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Balthus, "The Living Room" (1942)

Canterbury Tales
Metaphysics in Hardcover

English boarding schools, like English weather, are drizzly places full of pimples and low-hanging humors. As I remember mine in Canterbury the year I turned 14, they’re also full of pretentious Master this and Master that and pink-skinned adolescents happiest when terrorizing anyone who didn’t look or sound like them. I missed my mother, who was on another continent. I longed to be back in my own country, which was burning. I was forgetting the taste of food, English cooking tasting mostly of oxymoron. The view from my window of the vaults and spires of Canterbury Cathedral, befogged every other evening anyway, was no substitute. To paraphrase South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s feelings about his exile to London when he was 13, Canterbury was the city on whose grim cogs I was being broken.

Then the unforgettable box arrived. Someone must have left it there while I was in class, in the middle of my side of the suite I shared with four English terrorists — a big, square, beat-up and taped-up cardboard box that looked like it’d been through hell, or at least Beirut, my name and address written in black marker. I didn’t need to open it to know what was inside. My grandmother, as she’d promised in one of her hang-in-there letters, had sent me a stack of my book collection from Lebanon, including every one of my three dozen Jules Verne paperbacks. My cavalry was here: It was as if I’d just received a crate of drugs and a suit of armor that would make me invulnerable to melancholy or my suitemates’ sadism.

The book that started it all, a gift from my brother Robert. I was 10.

So it turned out. England’s oppressive grays lifted the more I sank into Verne as he and the books’ Victorian-style illustrations took me off to the Russian steppe (“Michel Strogoff”), the North Pole (“The Adventures of Captain Haterras”), a lost island in the Pacific where shipwrecked children had to contend neither with Englishmen nor adults (“Two Years’ Holiday”) and aboard the Nautilus, with the only Nemo in my book (“20,000 Leagues,” “Mysterious Island”). The volumes still carried the smell and mountain dust of my shelves back home. Some contained bookmarks that had once been throw-away scraps and now seemed more precious than a year’s allowance of lousy English quids. I read in class, after lights out, in church. When I couldn’t read I’d keep a hand on whatever book I had with me, as on a lifeline.

This is old news to anyone who knows the pleasure of serial affairs with books. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that the books my grandmother sent me that fall saved me from a kind of insanity. It wasn’t just the homesickness and the barrack hostility you’d find in any adolescent boys school that could have done me in, but the sudden loss of an identity that, as I realized when that brown box arrived, only the books I could call mine — their physical existence and my personal history with them — restored.

That essentially metaphysical experience with books in England three decades ago comes to mind every time I hear that books, as Newsweek’s current cover has it, are “going digital.” Many books will, but I think it’s a mistake to think of digital books as merely electronic versions of their hard-copy equivalents. They’re entirely different creatures that yield different experiences, even if the words are identical in both formats. I don’t think I’d have experienced nearly the sense of salvation that I did that oppressive fall in Canterbury had my grandmother zapped me a gigabyte of Verne from her computer to mine. I very much doubt that her letters in e-mail form would have had the same effect as the therapeutic feel of her handwritten missives on thin airmail paper that, combining one balm with another, book-marked my readings.

There’s no question that new systems like Amazon’s Kindle, an electronic reading device, have immense advantages. You can buy a book online, at half its usual price, and have it immediately in your book-size electronic reader, which makes reading easy, even pleasant. You can zip an entire New York Times to the device, or stack a whole bookshelf’s worth of titles, no extra weight, which eliminates the problem of lugging books and magazines while traveling or commuting or being imprisoned somewhere dull.

But Kindle also misinterprets, or at least limits, the reading experience — the reading part being almost the least of it, in my view. A book is also its cover, its place on one’s shelves in the same way that it has a place in one’s history, like a memory’s limbs. It’s the yellowing of a book’s pages in sympathy with your whitening hair, the embarrassing marginalia of a more youthful reading, the rediscovery, as with a rekindled friendship, of a second or third reading. Or it’s the inexplicably moving connection with tatters that once belonged to one’s late father, the poetry collection that soldered many a seduction, the paperbacks that snapped an adolescence out of its self-indulgent despairs. Books are memory’s extended family. Reading still works in electronic form, of course, but electronic reading is belief in words only. I’d miss the only tangible, inviolable faith I have.

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