I love books. My favorite act of anticipation is running my thumb along the rippling texture of the pages all pressed together, waiting. I love smelling new paper and ink; in old books, I love breathing in the smell of time accumulating. I even like watching those tiny cream-colored dots that are some kind of insect who spend their lives in a book. I call them metaphor bugs: how many lives have I lived inside a book? So my new Kindle 2 filled me with ambivalence. I mourned the idea of not having a book on my lap even as I embraced the idea of never again being without a good read.
But would it be a good read?
To be fair to my Kindle on its first outing, I saved back a novel I was wild to read. Marilynne Robinson wrote my favorite contemporary novel, Housekeeping, and I had liked her Gilead. I knew Home: A Novel would be a perfect test of whether I could lose myself in Kindle text as I lose myself in words on a page. I lost myself. At one point, it was way past midnight, tears were running down my face, and I was so present in Gilead, Iowa, that I could smell the chicken and dumplings that Glory was cooking as a balm against all the heartache coursing like a current among her father, her brother and herself. I reached up to turn the page. But there was no page to turn. I had forgotten all about the fancy screen and the buttons that called up the next “page.”
Whether by Kindle or book, Robinson’s latest is a must-read, a literary distillation of what home means. A prodigal son returns to his father's house, where his youngest sister has recently arrived with her own unspoken disappointments. Together, brother and sister attend to the needs – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual -- of the failing father. The three of them share an effort extreme in its delicacy: how to make acts of kindness turn out to be truly kind but not somehow cruel as well. The invisible layers of meaning upon which families must engineer their inextricably shared lives, this is what Marilynne Robinson explores. To do so, she conjures up small-town America with its weedy patches and thriving gardens, its attics filled with useless remnants too dear to give away, its cow barns turned garages. The past is present in the novel, in the small town of Gilead – an expression of what it is to be a family. Here is the old father, a Presbyterian minister, who has loved his eight children in ways that nurtured them but sometimes tormented them too: “Her father hung his head. ‘All of them call it home, but they never stay.’”
I would have stayed longer in Gilead if I could have. But though I may actually never have
turned the last page, I did, inevitably, come to the end. What I missed most then was looking back through the book for favorite passages. The Kindle provides for this with a book-marking function. Clicking and dragging is not the same as penciling a little asterisk in the margin. I do miss my asterisks and the metaphor bugs and the pages all pressed together and waiting; but I don’t miss them enough to give up the comfort of knowing that the next great book may be a mere sixty seconds from landing in my hands. With a press of a button, I bought Away: A Novelby Amy Bloom.
And Away I went.