my disposal, and which meant that for a total of six years, I bought very few books, beyond the ones required for my classes. I was, finally, virtuous, unencumbered by the rampant consumerism that had for so long contaminated my reading life. And then one day in workshop, while talking about giving readings on a book tour, my professor said as an aside, "And you know what just kills me. When I give a reading, and someone comes up to me afterwards from the audience and says, 'I loved what you just read. I'm going to go check it out from the library.'"
I am no economist, to be sure. But still, it's surprising that, for so many years, the thought never truly struck me that authors might not be such big fans of libraries -- that they might, actually, like to receive royalty checks within their lifetimes. "Maybe," I tentatively offered, "those people don't have that much money?"
"Oh please." My professor batted away the question. "I mean, sure, if someone really can't afford it, I understand. But most of these people can. I mean, I'm talking about readings in mall bookstores, where the person already has a shopping bag. In coffee shops, where a cappucino's four dollars. In bars, here in New York. If you can buy a drink, you can buy a book."
I fell silent. During the time I'd been in grad school, I had bought many drinks. Many, many, many drinks.
I did not change my book buying habits overnight. But after grad school, although I got an NYPL card, I didn't find myself using it much. Instead, I found myself spending more time in the independent bookstores, even sometimes Borders or B&N, where glossy covers glistened, face out on the shelves, luring me with that old seduction.
I think physical books are on their way out, and I don't resist that change; I think it's inevitable, and fighting it will only make writers lose time and opportunities to connect with an audience that's still hungry for the same things literary fiction has alway provided: beauty, truth, intellectual challenge, humor, wisdom, sex scenes. In some ways, physical books are themselves an obstacle to some of the most important core qualities of literature. When I moved apartments over the summer, I did a major purge of my bookshelves, eliminating not just a lot of books for long-completed courses but also some novels that I'd bought for pleasure, read once with interest, and then doubted I'd ever read again. With each title I eliminated, I literally weighed the book in my hand, thinking, "Is it worth it to haul this? Is it worth the space on my shelf?" It's strange that a book's thingness makes me evaluate it in these crass physical terms -- that the mode of transmitting ideas, scenes, language weightlessly from mind to mind is so goddamn heavy, a brick. That is not, in my opinion, anyway, what makes books worthwhile. That's an inconvenience.
Yet, it's an inconvenience that has been a part of my reading life for as long as I can remember, and as such it's linked inseparably to the thing I care most about in the world. Maybe one of these days I'll get myself an e-reader. But right now, I'm just shopping on my bookshelf, slowly working my way through all the fiction I bought the old-fashioned way. Which is to say, guiltily.