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March 15, 2012

An Unexpected Love Affair with a Virtual World of Words

Posted by tbrmaureen


Claire Bidwell Smith is the author of the memoir THE RULES OF INHERITANCEShe lives in Los Angeles where she is a therapist specializing in grief. 

A little over a year ago, my husband presented me with an e-reader for Christmas. I turned the slim little machine over in my hands, frowning as I did so, not at its existence, but that my husband would choose to gift me with it in the first place. Did he not remember the day we moved in together? The lifting of over two dozen boxes of books that belong to me?

Then my eyes narrowed. Perhaps that is exactly why he gave me such a gift.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a book lover. For me this didn’t just mean reading obsessively, but also owning obsessively. Beginning in high school, I prided myself on amassing copies of the books I loved. In the beginning that meant entire collections of Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich, then Faulkner and Hesse, and eventually I made shelves for more modern work: memoirs by Dorothy Allison and Mary Karr, books about the state of the American diet and economy, fiction by Eugenides and Foster Wallace.

It was if by seeing the books lined up next to each other I had achieved something. It’s not that I saw them as trophies for a well-appointed literary appetite, but rather that I had indeed embraced a world all my own. My parents weren’t big readers, my father sticking to crime thrillers and my mother to magazines. Neither were they writers, which is exactly what I was intent on becoming.

So the piling cascades of books that accrued in each of the apartments I lived in throughout my twenties, became part of my world—the one I was forging on my own as a young writer. Each time I moved, I went through a paring down process, always clinging to some of those first book collections that inspired me to keep plodding forward into a world of words. I never once considered that one day I might stop accumulating their physical forms.

The first book I read on my new e-reader was Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir of a life rich in food: Blood, Bones and Butter. It was an odd experience, if only because I loved this book so much that I normally would have sought to showcase its physical presence on my shelves. But there was something else I dearly loved about this book, and that was the fact that within minutes of reading about it in a magazine for the first time, I had purchased it and was already peering down into the first dizzyingly rich chapters.

After that I began to download books regularly. The digital format was surprisingly easy to get used to, and at times it felt more familiar to me and my techno-centric brain than print books. In fact, I recently counted and discovered that last year I downloaded over sixty digital books, easily twice the amount that I would have bought on average in print.

Did I read them all? No. Can I display them? Nope.

Do I care?

Actually, I don’t. What I’ve discovered is that my hypothesis about e-readers was wrong. Owning one hasn’t detracted from my reading experience, but rather enhanced it, bringing the world of books into my living room in a bigger way than I ever could have done myself. I still have my shelves and my beloved collections and every now and then I add a new print book to the stacks, but my e-reader has reminded me of what it is I truly love about books, and that’s simply reading them.

After all, isn’t it simply about the words?

The words.