I was stunned when so many friends seemed to leave at once.
They had been real companions—the kind that offered comfort, made me laugh or cry, and diverted me when I might have cried myself. They included recent pals, who were fun and stimulating; old reliable types who offered comfort; and characters, who touched my heart because we spoke the same language.
A mixed bag, for sure, but, each contributed something irreplaceable. Take the reserved Englishman, who plied me with inscrutable poetry, so beautiful it was well worth deciphering. The less-restrained Russians alternated between emotional highs and lows, but always showed gusto. A trio of genteel ladies were stay-at-homes, but, illuminated surprising truths, seen mainly through their parlor windows.
But, my favorites were fellow Americans, who held me spellbound with remarkable tales. A handsome Princetonian spoke of tender nights and Long Island mansions in lyrical lines that could break your heart. The “tough guy” in the crowd was all about wars and the outdoors—getting his message across without wasting a word. A lady playwright examined her life with an illuminating sense of “pentimento.”
Of course, my literary character studies spring from well-thumbed copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, all at-home in my personal library. I often revisit Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. And, barely a week goes by when I don’t look up a quote in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night.
Still, it was always fun to see these old friends in their latest editions at Borders Book Store, before it recently began descending into oblivion. While perusing the literature section, I could be convinced to buy a fresh copy of a favorite when a new cover caught my eye. At the same time, I could browse the shelves for unfamiliar authors I might try.
Of course, there are audio books, e-books, and other ways to enjoy a good piece of literature or light reading nowadays. But, many readers find nothing more exciting than the sight of shelves lined with books of all descriptions—real books that you can hold in your hand, as you gently turn the pages, assess the weight of the paper and style of the print.
And, the now-defunct Borders offered extras that completed the experience. There were cushy sofas and excellent lighting. The latest magazines and newspapers were in good supply. A café let you sip a latte or munch a dessert, while mulling over book selections. It was the total reading experience, which is becoming more rare as book stores struggle to find their niche and hold their audience. Borders’ demise was the latest blow to the cause, but, so many readers’ havens have gone the same way. Borders fought the good fight, hoping a buyer would appear, but, no such literary white knight was in sight. Of course, e-reading has shifted the focus, and a troubled economy has taken its toll, but, isn’t there room for a cozy nook, where aficionados of real books can congregate and continue the lifelong habit and pleasure?
The late troubadour Harry Chapin wrote a touching song about how the acoustic guitar became plugged-in and electrified—“Remember when the music came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire?” He talked about “All the potent voices and the choices we had then…”
Before the art of reading by turning pages becomes a gentle memory, maybe stalwarts can make themselves heard by wending their way to a bookstore and treating themselves to a good novel or biography. It also presents the opportunity to select books as gifts…and, so importantly, introduce a child to the joy of reading our way–via bound copies of The Silver Skates or Velveteen Rabbit.
It’s the least we can do for old friends.