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A book lover reads the writing on the wall

E-books are not just coming, they’re here. Google and Amazon are scanning like mad every book they can get their pixilated hands on, and thousands of people are promptly downloading them onto their Kindles and eReaders and whatnots. There are many speculations about their impact on the paper book market. Will there soon be no bookstores? No libraries? No books as we know them? Will that be such a bad thing?

I’m not going to get techy on you. I’m not going to compare the merits of Sony eReader versus Kindle versus what you can download on your iPod. I’m not going to weigh the pros and cons of their various features or quibble about things I wished they did better. Because here’s the thing—all of those quirks will be worked out. Eventually, we’ll be left with, not a Kindle, necessarily, but some sort of device—probably one we also use for our phone calls, internet, music and movies—that will allow us to do what e-books already do, only better: buy, store and read our books, write notes in the margin, share books with friends, and recommend new books based on our past ratings.

With so many books at our fingertips, I am not worried about the future of reading. I think we, and our children and grandchildren, will be reading more than ever before. And as humans are highly adaptable, even diehard “real” book lovers will—like people who once refused to email—succumb to the electronic book without much noticeable pain. Even me.

I’m more concerned about losing the magic of it. Or at least, the magic I’ve known.

As a kid growing up in 1980s rural Missouri, one of the highlights of going back to school was the Bookmobile that came for about a week each year. Before the big metal cases of bookshelves rolled down the school hallways and opened for business, we were given an ordering sheet to make our selections. And while my parents earned a solid lower-middle class existence at the time, they never scrimped on books for me, so long as I would read them. Most of my classmates would buy two or three. I usually got about a dozen. Even the Bookmobile people seemed frustrated with my indulgence as they went about hunting for the all the titles on my order.

The Berenstein Bears and the tales of Ramona Quimby gave way to S.E. Hinton and later John Steinbeck, who offered my first glimpse of what I considered, in all of my 14-year-old book snobbery, “real literature.” And it wasn’t just the stories. Reading books was a multi-sensory experience. I loved to hold them, feel them, smell them, keep them. Still do.

There were no bookstores in my town, so we’d visit one when we went to a nearby small city. I distinctly remember the quiet, excited, tingly feeling when I entered its doors. I’m not sure how else to describe it other than to say that, for me, a bookstore carried the weight of a holy place. It held the answers to any question, whimsy or inspiration I was looking for. I still feel that way. I can’t help thinking that feeling will be gone when I start to choose and read books on a screen. I wonder if my future children will ever know for themselves the feeling I’m talking about.

When I visit a person’s house for the first time, I love to see their bookshelves to learn more about them. I search for lines where we may intersect. While I can do this on my “virtual bookshelf” with Facebook friends, it’s just not the same. For one thing, only dorks like me list their “bookshelves” online. My own bookshelves at home are a more comprehensive mark and reminder of where I’ve been, telling my own history along with the stories in their pages. From my half year of reading women writers and my college-era obsession with the Beat generation to books suggested by friends and lovers, these volumes remind me of my life during that specific time. Kind of like an old song. One sliver of a book bought during my Indian philosophy phase holds an underlined passage from a Vedantic swami. To paraphrase, it says that, for better or worse, you cannot have change without also having loss.