Monday, October 6, 2014

On the Future of Things

I don't often write about shiny things.  Fast things.  New things.  Speedy, cool things.  However, I'd be lyin' if I said I didn't consider these things.  I see a new Ford F-150 and covet it.  I marvel at the sheer amount of stuff there is in it, backup cameras and LED underbed lights that shine bright in the winter's dark of a pick-up bed at midnight.  Sometimes, I wish for a perfect new jangly Martin or Taylor guitar with sparkling strings and a golden spruce top and a mother-of-pearl inlaid fretboard.  I wistfully hope for a new toaster-oven with an array of buttons and a crumb-catcher that slides out with ease.  Sometimes, I really, really want a shed to write and pray in.  Sometimes, I think want an exciting, luminous future of popularity and prosperity.

I have to reach far across the bench of a seat in the cab of my truck, so far, in fact, that I have to put it in "park," to roll up the window, to reach the crank, you understand, to physically roll up the window.  It sort of annoys me, but you might remember I am hard on stuff and have a bad history with window motors, and, at the dealership, specifically had to ask for no automatic windows.  Suggesting what I wanted was a "farm truck" the salesguy said he had a tan one and a red one.  I said I'd look at the red one.  We bought it the day we found out we were pregnant with twins and my sons will someday learn to drive in it.  That new F-150 don't look so great now.

I am driving over mountains and through dales and tunnels in some Carolina and a song from my wife's smartphone - which is linked to the car stereo because, well, mountains - begins with a guitar intro and I wonder what kind of guitar that is and notice how sweet and tender the playing seems.  It is a song called "This Old Cracked Guitar" which was written as a marriage proposal, and recorded as a first dance... by me, on my trusty vintage Alvarez.  That Taylor Grand Concert Series seems a lot less grand now somehow.

Toast, waffles, bagels, tater tots and crowns, nachos, tuna melts, all come to our table through an old, ugly, Hamilton-Beach oven/toaster thing.  I see new ones at the store and marvel at their capabilities and wonder if they'd toast Nick's bread so lightly that it has an "only slightly crunchy outside."  Will it go to 450 fast enough that I can pop the tots in it and come back to a perfect side dish in exactly 27 minute?  Could it possibly melt the shredded three cheese mix just enough on the chips and not crisp up the edges?  'Cause Zack hates burnt edges.  Maybe that new programmable one wouldn't do it right.  Yeah, probably not...

I been watching my neighbor build a shed in his backyard over the past few weeks, he's just now finishing the roofing.  I don't think he had a very detailed plan, he and his sons just built it, which I admire.  As I watched I could not help myself from thinking that they were exhibiting no skills, which included accidentally sliding down a roof on an unsecured sheet of plywood, that I did not possess.  I have all the same tools he used as well.  Nothing is stopping me from building a shed, really.  However, as I write this sitting at a table, looking out over the yard, I know in my heart that the shed is only a metaphor, a place in my soul, and the true gift of the time to pray and write I have already been given.   If I had a shed of what would I dream?

And, in the same breath in which I long for a better, more luminous future I realize that the damn present is perfect, the past is hardly unforgotten, and what is to come is already borne in them.  We will become what we should, there is no hoping for better things to come, they just will.

I have a Kindle tablet.  It's handy, good for looking things up, checking social media, an occasional game or two or a surf around the innerwebs for a good read from a fellow writer.  And one can download books from the library and read them.  I have given this a try here in the last several months.  Initially, I just didn’t like it because, well, I didn't want to.  After some time, though, I began to see the general attraction. I liked getting novels and philosophy books quickly.  The search interface was simple and limited in a good way - less choices and all - and, for a while I felt clever and hip reading Tim O'Brien's visceral Vietnam memoir "The Things They Carried" in such a post-modern way.  I read some poetry, which translated well I thought to the blank page the reader could be.

I read lines over in the Kindle and it frustrates me.  Yes, Marci did bump up the font size and I played with the brightness, but neither one helped.  It isn't that bad really and I have figured out that it's because of the angle, sort of kitty-cornered, I have it positioned when I read in bed.

I still don't like it, though.  I can't help shake the thought that I don't like it because I don't want to, but I sort of so want to like it.  So, what's my problem?

Last night Nick came in when Marci and I were reading our tablets in bed to ask an important question - what was for breakfast the next day, as I recall - and he asked me what I was reading.  Well, I was reading a book by Michael Chabon called "Manhood for Amateurs" and I told him that.  He thought about that and then asked me what it looked like.  You see, normally I would just hand him whatever I was reading and he'd look at the cover and comment on the picture or art, or, if there wasn't one, he might flip through the book and stop, reading a sentence here and there, doing all the stuff you do when you first encounter a potential book.  Except, well... you figured it didn't you?

There was nothing to really show him.  Nothing to foster a conversation about the book, nothing to help him form an opinion of it himself, no image to mentally take and remember years from now when he sees the same book on the shelf, mine or someone elses.  That's not fair to him, or I'd say, to the book.

