My backpack was growing absurdly heavy. I had been cavalier and ruthless about clothing, toiletries, first aid–it was only four months in Asia! Bandages were for the weak. I didn’t need more than one pair of pants, or three shirts. Razors were for job interviews. Dental floss was for date night. If it meant I was going to have to carry it through Thailand and India, I probably didn’t want it.
The only item that went uncompromised, the only objects so necessary to my continued biological functioning other than the goopy organs already locked in my husk: my books. I wasn’t going anywhere without my books.
It started simply enough. I made dire, brutal calculations of space and weight and airline bag regulations. I considered pace of reading, total page counts and the relative difficulties of style, likely downtime, made equations to include the variable of a rainy day. My travel compatriots were also packing books, and I took theirs into account, too. I slid 5 books into my backpack, cradled them in the precious central core where they could be buffeted by soft underpants, where they could be shrouded in t-shirts to keep them from the dangers of the outside world.
These were my paperbacks. Nothing would befall them. And I had all I needed.
Of course, I didn’t factor in my opioid reaction to the idea of acquiring new books. I didn’t think of glitches in inter-city travel, devouring more of my desperate reservoir of pages and words. I figured a day at the beach would be strictly sun and surf, and not sun and surf and Sartre. I ran through my own stockpile, and then Faith’s, and then Ty’s. My math had been faulty, I had missed crucial data in my equations. I was running out of books, and I was starting to buy more.
There were desperate runs to Southeast Asian bookstores, baleful visits to airport kiosks, journeys to the depths of used book shops and thorough investigations of every hostel trade-in shelf. I scaled over enormous walls of books, rummaged through the barnacles on the hull of literature. The pickings on the road were mighty slim. Did you know that staring at a wall of Twilights and 50 Shades of Greys is like knowing the exact look and feel of damnation? It is. Some part of my soul died when I discovered that the Ho Chi Minh airport bookshop had a supernatural teen romance section.
I managed to find barely salvageable works of fiction that I could deign to read. The situation was not sad enough that I would eat or pray or love. I could survive on the meagre morsels I had scavenged. These words could sustain me.
But another problem struck: our bags were approaching capacity. Our mobile library had swelled, and our main bags and day packs were heavy with additional pages. The suggestion that we could trade in our tomes, that we could hawk them and get new reads, was proposed and discarded. I am an acquisitive reader, and I like the thought of re-opening every page, especially especially those dappled by the Thai sun or stained from dirt and smog on the road to Jaipur, India. Someone once seriously suggested that we just discard our completed books, simply throw them out. I stared at this interlocutor as if physically attacked, as if someone had suggested I murder my family and offer their sacrifice up to Pazuzu to gain the powers of hell. Our books would be staying with us, thank you.
One other possibility presented itself: the e-reader.
Ty’s parents had given them an old Kindle, loaded with fragments from several previous owners. There were dark polemics, strange fictions, horrific impulse buys, intriguing bestsellers buried in its fossilized strata. Was there gold somewhere, under the shale and detritus acquired by so many casual-reader hands? Was there worth somewhere, deep inside of its history? What wonders? What words? I would never know. No, I couldn’t look. Keep your red-leather harlot case away from me, and never try to tempt me again.
I was devoted to paper and to ink. To a cracked spine and old book smell and original first-pressing limited edition covers. I loved pristine, museum-quality manuscripts and I loved books that clearly showed the use and wear they had received, every tear and fold and scuff a badge of storytelling, of imagination. I loved the weight of books, the many positions I would have to roll into to keep my wrists and neck and arms from exhausting. Hand on chin. Arms across chest. Books resting on the ground, or high above my head, or propped against whatever makeshift stand I could rig. Books and I had been together for too long, and I was no cheater.
But I couldn’t deny the truth facing us: my books were verging beyond well-loved. “Delightfully worn” was advancing into “decayed mulch.” The Coupland I carried had an ill-advised white cover, which was now marred by every element we had encountered, and even a few we hadn’t. Galapagos’ dust-cover needed intensive care as it passed between each of our overstuffed bags. And 100 Years of Solitude appeared to have suffered all of the torments and trials that the Buendias had.
The Kindle fell into my hands one day when I expressed a passing interest in Cloud Atlas. The hardcovers we had seen were too expensive and enormous, and I had read (and was preparing to re-read) all of the physical books we possessed. I was too snooty, too raised-pinky, to ask for the e-reader, and Faith handed it to me and told me to give it a try.
I hid my books away in my bag, as though they would be aware of my dalliance, that they would feel spurned by my betrayal, would pack up their bags, would move back east to stay with their mothers. I refused to acknowledge any of the features which I enjoyed: the long battery life, the fine case with built-in night lamp, the ease of the electronic ink. I did not allow the completionist tendencies of my personality to thrive on the progress bar. I wouldn’t deign to admit its dimensions and heft were pleasing and convenient. I couldn’t allow myself to feel this way. I did not immediately fall in love.
When the trip was over, I returned the e-reader to different hands. I slipped paper back between my fingers, let the calming slice of turning pages sooth my heart. Things were back to normal. How they always had been. As I rode, packed tight in my window seat, I looked out over the wing of the plane and wondered where that e-reader might be. I was a paper book man, it was true, but maybe there was room in my heart for electric words, too.