Saturday, February 8, 2014

Old books bring back memories

The rows of tables stretched the length of the convention center, row upon row like a parading army of troops, and the straight rows added into the dozens filling the space that could accommodate an ice hockey rink with bleachers. On each table books stood neatly vertical, their titles easily legible to the scores of people walking, reading, pausing and remembering.

I spent only a short time walking the rows of books, never even venturing into the fiction, helpfully alphabetized by author's last names. Instead, I perused the several tables labeled "History" and "Biography." As in a high school reunion, I recognized many old friends and paused at the memory. There were Watergate books, and I marveled at how long ago it had been since the nation was absorbed with Dean, Haldeman, Erlichman, Sirica, and all the rest. There were books chronicling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And memoirs, like John Dean's "Blind Ambition" and Henry Kissinger's advice on diplomacy or Russell Baker's "Growing Up," and historical biographies on Churchill, Andrew Jackson, and so many others.

When they were new and the reviewers praised them and they made the New York Times bestseller list, these books were conversation starters and opinion shapers. Now they stand on end, going out the door for a dollar or two because the library has declared them surplus, and most of the people who read the reviews, as I had, and wanted to read the books everyone was talking about had done so. So many books; so little time, as the bibliophile's aphorism goes. But others among us had wanted to read these books, had read or listened to quotes from the authors and compared reviewers' comments, but had never added to the bookseller's figures by actually purchasing the books when they were listed in the top 10 lists.

Now they are relegated to the indignity of jutting their binding faces into the eyes of strolling shoppers, their page ends against plastic table tops, with no hint that once these books were the topics of national conversations and the objects of popular praise. Some of the authors are dead. Some of their characters have disappeared from the news and are forgotten.

Even the medium, printed books, words on paper, has slipped behind digital media in popularity. Our books are now no more than binary code, a language that goes unspoken and unheard. Even the weightiest tome has no heft in its digital format, a format that lacks the feel of printed pages between stiff covers and the intoxicating aroma of paper pulp and ink.

After spending far longer than we had intended at the library book sale, my wife and I left with an armful of books on paper, their heft weighing down my arms. We add them to the scores of books lining the living room bookcases, the bookcases upstairs, the pile of books lying beside the bed and the books stashed in the attic because we couldn't bear to send them away. Someday, we think, we will take down these books and re-read them or share them with friends, offer them to grandchildren, or simply hold them happily again.

The books in the long rows at the convention center struck me as one more affirmation that life is short, and moments, even heartfelt moments launching national conversations, are fleeting. One moment's greatness devolves to the hard-luck indignity of a one-dollar sale.

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