“There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books.”
When humorist and critic Joe Queenan published these words – adapted from his new memoir, One for the Books – in The Wall Street Journal last month, he instantly gained a multitude of new cyberfriends. (“Love love love this!” exulted one Twitter user as she shared Queenan’s thoughts with a few thousand of her closest followers.)
Is there an e-book backlash at work here? Or have publishers been pushed into high gear by all those constant warnings about the death of the book?
Whatever the driver, it’s hard to ignore one of this season’s more notable trends in reading: books about how much we love books.
Queenan’s memoir is a passionate tribute to paper-and-ink books as a mainstay of his existence. His reading style (he never consumes fewer than 15 books at a time) is somewhat idiosyncratic. And his tastes (he dismisses Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and anything recommended to him by a friend) may strike some as offensive. But his enthusiasm is infectious, and his conviction that reading is the act that has given him life and breath will ring true to book lovers everywhere.
Oddly, among Queenan’s passionate dislikes are independent booksellers. (He calls them “prigs” and complains that “[t]he only writers they like are dead or exotic or Paul Auster.”)
Don’t tell that to Wendy Welch, author of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap. When Welch and her husband, Jack, took the unlikely gamble of opening an independent bookstore in the first floor of a 1903 Edwardian mansion in a tiny, overlooked Appalachian coal town, most folks gave them a year.
Contrary to expectations, however, they have thrived, and Welch’s book is a celebration of their success. Although success, in this case, doesn’t mean high finance. “The shop makes enough money for us to live with frugal grace,” Welch writes. More important to Wendy and Jack – in addition to the chance to “follow our bliss” – is the role they play in the life of the community.
“People stop into our store daily, saying, ‘A few minutes to kill so I thought I’d look around,’ ” Welch writes. “They’re not going to buy anything. They just want to pull some peaceful, book-scented air through their lungs.”
Welch’s memoir manages to be both cozy and witty at the same time and paints a picture of small-town life that we all want to believe is possible. And her belief that books are an essential part of any life worth living is pretty much irresistible as well.
Multiply the miracle of the Welches’ store by 80 and you’ve got My Bookstore, a compendium of essays by writers each celebrating his or her favorite independent bookstore. Isabel Allende extols Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif.; Rick Bragg dotes on the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, Ala.; and Henry Louis Gates Jr. praises Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve shopped in any of these stores (although if you are a book lover living anywhere in the continental United States, I can guarantee that you have browsed in at least one).
Regardless, however, you will recognize them all. As Kate Christensen says in her piece about WORD in Brooklyn, N.Y., a bookstore “is a state of mind.” But the real charm of bookstores, points out Dave Eggers in his essay about San Francisco’s Green Apple Books, is that they are as “strange and unorthodox as books are,” and just like books, their continued existence is essential. “Anyone who wants anything less is a fool.”
Additional noteworthy titles for book lovers:
The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe. Author and publisher Will Schwalbe and his mother bond over a wonderfully meandering shared reading list during the last months of her life.
My Ideal Bookshelf, illustrated by Jane Mount and edited by Thessaly La Force. This one is both lovely and impossible to put down. Cultural figures from David Sedaris to Alice Waters talk about their favorite books, accompanied by beautiful paintings of their home bookshelves.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.