Shelf Life

I was still reeling from the heart-breaking news that Duttonís Brentwood Books will be closing in April, when I picked up yesterday's LA Times Home section and read David Keeps' thorough, if dispiriting piece on book shelving. It seems that Angelenos have lately come to feel that ďthe home library is an image-enhancing badge of literacy.Ē Ever hot to trot for image enhancement of any kind, moneyed LA homeowners are creating "liahbrries." They are buying expensive, designer shelving, then lining those shelves with books. But look again! Some of these books are faux books, pieces of rock and plastic made to look like books. Sometimes the shelf-owners don't actually like books, so they hire ďlibrary consultantsĒ to go out and buy books to arrange on their expensive shelves like so much knick-knackery.

On the face of it, this trend seems to bode well for books. Yay! Books are back! But to me, it feels like the death-knell of reading.

I have spent a lifetime co-habitating with books, some of which Iíve had since grade school. I have shlepped, shelved, shared and stacked them in all the places Iíve lived. Iíve never had anything close to a library, but that has never stopped me from going to Duttonís and picking up a few more juicy titles to squeeze onto my cheap-ass, Ikea, poo ní glue shelving units. Steel and oak? Hell man, I'm coming from a cinderblocks-and-plywood place. In fact, my house is starting to look a lot like Duttonís: there are books stacked on the floor, squeezed into hallways, lying around on every available surface.

Look, I know books inspire a lot of self-satisfied prose about the magic of reading. There will be many sincere, elegiac, homages penned as we watch one independent bookstore after another shutter its doors. We will hear wistful remembrances of the blissful hours spent curled up with a good book, transported to magic lands, blah, blah, la, la, boo hoo!

I just want you to know, like most Americans, I spend way too much time watching television and not enough time reading. I can give you chapter and verse on "The Wire," but frankly, I'm a little sketchy on Proust. But I also cannot remember a night, since I learned to read when I was six years old, that I did not read at least a few lines before passing out. My books arenít precious items of value to be displayed lovingly in humidity-correct environs. They are Vintage Classics, aged Penguins, yellowed and musty, disintegrating slowly on my dusty shelves. I love my books, but I treat them like crap. I break their spines, use them as coasters, write in the margins and dog ear them to death. I keep them in the kitchen, next to the toilet, by the bed, in my purse. I donít point spotlights on them, I donít put a lot of thought into arranging them, I certainly donít have any that are leather-bound or that I imagine ďsignify wit or learnednessĒ or would ever bring anything at auction. But I will tell you some of my books are pretty frikkin' good, and I'm happy to loan you my favorites. If I donít like a book, then I stop reading it and give it away as quickly as possible, because I don't have the time or space for books I don't like. (I thank God for Bookmooch! ) If I love a book though, then it's forever. I must keep it until the day I die. It is part of me, and I cannot ever bear to let it go. So at 44, I have a lot books.

When we begin fetishizing books as interior design elements, then we have begun to lose ourselves as readers, and places like Duttonís disappear. What we are talking about is two distinct cultures: one that love books for how they make us feel about ourselves versus those that love books for how they make us feel. I'm not saying that I wouldn't enjoy owning a nice library with pretty shelves and 3-way lightbulbs, but in place of that, I had Dutton's -- and Dutton's was better. It was like a singleís bar for readers. We went there to grope and sniff and leaf, all in the dizzy hopes of finding that special one. If you found it, that irresistably yummy volume that hooked you and got your heart pumping, then you could hide out deep in the stacks with it and make out for a while before, inevitably, going home together. You just canít swing like that on Amazon, or, even, in your own sumptuously-appointed home library, which, face it, is pure monogamy. The magic of books is finding one you haven't met and falling madly in love.

Since I want this post to be the anti-elegy to books, I have to kick it down a notch: Has anyone else out there noticed the laxative effect of bookstores? Maybe it's all that binding glue in one place, but I love how bookstores unbind me every time. Add a nice latte to the mix and those pay stalls you find at chain bookstores become a heinous affront to genuine readers. See, real readers aren't the people with leather chairs and rolling ladders, they're the people who always remember to take a book with them into the crapper.


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