Any number of topics presented themselves for what may be my last little essay here — it’s been a busy week in book land — but I’ve decided to mingle the elegiac with the celebratory.
Yes, I could have written about the latest atrocity by Amazon, a company that, astonishingly enough, seems to have less social and cultural conscience than Walmart, Destroyer of Towns.
I might have responded to this astonishingly wrongheaded Slate piece by Farhad Manjoo about how independent bookstores are “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find,” and should just do us all a favor and die already.
Let me ask one simple question: How many author events did any Internet retailer sponsor last month? Books & Books, our local South Florida independent, sponsors 40 to 60, month in, month out. Otherwise, I’ll leave the field to novelist Richard Russo, whose New York Times op-ed on the subject Manjoo mocks without refuting.
And I might have written an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens, the great Anglo-American journalist and critic who died last night of cancer at age 62. I might have recalled how my admiration for his wit and eloquence were not diminished by my disgust at his intolerance toward religionists.
But I’ve already written that column, when I first heard of his illness, and besides, I knew the man only through his writing. I think you’ll get more out of this remembrance by his friend, Christopher Buckley, at the New Yorker website.
I might have eulogized the American-in-Paris bookseller, George Whitman, who died this week at age 98. He revived the landmark Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co., and ran it for half a century. But my friend and erstwhile colleague Tom Swick, one of the best travel writers alive, has beaten me to it, with his customary elegance and insight.
And I might have written about the best books of 2011, but 1) I read fewer new books this year than usual, and 2) the ones I did read were for the most part unexceptional, and 3) I lost all interest in the subject, at least temporarily, when I opened the link to one such list and the very first novel mentioned was the absolute worst book I read this year.
No, I have chosen instead to leave you with a set of lovely quotes about reading, courtesy of the Huffington Post (which I have cheerfully maligned in this space upon every possible occasion), from some of our most interesting writers. I take the liberty of adding brief commentary on each one:
“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” Joyce Carol Oates. Stuffy, but true.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” Philip Pullman. Actually, thou shalt not has done quite well for itself these last 3,000 years, but he’s right about once upon a time.
“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). My favorite in this lot.
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Oscar Wilde. Dear Oscar. He only posed as a decadent aesthete. At heart he was a moralist.
‘Be awesome! Be a book nut!” Dr. Seuss. Unimprovable.
“Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” Neil Gaiman. I’m not certain of the metaphorical machinery at work here, but I think he means to say both are impossible.
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau. Since Thoreau died at 44, I wonder if he might have been prescient. On the other hand, how do you know which books are best before you read them? Of course: Critics!
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin. This is so sad and heartfelt and true that I have nothing whatsoever to add.
“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain. Of course, Twain died more than a century ago. Today his formula would no doubt be: “An iPhone, a Starbucks, and a rocking Twitter account!”
I’d like to add another quote attributed to Twain, and which, interestingly enough, was recently tweeted by Mike Tyson: “The man who will not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”
Over the past two and a-half years I’ve argued, probably to a tiresome degree, for the importance of reading real books, made of paper and ink and glue and printed on an actual white page of paper. Electronic reading devices, while possibly increasing reading interest in the short term, will inevitably lead people toward functional illiteracy.
What fraction of the populace will put forth the effort to read when they can watch TV or movies or play video games on their portable devices?
Perhaps I am wrong. I fervently hope so.
I want to express my gratitude to the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, and especially its executive director, Alina Interian, for generously providing this excellent platform for literary commentary these last two and a-half years, and for letting me write whatever I felt like. Thank you. It’s been more fun than I can say.
Please visit the Center’s websites, the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on the many excellent programs and events.
Meanwhile, I trust we will meet soon at some other location in the shifting geography of this brave new world.