To me, books are like special packages — to be handled with care, opened eagerly and eventually put away in safe places. I need to make a book confession: I have not made the transition to books online, books on tape, even rented books from the library. I want to own my books forever despite how much room they take up and how much paper they require to make. After all, these books are friends of mine and they have been with me on important life journeys at the happiest and unhappiest of times. You just cannot throw away relationships with books — because books know all your secrets as you know theirs. And books never disclose the circumstances under which they were read, or times they were ignored or passed over by the arrival of a rival book. They know there will be a time when you are willing to invite them back into your heart and mind.
Certain books possess the innate power to beckon us back many times:
Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth has characters that simply never age such as Wang Lung and O-Lan. They live forever in faraway China and each time they visit, they tell me their story again. And the story seems the same, but different.
Holden Caulfield, in my mind, is still of prep school age and has not lost his innocence despite the fact that it has been over a half century since he was created by J.D. Salinger. The author’s life is as fascinating as the characters, and a new movie will only bring back those old stories.
And what about Howard Roark — that struggling architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead? He just won’t die. His emotional and intellectual problems remain unsolved and he needs constant attention by the next generation of readers.
As for Philip Roth, we can never say “Goodbye” to Neil Klugman. Roth, like Saul Bellow, is part of our extended Jewish family, with all the pain and pleasure that families bring. Despite turning 80 recently, Philip Roth is a young man to most of us.
The newer authors also cast a spell on me. Elizabeth Berg won’t stop inviting me back into her life for yet another absorbing trip through womanhood. Elizabeth Strout keeps writing about men. She seems to know The Burgess Boys as if they were friends of mine. Ann Patchett still has not written anything as powerful as Bel Canto but she comes very close to perfection with each book.
So, when I read about the closing of Borders Books or troubles at Barnes and Noble or the potential bankruptcy of a small bookstore chain, I weep. What would the world be like without bookstores for browsing? At first glance, $26.95 is a lot of money for a few hundred pages until you think of the hours spent in precious aloneness with these books, and the lifetime of memories created by people and characters we come to believe we know extremely well.
Content skips by us each day as we scroll through email and check news on websites. But books need permanent homes on beds and nightstands. They must live on shelves and occasionally be passed around to friends and relatives. Books need to be loaned to others half-knowing we may never see them again but trusting they will live on in the heart of a friend.
This summer we must honor books — our hardback and paperback companions that ride out the hot sun on beaches. They demand little and offer much. Treat these precious items with respect and the utmost of care. For they are relics of the past and yet will endure, I hope, into the future.
Tara D. Sonenshine is former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her hobby is reading.