This book may be seen as an homage to an old lost love of reading. Or as penance if not redemption for an English major's misstep in 1975, when I went to law school. All I really had back then, fresh out of college, was a certain lingering attachment to the liberal arts and a love of words. But I steered clear of graduate school; it was rumored to be a cold clinic in which to deconstruct literature, a place where bad things happened to good books. The law, by contrast, was said to be the refuge of choice for cerebral types with free-floating ambition but otherwise without calling. So off I went, a twenty-year old dilettante, acting on faith that law school could offer an advanced education for the generalist. I imagined that somehow I could end up reading books for fun and profit en route to becoming a man of letters. I was disabused at once by the faintly Edwardian legal scholar who announced:
"Up to this point, you have read books about Big Questions. You will now read books about the little questions."
All too soon I found myself immersed in four-pound texts with no cover designs, no dust jackets--big books with little questions all laid out on thousands of translucent pages that highlighter pens would bleed through, confusing the issues on both sides. Books with leatherette covers and rapturous titles like Cases and Materials on Pleading and Procedure. To me they were books only in the sense that matchbooks were, or phonebooks or home-appliance manuals by underpaid translators--not the kind of multicolored books that lit up the world's dark corners, that arrived like a new romance with no hint that acid-pulp would one day self-deconstruct. All at once, books from what was quaintly called the humanities were purged, irrelevant to the discussion. The message was clear: real books were something you put away like toys in order to grow up, get over it, to get with the program.
Having had my fill of little questions, I stumbled out of law school, degree in hand, and went to work part-time for a large Boston firm. I split my life down the middle: three days of practice, four days to fall back on the simple pleasures of books. I became in fact a kind of born-again reader, just what I needed after three years in exile, reading the spiritual equivalent of cardboard. I gazed at a smorgasbord of books, scattered, unguided, willfully indiscriminate reading--fiction, history, memoirs, essays, philosophy, and books about the art of writing itself. Books that helped, as books do, to place the world in relief, to make it more compelling in print than in the flesh, to make it more coherent or at least render the incoherence more intelligible, books that, as Joseph Conrad said, "most of all resemble us in their precarious hold on life." Here, in fact, was the generalist's advanced education and all of it did indeed seem to me relevant to the discussion.
Bookstores were of course my weakness and ultimately my way back. As solace from an otherwise law-benumbed life, I was soothed by the symmetry of aisles and sections; mesmerized by the vast compression of facts, ideas, lives, epochs, travels, and regions of the heart. Books of imperishable charm, of bracing or painful insights, endless realignments of twenty-six letters--all contained in one impossibly small and dense place, a paradoxical mix of tranquility and sheer explosive potential--as if a bookstore or library can be said to breach some law of physics or create a new one all its own, like a nuclear bomb with good intentions. Reading for me had become fun again but no mere parlor game. I would read, as readers do, to tame the unfamiliar or see the familiar through new and enlightened prisms; to see how different, or eerily familiar, another person's interior life could be from my own.
But reading of course could be all-consuming--and however enriching the passion, books tempted me to imagine that they could insulate me from the world even as they drove me further into it--so that the love of books, like love in general, has perils as well as rewards as it did for the addict featured in a Los Angeles Times news brief under the caption MAN ALMOST KILLED BY LOVE OF BOOKS:
Reprinted from For The Love of Books. Copyright 1999, Compilation by Ronald B. Shwartz. Each contribution copyright 1999 by individual authors. Reprinted by permission of Grosset/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
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