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Buying Books

I took a walk up Broadway yesterday and stopped in at “Book Culture,” an independent bookstore, one of three in the Columbia University neighborhood. The official Columbia University Bookstore is now a Barnes & Noble. I guess they struck a deal. But that’s another story. My story today is about three-dimensional books, buying them, holding them, and reading them, and how that experience is different from buying and reading books on an e-reader. Please note that I’ve eliminated the word “holding."

I know I’ve written about this on my blog before but, as time has passed and I am now nearly four years into owning my handy Kindle, the feeling of sensory deprivation, particularly when I am reading fiction, has intensified. That said, when I am reading a biography of an artist, which I do at least once a year, I feel the same way—deprived. I don’t have a tablet—maybe, in fairness, that would make a difference—so I can’t experience color plates. But it’s more than that.

I remember what it was like to be immersed in a book, not in reading, but the book itself, when I was a teen and my mother had to wrench me out of story reverie to come into dinner and I put the book down on the table carefully bookmarked and that object, that world, awaited my return, constant and predictable, partially because it was an object. Who needed dinner? I had been devouring the pages of that book and was nourished enough.

My mother’s father was a traveling salesman and every time he returned home to Vienna, he brought my mother a book. She built a library which she had to leave behind when she fled to Paris and then to America. Every time she moved after that, her books where unpacked before her clothes or her cutlery. Even when her sight dimmed, I could never persuade her to try an e-reader. She held a book and flipped the pages as I read to her.

That is a visceral connection. E-readers are flat and, in more ways than one, the words they store are elusive. We can still lose ourselves, sink into the story, but it somehow feels different on an e-reader, for a while anyway, until the story takes over.

So, every couple of months, I treat myself to a three-dimensional book at an independent bookstore. And I walk away relieved and satisfied to have made such a purchase. And this "relief" and "satisfaction" are sensory, not cerebral, because I haven't read the book as yet. I am, simply, possessing it physically. The book has heft, weight, and gravitas. I can feel it and know that it is mine.  Read More 
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Shooting Wars

I went to see “Django,” over the holiday at an old movie theater on Grand Street in Oakland, California, just blocks away from some of the highest crime streets in the USA. Given the recent gun-toting events in Newtown and elsewhere, it seems a travesty to applaud this movie as well-made, well-acted, and well-written. So I won’t.

One of many 2013 resolutions: boycott all gun-toting violent movies. Let them be well-made, well-acted and well-written, I will not go.

Sitting around a well-appointed dinner table on New Year’s Eve in the self-same city where I saw “Django” and once upon a time taught high school English and American History in a ghetto school, our hostess asked: “What do you wish for in 2013 that is realistic?” I liked the caveat: realistic.

The wine flowed, the food was divine, answers were thoughtful. We were in a safe haven, unthreatened by war or robbery or famine or guns. With my book “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” about to be published for a second time in China using the “simple” alphabet, I wished for the Chinese to develop a social conscience.

But what about our own politicians, what about corporations, what about gun owners? everyone asked.

I had met a young Chinese entrepreneur on the airplane on the flight out and was struck by his drive; he was reading a book about success and said that if he couldn’t be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he wouldn’t be a success. It reminded me of the market-driven entertainment industry. What is a movie’s measure of success: the millions it pulls in on opening weekend. By that standard, “Django” will do just fine.

When I asked my young Chinese friend if his life was in balance—an Eastern concept lost in the throes of the communist/freemarket revolution—he hesitated. “I’m a rock climber,” he said,” but I don’t have a girlfriend.” I told him about the article I was reading in The New Yorker of December 24 &31, “Polar Express” by Keith Gessen and the already evident competition between our two nations—and others—to take advantage of the melting polar ice cap. “We could have a shooting war,” he said. “And that wouldn’t be a good thing.”  Read More 
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