I'm gonna say that's why I don't like reading on the thing.  It takes away the physicality of the book itself. The number of pages, the font, the weight of the thing, the format, the passage through time as physical as a walk through the woods, the markers clear and obvious.  I know people love these tablets and they can have dozens of books on them a once, and it is easy to read on a plane or at the pool or on the porch of a cool summer's evening, but... I like tottering towers of books, tables flung with them, beach bags bursting from them and kerosene lamps on wrought iron tables in among the crickets to see them by.

The bags and bags of books, literally thousands - twenty-two at a time because the first time we went together that's how many the bag held - we've gone through are all remembered from the covers, not the light they shined out, but the light they actually were.  All the baby board books, one in particular that made a ribbon rainbow page after page, were chewed and bruised and so loved and repeated that the pages still float by, images of a hungry caterpillar, the simple, haunting refrain, "goodnight, moon," a train that really could.  They were dragged and stacked and thrown and shelved.  They were loved and tasted and handled and caressed.  They were so real and important that even now the boys recognize a cover from when they were two or three.  Sadly many of those early memories are stepping back, making room for the new ones, thicker, with less pictures and more heartbreak and adventure, with deeper messages and harder themes.

One should be able to hug  "To Kill A Mockingbird," drop a tear on the last page of Owen Meany, to close up Narnia in victory as The Last Battle is won.  One should have something to desperately clutch as you gasp in horror at Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" or to caress as you read the words of Dickinsin and Frost.  A machine cannot offer such physical assurances nor will it ever make you smile as the cover of Animal Farm or Catcher in the Rye at the used book store - last Tuesday I think it was - makes you remember high school in just one breath.

So, the books pile up and wait.  Here is a stack my brother sent me, books I'd read as a child, sitting on my work/music, uh, bench, waiting to be found:

"Churchmouse Stories" is unforgettable, so sweet and naive, and, two books down, "The Battle of Gettysburg," showed me the despair and suffering of war and led to Lincoln and Whitman and Woody and Dylan and Homer.  That book, that thing.

This is the shelf next to my desk, a few favorites, odds and ends, Shakespeare, Narnia, Sherlock, "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart," a signed Owen Meany, Oz.  And a dulcimer...

Down there on the bottom two shelves are a set of Harvard Classics, fifty books of importance as decided in 1920.  There is a long and satisfying story to tell about them, but, I haven't time right now and it may go untold.  The milk grate is full of the memories I have already shared here - "the keeper box."

The boys have a shelf in their room.  It is messy.  It shifts easily.  It is, I believe, the third bookshelf we've had in there, progressively larger and sturdier.  It is, somehow magical and alluring, as bookshelves so often are:

Yes, those are guard-Furbees, motion sensitive and irritable.  It's perfect, isn't it?

One last pile comes to mind.  Ever-present, right there in front of the television, with delicious irony, a pile of the boys library books waits to be read,  returned or traded for a new series, a new place - a new thing - to be remembered:

My life has been haunted by the ghosts of so many books.  But, those beautiful ghosts rose up from the paper pages and deep black ink and battered bindings and old book dust and the smell of the past and future commingled.

We have littered the boys childhood with books, piled thick and scattered randomly or purposefully, and we will continue to do so and hopefully they will never be far from a stack of books, a pile of dreams.

Truly, would this image seem as nearly as tender if we were all staring a Kindle?

Or this one as iconic?

I don't come to bury the tablet readers or suggest their unworthiness as a replacement for our books (actually, I do), but merely to remind you, us, of those books that, so long ago, sprang from our hands and into our memories.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear form the backseat ..."

Something a kid said to Marci:

"Mom, you could be a saint ... I'd vote for you."

 It's true, I think you vote once a day, forever...

I might, or more likely not, follow this up with a few other technologies I see not serving us, especially these beautiful boys, as well as their antecedent.  For now, though, thanks for coming around.


  1. I'm with you on the tablet. They have their place, yes, but I like the book for the reasons you display here. Otherwise, being happy with what I have is something that I'm glad has come with age. I don't bother lusting after all the nice things that my friends and neighbors have anymore. I enjoy making limited money to be able to work mostly outside and do honest work that occasionally helps other people when they need it most. Of course, F150s are nice.

  2. Bill, this is so well written and thought through. Books are such an important part of each person's education and memory. We remember the books we were read by our parents. I even sometimes think I hear those long lost voices. We remember the books we read as children, We remember the books we read to our children and grandchildren (great grandchildren if we are lucky. And we remember the thousands of books read as adults. The changes as we age are amazing. The quality of the printed media has changed immeasurably in my lifetime.
    As to the the tablet, I find it very convenient for light reading. Large print for old eyes, ease of transport to other places where it would be hard to get many print books. I still can't figure out how to get them from my library. What I don't like is my inability to look back or underline for future comment.. It may be that these things are doable but I just don't know how. Congratulations to you on a well written article and do keep the books available. I hope they will be read.

  3. I love the tablet for when I travel. It enables me to bring an entire library wherever I go but at home books reign supreme.