artwork below by the author
There is a secondhand bookstore not far from where I live called Recycled Books. The purple-hued two-story building sits on the northeast corner of the town square in Denton, Texas– only a stumble away from the local bars, an antique mall with a truly impressive collection of faux-medieval edged weapons, and a pizza place that is kind enough to let my band play in their basement and pay us in cases of Schlitz.
I’ve spent many an afternoon (and paycheck) wandering the labyrinthine corridors of Recycled Books, breathing in the yellowing paperbacks and their acrid-sweet Eau de Nostalgia that has since been lost to the acid-free, aesthetically-sterile paper that reeks foul of Barnes & Noble Paranormal Romance. Preservation of books is a good thing, of course, but the lignin-filled wood-pulp of yesteryear decays with such beauty that I can’t help but shove my nose into an old paperback– aging and fading and mortal –and fall instantly in love. Nothing lasts forever and you can’t take it with you. Well, that and new books at B&N are expensive as hell.
Many times I’ve daydreamed about living in a place like Recycled. Books from floor to ceiling. Hidden hallways, nooks and treasures. I half-expect to stumble upon trap doors and secret passages and rooms that seem to move and grow and change before my eyes. The place is magical. And I fear that it may not be around for much longer.
Technology is advancing at an exponential rate and, though I’m no luddite, I can’t help but mourn elements of the past that are lost to progress and convenience. Most of them are silly and frivolous (Kids these days will never know what it’s like to use a pay phone!) but some of them are so dear to me that I have trouble imagining a world without them. At least, not a world I want to live in. Books top that list.
I am obsessed with them and always have been. From the lazy childhood afternoons spent reading Hardy Boys novels in the carpeted bathtub thing at the local library to the modest but respectable personal collection I gaze upon as I write this at my desk, now an adult and struggling to hold onto the past that shaped me.
I am an obsessive book collector. My father is a book collector. But if I have a child—who hopefully gets the dominant bibliophile gene of my family –their “book” collection might be nothing more than a cache of digital files. Things without physical substance. Scentless piles of binary. Sterile, standardized and immortal. They will have to be charged via electrical outlet. They will have to be turned off during take-off and landing. They won’t be read in a furry bathtub on a lazy summer day. They won’t be loaned to friends, tossed in the backseat of a car or displayed on shelves, filling a room with nostalgia and magic. And most importantly, they won’t be discovered by chance or happenstance in a dimly-lit basement behind a secret passage just past the trap door. They will be literature, but they won’t be books.
I own a Nook. It was given to me as a present by my boss. And by “present” I mean he got one for free and thought it was useless enough to give away. I’ve had it for almost a year now and it remains on my desk uncharged and containing only one book: my own. I know. I’m driving an SUV to the analogical environmentalist rally. But if it were up to me, everything I write would be printed on classic wood-pulp that smells like magic as it marches slowly and proudly towards its mortal end. Unfortunately, self-publishing is expensive and I gave all my money to Recycled Books, so last year I released an e-book of short stories as a kind of literary demo tape or business card. It’s free, but I won’t link to it because, like everything I create, I have come to hate it with time. I don’t regret it—I needed the exposure –but seeing your work on a computer or phone just doesn’t have the same gratification as seeing it on a bookshelf or in the backseat of a car or behind a trap door in a basement full of nostalgia.
I don’t blame people for embracing e-books. They are convenient, space-efficient and easily accessible, and the exposure they provide amateur authors is invaluable. But their proliferation and success spells doom for the paper book, and I dread the day—not far off –when it becomes too costly and undesirable to print nostalgia manifest in the acid-yellow pages of aromatic art made tangible.
Digital files won’t burn at the end of a zealot’s torch. They won’t take a team of very generous friends to carry in boxes when I move. They won’t tear or fade or get left behind at the DMV. They still carry with them the brilliant voices of men and women who understood the power of words and made their voices heard long after they left us and returned to the earth. They are immortal, and maybe that’s not so bad.
But that which is lost to progress is a great loss indeed. Libraries will become nothing more than internet access points, and no child will ever again find a Dixon book in a furry bathtub and decide with unwavering certainty that they will one day be a writer. There will be no pages to breathe. No bookshelves to make a room light up with color and excitement. No dog-ears or scribbles or coveted signatures. No Recycled Books.
Perhaps I’m just a sucker for nostalgia. An overly-sentimental fool unwilling to embrace the ways of the future. But there is something about a paper book that no digital file or computer rendering could possibly replace. And, for lack of a better term, I call it magic.
The illustrations featured in this article are the work of the author, Ryan Sheffield, and part of an ongoing series of drawings made in homage to inspirational authors and the power of the written word. Prints are available for sale at http://www.etsy.com/shop/ryansheffield . All proceeds go to buying him more paperbacks at Recycled Books. For more information on Denton’s beautiful labyrinth of nostalgia, check out http://www.recycledbooks.com . Support your local everything!